Euripides’ Electra in the Shadow of The Libation Bearers

May 1, 2009

Although they deal with the same myth, that of Orestes returning to his ancestral home to wreak vengeance on his murderous mother and her adulterous husband, The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus and Electra by Euripides approach their source material in very different ways. The four central characters of Orestes, Electra, Aegisthus and Clytemnestra all appear in both versions, but resemble each other only enough to render them familiar to those acquainted with the story. The revenge killings occur with some similarities, but in vastly disparate locations and styles. Overall, the most noteworthy differences between the two plays can be categorized by their explorations of gender identity and class, their contrasting tones, and their analysis of the dike inherent in the actions of Orestes and Electra.

Perhaps the most striking example of the difference between The Libation Bearers and Electra is in the treatment of gender roles. Where the former deals harshly with a female character who has subverted them by accruing power and acting as a man should, the latter’s title character is both strong-willed and possessing of agency that is unsurpassed except by comparable characters in the same playwright’s works. At the same time, the Electra of the play of the same title is a vocal defender of woman’s proper role and a critic of both her mother, who violates that role, and Aegisthus, who allows himself to be ruled by a woman. As she says to the decapitated head of Aegisthus, “On every Argive tongue this was said of you: ‘The man isn’t master in that marriage, the woman is'” (930). In Aeschylus’ play, when Orestes is almost convinced not to kill Clytemnestra, it is his friend Pylades who speaks his few but poignant lines and urges Orestes to finish the job; Electra, after the initial reunion and planning period, completely disappears from the action. In Euripides’ play, on the other hand, it is Electra who berates Orestes for his hesitation and eventually has to help him commit the deed herself. “Do not turn coward or lose your manhood!” she exclaims (983). However, while Electra’s fate is left unexplored by Aeschylus, Euripides explicitly describes how she is to be separated from her brother and married to Pylades, thus annulling her previous marriage while simultaneously ensuring that she retains her appropriate role as a wife rather than returning to the ranks of unwed virgins. This can be viewed as the subjugation of a previously strong woman, but was more likely intended to set her up as ruler of her own oikos, which was the more accepted female position. As Castor says, “She has a husband and a home. There is no cause for tears in her fate” (1311). While she was able to speak against her husband the farmer, owing to her noble birth and higher rank, she is a more suitable match for Pylades and will be able to more fully realize her potential.

Euripides, with his insertion of less grandiose characters like the farmer and the old man, exhibits a class consciousness in his play that is of no use or interest to Aeschylus in exploring his version of the mythos. The Libation Bearers begins at Agamemnon’s tomb but shifts back to the literal house of Atreus, which provides the backdrop for the bloody events that permeate the trilogy. This place is a palace, with servants and slaves; by contrast, the humble home of the farmer and Electra is an unexpected and relatively modest setting for the monumental events that will unfold over the course of the play. It is a setting that heightens the enormity of the actions by understating the location in which they occur; it is easy to expect extreme behaviors in a rich estate filled with nobles, but more shocking to encounter them in an idyllic country setting. Unlike Aeschylus’ play, in which the audience is left to its own devices in imagining the details buried in Electra’s elliptical statement, “I go like a slave” (14), Euripides takes pains to illustrate the sorry state in which the title character finds herself. She extensively bemoans her situation, contrasting it with what she believes to be fitting for a person of her breeding and rejecting the insufficient offerings of the chorus of Argive women. Indeed, Euripides goes so far as to marry her to a mere farmer, then highlights the man’s virtues in refusing to take advantage of the arguably inappropriate union. Orestes even gives a grand speech on nobility and judging people by their appearances or social standing alone. Euripides also draws attention to the underlying kinship of all humans in the exchange wherein Electra and the farmer discuss eating arrangements for their guests; Electra is ashamed by their humble offerings, while her husband says, “every man whose belly is filled gets his fair share, whether he’s rich or poor” (430). It is difficult to imagine a character in The Libation Bearers presenting such an assertion.

The Libation Bearers opens with Orestes reverently laying locks of his hair on his father’s tomb, quickly followed by the arrival of his estranged sister Electra and the chorus with libations to soothe the spirit of long-dead Agamemnon. By contrast, Electra begins with a simple farmer explaining how he came to be married to a princess, who herself then arrives carrying a less formal libation: a jug of water for use in the home. However, Electra of the latter nonetheless wails and weeps as if she were mourning like the Electra of the former: “I utter the lamentation that is my constant offering… tearing my cheeks with these nails and pummeling this shorn head” she says (147). This melodramatic voice highlights the gently mocking tone that Euripides maintains throughout the first half of his play. This continues into the recognition scene, which in Aeschylus’ play is a study in suspension of disbelief. The audience is expected to accept the stilted, theatrical discoveries by Electra, first of Orestes’ lock of hair, then his footprint–both of which match her counterparts–then the presentation of the item of clothing she had made for him so many years before. Apparently, not every audience member was sufficiently drawn in, as evidenced by Euripides’ concoction of a similar scene in his own treatment of the subject. He satirizes the moment by turning it into an interaction between a senile old tutor and the wryly skeptical Electra, with the former presenting the telltale clues and the latter berating him for thinking that they constitute reasonable evidence. She tells him, “Old man, you speak like a fool… It can’t happen” (523). While the tone of The Libation Bearers stays relatively static, with a generally approving chorus lauding the just efforts of the scheming siblings, the tone of Electra shifts approximately after the midpoint. The gentle lampooning gives way to a much more serious, stark and eventually reproachful perspective as characterized by Castor and Pollux. If Euripides found the treatment of the subject too heavy-handed in the beginning of The Libation Bearers, it seems he may have found it insufficiently grave at the end.

The end, of course, is meant to justify the means, and the end of The Libation Bearers suggests that justice has been served. Apollo’s will has been fulfilled and those who perpetrated the murder of a king and war hero and, perhaps most importantly, beloved father have themselves been murdered. “I killed my mother, / not with a little justice,” says Orestes (1024-5). However, as the play is part of a trilogy, the full resolution of the events does not come until the end of The Eumenides. Euripides has no such luxury, nor does he require one. Rather than leaving open the question of whether the children’s actions were justice or merely retribution, then settling the issue later, he calls upon gods to voice displeasure at the morality, or lack thereof, inherent in the approval of matricide whatever the motivation. Moving backwards in the play to the messenger’s tale of the murder of Aegisthus, it is clear that the majority of the characters are at that point still caught up in the moment; the messenger describes the witnesses crowning Orestes with a wreath like the winner of a sporting event, and the chorus calls for Electra to dance with them in celebration. The killing of Aegisthus is given much more prominence here than in The Libation Bearers, and while not necessarily indisputable, it is reasonable to believe that this killing was to be considered just. By contrast, after the murder of their mother, the two siblings are shell-shocked and remorseful, finally considering the possible wider ramifications of their rage-fueled actions. As the chorus, previously supportive and even actively engaged in the deception of Clytemnestra, observes, “Again, again your thoughts veer round at the wind’s prompting; they are righteous now but were misguided then, my friend, when you stirred a frightful act in your brother against his will” (1201). While the Orestes of The Libation Bearers rejects his mother’s baring of her breast in disdain after Pylades’ prompting, Euripides’ Orestes recounts the event in sorrow and regret, having to literally cover his eyes to summon up the strength to act and requiring the assistance of his sister. Indeed, the reactions of the siblings are in a way more mimetic than in the earlier play; one finds it easier to picture the quaking, appalled characters of Euripides than the Orestes who proclaims, “I ask you, Argos and all my generations, / remember how these brutal things were done” (1039-40).

The burden of memory, in a way, falls on the poets who retell the stories to audiences for whom the events are part of a distant past that is conveyed through incomplete accounts, perhaps more legend than history. Whether the version crafted by Aeschylus or that of Euripides is the more memorable is perhaps a matter of personal preference more than adherence to the predetermined narrative. Certainly they are radically different in their executions if not their content, and one senses the weight of the earlier play bearing down on the later. Even so, the fact that both survived to reach audiences millennia later speaks to their unique virtues and depictions of characters that even modern sensibilities can find sympathetic and relevant.

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