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Electra Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Sophocles's Electra. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Sophocles

Sophocles was born to a wealthy family in the small rural community of Hippeios Colonus, Attica, a region in Greece located on the Attic peninsula near the Aegean Sea. Sophocles’s father, Sophilus, was a successful armor manufacturer, and Sophocles lived a rather privileged life near the capital city of Athens. Not much is known of Sophocles’s early life, but around the year 470 BCE, he began to compete in the Dionysia, a large yearly festival held in Athens to honor Dionysus, the god of wine and theater. The festival culminated with the staging of several plays, and winners were selected in the categories of tragedy and comedy by a panel of judges. Sophocles first entered the competition at the Dionysia in 470 BCE, and in 468, he won first place, beating out Aeschylus, another Greek playwright and the father of tragedy. Throughout his career, Sophocles competed in 30 festivals, and he was awarded first place 24 times and never placed below second. Sophocles won more competitive festivals than any of his contemporaries, including both Aeschylus and Euripides, another prominent ancient Greek tragedian. Sophocles is credited with writing over 120 plays, although only seven of those plays have survived antiquity, including Electra, which was written near the end of his career, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Philoctetes. Sophocles’s extreme popularity at the Dionysia lead to many elected positions within Greek society and government, and in the year 480 BCE, he was chosen to lead the paean, a poem of thanks and celebration, after the Greek defeat of the Persians during the Battle of Salamis. In 443, Sophocles was appointed the treasurer of Athena, and in 413, he was elected as an official magistrate to help deal with the crushing defeat suffered by the Greeks in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War. Despite these official positions, however, Sophocles continued to write, and his contribution to Western thought and culture is invaluable. As a playwright, Sophocles is credited with adding a third character to scenes and decreasing reliance on the chorus, and he was also the first to employ skenographia, or scene paining, to enrich the staging of his plays. Sophocles is known for his complex character development and conflicts, and he won his final first place at the Dionysia in 405 BCE, at the age of 91 or 92. He died that same year, although reports as to the cause of his death are conflicted. Some reports claim he choked on a grape, while others claim he died of exhaustion attempting to recite Antigone and still other say that he died of happiness after his final win at the Dionysia.   
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Historical Context of Electra

Sophocles refers to the Trojan War numerous times in Electra, as Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis and allow Greek ships to set sail for Troy. According to Greek myth, the Trojan War was fought between the Greeks and the Trojans, whose capital city, Troy, was in the region known as Asia Minor. The conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans began when Eris, the goddess of discord, gave a golden apple to the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, and told them it was for the “fairest” among them. Zeus made Paris, the Prince of Troy, judge the three goddesses, and Paris declared Aphrodite the most beautiful and gifted her the apple. As a reward, Aphrodite made Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and the wife of Menelaus (the King of Sparta and Agamemnon’s brother), fall in love with Paris. Helen then left Menelaus and ran to Troy with Paris, sparking the Trojan War, which lasted a period of ten years. The Trojan War claimed the lives of many Greek heroes, including Ajax, who is portrayed in Sophocles’s tragic play Ajax, as well as Paris and his brother, Prince Hector, who was killed by Achilles. Ancient Greeks of Sophocles’s time maintained that the Trojan War was an actual historical event that took place around the 12th century BCE, but the war is widely accepted by present-day scholars as myth. The ancient city of Troy, however, did exist and was located near present-day Hissarlik, Turkey.   

Other Books Related to Electra

Electra falls under the category of ancient Greek literature, which can be further divided into three separate time periods. The Archaic period, which lasted until the end of the 6th century BCE, focuses mainly on ancient Greek myth and includes such works as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s Theogony. The Classical period, in which Sophocles lived and wrote, lasted through the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, and it laid the foundation for modern Western thought and culture in the areas of politics, art, science, and philosophy. Literature of the Classical era also focuses on ancient Greek myth, but writers shifted from poetry to drama with works such as Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, Medea by Euripides, and Aristophanes’s The Clouds. The final period, the Hellenistic period, lasted until the emergence of the Roman Empire around 31 BCE. The Hellenistic period saw the birth of New Comedy, which abandoned ancient Greek myth to focus on everyday life and people, although little work from this period has survived antiquity, save for a few fragmented plays. The surviving works of the Hellenistic period include the nearly complete Dyskolos (whose title translates to The Grouch), written by Menander in 316 BCE. In the year it was written, Dyskolos won first place at the festival Lenaian, a competition similar to the festival Dionysia in which Sophocles competed.
Key Facts about Electra
  • Full Title: Electra
  • When Written: Unknown, although it is thought to have been written near the end of Sophocles’s career.
  • Where Written: Athens, Greece
  • When Published: Unknown, although it is thought to have been published around 410 BCE.
  • Literary Period: Classical Greek
  • Genre: Greek tragedy
  • Setting: Mycenae
  • Climax: When Orestes enters the palace at Mycenae and kills his mother, Clytemnestra.
  • Antagonist: Clytemnestra and Aegisthus

Extra Credit for Electra

Father vs. Son. When Sophocles was in his early nineties, his son Iophon brought a lawsuit against him in which he claimed Sophocles was demented. Iophon insisted that his father’s property should be turned over to him. However, it’s said that Sophocles convinced the court that he was of sound mind by reciting his play Oedipus at Colonus from memory.

It came to me in a dream. After a golden crown was stolen from the Acropolis of Athens, Sophocles reportedly claimed that Heracles, the Greek god of strength and heroes, appeared to him in a dream and told him where to find the stolen crown.