Orestes enters with Pylades, carrying the small bronze urn. Orestes asks the chorus where he might find the house of Aegisthus. Electra cries out upon seeing him, afraid that he has brought proof of Orestes’s death. Orestes confirms that they indeed are there to deliver the urn containing the remains of Clytemnestra’s son. Electra begs to hold they urn so that she may weep with it in her arms.
The bronze urn, while generally accepted as a symbol of death, is also symbolic of Orestes’s lies and deception. It appears to be one thing on the outside, but it holds something completely different than Orestes claims it does. Here, Orestes deceives even his devoted sister, showing again how lies can turn up in the most unexpected places and trick anyone at any time.
The chorus again reminds Electra that they all must die, so she shouldn’t grieve too much. Orestes asks Electra if she is indeed the princess, and she admits that she is, asking why he’s looking at her in such a sad way. He expresses regret for how much she has suffered and then asks if the women can keep a secret, and Electra assures him that they can. Orestes tells Electra to put the urn down, and then he will tell her, but Electra refuses to let go. She’s wrong to cry so much, he says, because Orestes isn’t in the urn. “He’s alive?” Electra asks. “Yes,” Orestes says, “if I am alive.”
Orestes could have saved Electra much despair and mourning had he simply gone to her like the old slave suggested early in the play. Orestes, however, chose to honor Apollo instead of his sister and so caused her unnecessary pain, which further underscores Sophocles’s opinion that one’s family should be honored above all else, including the gods and vows for vengeance.
“You are Orestes?” Electra exclaims. Orestes shows her a ring bearing Agamemnon’s seal, and the two embrace joyfully, promising never to part again. Electra yells to the chorus in delight that Orestes has returned. Orestes begs his sister to keep quiet and be patient, but she can’t see why she should, swearing to Artemis that she will never be afraid of her enemies again and referring to “those womenfolk” as “spare weights.” Orestes again tells Electra to be careful, noting that she more than anyone should know how strong the “spirit of war” can be in women.
Here, Electra appeals to Artemis because she is the goddess of unmarried women, but Electra’s opinion of society’s expectations of women is quiet low. She sees her traditional role as a woman as a “weight” that drags her down, and Electra will not submit to such oppression without a fight. Orestes, too, suggests that women are capable of war, which aligns with Sophocles’s argument that women should not be underestimated.
Orestes tells Electra that she must continue to act as if he is dead so that Clytemnestra doesn’t suspect anything, adding that they can celebrate after their plan succeeds. Electra agrees, saying how miraculous Orestes’s return—it’s much like Agamemnon himself had been restored to life. Aegisthus is not at home, she tells her brother, and Clytemnestra is in the palace alone. Suddenly, the old slave exits the palace doors and exclaims that they have to be more cautious.
Orestes’s plan relies on Electra deceiving Clytemnestra as well, which reinforces Sophocles’s argument that words, and at times actions as well, should generally not be trusted. Once Orestes kills Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, both Electra and Orestes will be free from their mother and stepfather’s oppression and then, Orestes says, they can celebrate.
The old slave tells Orestes and Electra that their cries of joy are sure to be heard inside the palace, so they had better stop their “endless talking” and come inside. When Electra asks who the old man is, Orestes is surprised she doesn’t recognize him, as he is the same man who took Orestes to Phocis at Electra’s own direction. Electra is utterly surprised, wondering how she could have failed to recognize him.
The old slave’s order for Orestes and Electra to stop their “endless talking” also reflects Sophocles’s argument that words are often deceiving and empty. Furthermore, Electra’s inability to recognize the old slave implies that even intelligent people can be deceived. Electra has prior knowledge of the old slave and has even met him in the past, yet she is so duped by Orestes’s deceitful plan that she has no idea who he is.
The old slave again orders them to stop talking, saying that it’s time to take action instead. Clytemnestra is alone in the palace, and it is the perfect time to strike. Orestes, Pylades, and the old slave enter the palace, leaving Electra outside. Electra prays to Apollo for success, then turns and enters the palace.
Like Clytemnestra’s previous prayer to Apollo, Electra’s prayer is selfish and hateful as well. She prays to Apollo to help in her and Orestes’s attempt to kill their own mother in the name of revenge, which Sophocles implies is a poor reason to commit matricide. Electra’s prayer makes her actions seem even uglier, because it adds insincerity to immorality.