Electra exits the palace alone and the chorus begs to know what’s going on inside. Electra tells the women that Clytemnestra is “dressing the urn,” and Orestes and the others are nearby. The women wonder why Electra has come outside, to which she replies that she’s standing guard so that the arrival of Aegisthus doesn’t come as a surprise. Sounds of Clytemnestra’s cries come from inside the palace, as she begs Orestes to treat her mercifully. “Strike her a second blow,” Electra calls out, “if you have the strength!”
In Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, Electra disappears during the murder of Clytemnestra, but Sophocles has Electra play a more active role, which supports his central argument that women, too, are capable of revenge and murder. Electra is cold and unforgiving, and even seems excited by the sounds of her mother’s screams. This again upsets gender stereotypes, and instead of being tender and nurturing as a stereotypical female character might be, Electra is hateful and bloodthirsty.
The chorus sings that the curse is now taking effect. Then, Orestes and Pylades exit the palace, their hands dripping with blood. “All is well, indoors,” Orestes says. “If Apollo prophesized well.” The chorus cries out that Aegisthus is approaching in the distance, and they urge Orestes to do just as well in this second round of the battle as he did in the first.
Through Orestes’s comment that “all is well if Apollo prophesized well,” Sophocles implies that perhaps Apollo didn’t prophesize well, or, at least, that Orestes may have misinterpreted his prophecy. In this way, Sophocles again implies that there is no justification for matricide, not even revenge that seems to be sanctioned by the gods.
“I can look after everything here,” Electra says to Orestes as he rushes into the palace. The chorus tells Electra to speak calmly to Aegisthus so that he won’t guess he’s about to be attacked. Aegisthus approaches and tells Electra he has heard of Orestes’s death. He wants to know immediately where the men from Phocis are, and Electra tells him that they’re inside with Clytemnestra. She also tells Aegisthus that the men have brought Orestes’s remains. Aegisthus asks if he can see Orestes, and Electra mockingly replies that he certainly can.
Electra’s claim that she “can look after” things and the italicized “I” again imply that Electra is just as capable as any man and doesn’t need Orestes’s help to trap Aegisthus and guide him to his untimely death. Electra’s behavior again upends popular stereotypes of female gender roles. She is sarcastic and mocking in her approach to Aegisthus, which again portrays her as hateful and bloodthirsty rather than reserved and demure.
Aegisthus yells that the palace doors should be opened so that everyone can see the remains of Orestes. As the doors open, Orestes exits the palace with Pylades, carrying Clytemnestra’s corpse covered with a shroud. Aegisthus says to remove the shroud, adding: “Kinship requires some mourning, even from me.” Orestes, however, tells him to remove it himself, since the body underneath actually belongs to Aegisthus. Aegisthus orders Electra to go find Clytemnestra as he lifts the shroud, but Electra says that that won’t be necessary, since Clytemnestra is already present.
Clytemnestra’s shrouded body is another example of deceit and disguise, as Aegisthus is made to believe that it is Orestes’s body under the sheet. Aegisthus’s comment that “kinship requires some mourning, even from [him]” reflects Aegisthus’s identity as a biological relative of Orestes’s, beyond being his stepfather. Aegisthus’s father and Orestes’s father were brothers, which makes the men first cousins.
Aegisthus cries out that he’s been trapped, and asks who the men surrounding him really are. Orestes slyly wonders aloud whether Aegisthus knows he’s been talking to a dead man, at which point Aegisthus suddenly understands that this man is Orestes. Aegisthus begs Orestes for mercy, but Electra interrupts, telling Orestes to kill Aegisthus withoug letting him talk any longer. She adds that letting animals destroy his corpse is the only adequate “payment” she can imagine for everything she’s been through.
Instead of telling Aegisthus who he is directly, Orestes speaks in a riddle, much like the Delphic oracle, which reflect the deception that Orestes has relied on throughout the play. Even in this final moments of his life, Aegisthus can’t be sure that those around him are speaking truthfully. Additionally, Electra’s interruption further disrupts popular gender stereotypes. Instead of showing kindness and mercy, as society expects her to do as a woman, Electra encourages Orestes to kill Aegisthus and dispose of his body in the most disrespectful, gruesome way.
Orestes tells Aegisthus to go inside the palace, adding that there’s no more time for talking. Orestes orders Aegisthus to the very spot where Aegisthus murdered Agamemnon. Aegisthus wails that because of “the curse of Pelops’s house,” there’s already been so much destruction in the palace that any more seems unnecessary. Orestes, however, answers that Aegisthus must nevertheless be destroyed. Orestes also says that everyone who breaks the law should be similarly punished, since then “Crime would not be so rife.”
Aegisthus’s reference to “the curse of Pelops’s house” refers to the curse of the royal house of Atreus, which began with Pelops, Atreus’s father and Agamemnon’s grandfather. Through this reference, Sophocles implies that Orestes’s impending murder of Aegisthus is further proof of this age-old curse. This passage also draws attention to the never-ending and shortsighted nature of the “blood for blood” system of justice. By killing Aegisthus, Orestes opens himself up for murder via revenge, continuing a cycle which, in theory, can go on indefinitely. “Crime would not be so rife” under such a system precisely because everyone would be dead, which makes Orestes’s claim here somewhat ironic.
The chorus cheers that Electra is free at last, despite how much pain she’s gone through along the way. Electra turns and enters the palace, and the chorus exits.
As Sophocles’s play focuses on Electra’s forceful disruption of gender roles, he aptly ends with Electra on stage after most of the others have departed. The chorus claims that Electra is now free of her suffering, presumably because her mother and stepfather are dead, but Sophocles also implies that Electra is free in part because she has chosen to go against the sexist expectations of Greek society, which assume that she is weak and ineffectual simply because she is woman.