Clytemnestra exits the palace and, seeing Electra, she scolds her for being outside and “off the leash.” Aegisthus is not home to keep Electra “under control,” and when he is gone, Electra embarrasses the family by criticizing them to the public. Electra often says that Clytemnestra is an “oppressive tyrant,” but Clytemnestra claims she is only cruel in response to the abuse that Electra herself directs at Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra knows that Electra hates her because she killed Agamemnon, and Clytemnestra doesn’t deny that she killed him.
Clytemnestra’s comment reflects the sexism present in Greek society. She speaks of Electra as if she is a dog “off the leash” and under the control of a man. Clytemnestra does not even attempt to intervene, nor does she punish Electra herself; rather, Clytemnestra defers this task to Aegisthus, who in turn denies Electra agency over her own existence.
However, Clytemnestra claims that she had to kill Agamemnon because “Justice” dictated it. According to Clytemnestra, Agamemnon committed the terrible crime of sacrificing Electra’s sister, Iphigenia, to the gods. She says that he had “no right” to kill a daughter of Clytemnestra’s, and while he said it was to help the Greeks, Clytemnestra knows it was actually to help his brother, Menelaus. Menelaus should have offered one of his own children, not hers, Clytemnestra claims.
Like Electra, Clytemnestra claims justice as her primary motivation. According to Greek myth, Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia so that the goddess Artemis would change the winds and the Greek warriors could sail to Troy, but Clytemnestra maintains he did it more to help Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, had fled to Troy. Thus, Clytemnestra claims, Iphigenia’s sacrifice was for Menelaus, not the gods or the Greeks, and therefore it was not just and had to be avenged.
Electra claims that Clytemnestra didn’t really kill Agamemnon for “justice.” Rather, she says her mother committed the crime because she had been seduced by Aegisthus. Furthermore, Electra says, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia was not for Menelaus but for Artemis, and since the sacrifice was for a goddess, Agamemnon had no choice but to go through with it. Artemis stalled the winds because Agamemnon shot a stag from her “sacred grove” and boasted about it, so the only way he could make it up to Artemis was to offer his own daughter.
While Clytemnestra claims that Agamemnon wasn’t truthful in his reasons for killing Iphigenia, Electra claims that Clytemnestra wasn’t truthful in her own reasons for killing Agamemnon. Here, the justifications that the two give seem equally untrustworthy; they use almost exactly the same logic, and the audience has reason to disbelieve each of them: perhaps killing the stag wasn’t really an accident, and perhaps Clytemnestra really was seduced by Aegisthus. This moment shows how nonsensical and false cycles of revenge can be, and the fact that Electra does not see this indicates that her intense grief may be clouding her judgment.
Even if Agamemnon did sacrifice Iphigenia to help Menelaus, that still does not make Clytemnestra in the right, Electra maintains. “What was your justification?” Electra asks her mother. “Blood for blood, I suppose.” But Electra doesn’t see the sense in this either, as killing Agamemnon made Clytemnestra herself a target. Most of all, the fact that Clytemnestra sleeps with her father’s assassin is what is really puzzling to Electra, since it seems like an odd way of avenging a daughter’s death. Electra goes on to say that she doesn’t care if her mother does think her public mourning is disrespectful or shameful, finally yelling that if people have a problem with her behavior, perhaps they’ll think she takes after Clytemnesta.
Electra claims here that there is little wisdom in the Greek “blood for blood” sysytem of justice, as it perpetuates a never-ending chain of killing, yet this realization still doesn’t make her give up her plan to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus as revenge for Agamemnon’s murder. While this makes Electra appear quite hypocritical, it also implies that Electra is driven by her grief to behavior that she knows is unethical.
The chorus says that Electra no longer seems to care whether she’s right or wrong, and Clytemnestra claims her daughter is “utterly shameless.” Electra, however, is unmoved. She says that she is ashamed of herself, because she’s been “untrue” to herself, adding that she learned to behave in a shameful way by following the example of the shameful people around her.
Again, Electra knows that her poor treatment of her mother is wrong, but her grief has blinded her to what is right, as the chorus points out. What’s more, Electra claims to have learned her own “shameful ways” from Clytemnestra, again emphasizing how unjust behavior such as revenge only leads to further injustice.
Clytemnestra swears by Artemis that Electra’s behavior will eventually catch up to her, but for now, Clytemnestra just wants to make her sacrificial offering. Electra sarcastically tells her to go ahead with the offering. Clytemnestra offers fruit and prayers to Apollo to remedy her fears, and she prays for evil to strike her foes and for the protection of her wealth. She also requests that she may always able to live in luxury with those among her children who do not wish her harm. Suddenly, the old slave enters the palace.
Artemis is the goddess of virginity, and Clytemnestra swears to her here because Electra has behaved in a way that is unbecoming a woman in Greek society, which further reflects the oppression of women. What’s more, it’s not clear whether Clytemnestra’s prayer here is sincere or not, and this uncertainty is further evidence of the play’s thematic focus on deceit and its pervasive effects.
The old slave whether the palace belongs to Aegisthus. When the chorus confirms that it does, the old slave tells Clytemnestra that he has been sent from Phocis to inform her that Orestes is dead. “Orestes dead! This is the death of me!” Electra cries. Clytemnestra tells the slave to ignore Electra and asks for more details about Orestes’s death. The old slave tells Clytemnestra a long and detailed story in which Orestes is killed by a chariot accident during the Pythian Games. The chorus notes that “the royal house of Argos” is “cut down at the roots.”
The house of Atreus, after which Agamemnon’s father was named, began in Mycenae when Atreus and his twin brother, Thyestes (Aegisthus’s father) were exiled by their father for killing their half-brother and found refuge there. They ruled over Mycenae in the king’s absence, and when the king was killed at war, their rule became permanent. So when the chorus claims the royal house is “cut down” with the death of Orestes, this isn’t exactly true, since Aegisthus, too, is descendant of the same house.
Clytemnestra can’t decide if Orestes’s death is sad or happy news, since she acknowledges that it’s impossible to hate her own child. With Orestes dead, however, she doesn’t have to be afraid anymore, and she’s free to ignore Electra too. “Nemesis, hear, and avenge my brother!” Electra cries, but Clytemnestra says that Nemesis has done the right thing in this case. The old slave begins to leave, but Clytemnestra insists that he come inside the palace. Electra sarcastically remarks how extreme her mother’s grief is, and then bitterly notes that Orestes’s death causes her, Electra, even more pain and suffering. Electra wishes aloud to die, thinking that death would be better than the immense pain she’s left with.
Nemesis is the Greek goddess of retribution, and Electra calls on her here in her grief; however, Clytemnestra implies that Nemesis already answered in the form of Orestes’s death, which Clytemnestra takes as further proof of the justification of Agamemnon’s murder. She expresses only a moment of grief over the death of her son before celebrating her good fortune—with Orestes’s death, Clytemnestra no longer must fear when he will return and exact revenge for his father’s death. Again, Sophocles shows that the fixation on revenge as a primary form of justice leads to absurd outcomes, such as a mother celebrating her own son’s death.