While the theme of gender in Sophocles’s Electra may not be particularly apparent to modern readers, it would have been obvious to ancient Greek audiences. Greek theatergoers were very familiar with Aeschylus, another Greek tragedian and Sophocles’s contemporary, as well as his treatment of the same myth in his play The Libation Bearers. Aeschylus focuses almost entirely on Orestes, Electra’s brother, and his desire to seek revenge for his father Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of his mother, Clytemnestra, and her husband Aegisthus. By contrast, Sophocles shifts the attention away from Orestes and gives it to Electra. Like her brother, Electra seeks vengeance for their father’s murder, but Sophocles pays a fair amount of attention to Electra’s grieving and her right to be seen and heard in a public space. Because Electra is a woman, she is expected by Greek society to behave in a very particular way; however, Electra repeatedly refuses to conform to society’s expectations. While it is assumed that only Agamemnon’s sons and grandsons will exact revenge for his death, Sophocles effectively argues through the character of Electra that women are not necessarily bound by the norms of their society, and that they are equally capable of revenge.
Electra is expected to mourn her father according to cultural norms, obey the men in her life, and accept her limitations as a woman, and these expectations are made abundantly clear throughout the play. Electra’s sister, Chrysothemis, respects Electra’s right to publicly mourn their father, but she also warns Electra that doing so will anger Aegisthus. “I know full well / That right is on your side,” Chrysothemis says to her sister, “but if I want / To be free, our lords and masters must be obeyed.” Chrysothemis fears she will be abused as Electra is if she openly defies Aegisthus and she believes that, as a man, he must be obeyed. When Electra tells Chrysothemis her plans to kill Aegisthus, Chrysothemis tries to talk her out of it. “You’re not a man, but a woman,” she says. “You haven’t the strength / To conquer your foes. […] Who could plot to murder a man as strong / as Aegisthus and then emerge from the fray unscathed?” In Chrysothemis’s view, Electra is only a woman and is not capable of exacting revenge, especially on a man.
Despite what society expects, however, Electra won’t submit to others’ sexist assumptions. She repeatedly behaves in ways that run counter to typical expectations, which upends gender stereotypes and suggests that women aren’t weak after all. Electra’s opinion of society’s expectations of women is clear. “Those stay-at-homes, those spare weights / On earth’s floor, those womenfolk!” Electra cries. To submit to society’s expectations and retire from the public sphere is out of the question for Electra. She considers a woman’s traditional role to be a weight that holds her down, and through her struggle against that weight, Sophocles highlights the inequality of ancient Greece’s sexist society. “Be careful, now,” Orestes says to Electra. “The spirit of war can still be strong / In women. Your own experience should tell you that.” Unlike Greek society, Orestes believes that his sister is capable of revenge, and he warns her to be cautious. Both Orestes and Sophocles suggest that women are not as weak as society assumes and therefore should not be underestimated.
Orestes’s warning does not turn out to be unfounded, and unlike Aeschylus’s The Libations Bearers, in which Electra quietly disappears when the killing begins, Sophocles’s Electra instead takes a more active role in the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, which implies that women are capable of much more than they are given credit for. As Orestes enters the palace to kill Clytemnestra, Electra remains outside to keep guard. “Aegisthus / Mustn’t surprise us as he walks in,” Electra tells the chorus. Theatergoers would have expected Electra to go hide somewhere, but she instead plays a crucial role in her mother’s murder. In this way, Sophocles sheds light on how inaccurate stereotypical gender assumptions really are. As Electra hears Orestes killing their mother, she doesn’t flinch. In fact, she tells Orestes to “strike her a second blow, if you have the strength!” Here, it is Electra who isn’t sure of Orestes’s strength and ability, instead of the other way around. When the chorus notices Aegisthus returning home, they urge Orestes to go back into the palace before he is seen: “I can look after everything here,” Electra says. The attention drawn by the italicized “I” implies that, contrary to what her sexist society thinks, Electra is fully capable of actively participating in such a horrific deed.
When Aegisthus begs Orestes to spare him a word in his defense, Electra interrupts. “No, Orestes, for god’s sake,” she says. “Don’t give him the chance to argue with you.” She urges Orestes to kill Aegisthus “at once,” and then throw his lifeless body to the dogs and birds to feast on. Despite popular stereotypes of women as weak and demure, Electra is strong and confident, and, Sophocles therefore implies, she is capable of revenge just as men are.
Gender and Society ThemeTracker
Gender and Society Quotes in Electra
To the left the famous temple of Hera. The place
We have reached you may call Mycenae, rich in gold,
And here the palace of Atreus, rich in blood.
From here, some years ago, when your father was murdered,
Your sister Electra handed you into my care.
I carried you off, I saved your life, and then
I brought you up as my own, until you reached
Your prime of manhood, to avenge your father’s murder.
The shame of your present wretched state,
Is all of your own making.
Your trials are worse than they need to be.
Your sullen soul keeps breeding wars
Which cannot be won. Don’t fight with the strong.
How can you come near them?
Women, all these laments of mine must make
Me seem so very embittered. I feel ashamed.
I’m forced to do it, though. You must forgive me.
A woman of noble birth could not act otherwise.
When she sees the troubles that haunt her father’s house
Not fading away but growing day and night.
Here you are again, holding forth
At the palace gateway! Electra, what are you doing?
Haven’t you learned by now? Your anger’s pointless.
Don’t indulge it for nothing. I must admit
This situation distresses me too. If only
I had the strength, I’d show them how I feel.
But things are bad. It’s wiser to trim my sails,
Not pose as a threat without any power to harm.
I wish you’d do the same. I know full well
That right is on your side, but if I want
To be free, our lords and masters must be obeyed.
Well, I’ll tell you all that I know myself.
Their plan is this: if you won’t stop lamenting,
They’ll send you where you’ll never see the sun,
Buried alive in a cave across the frontier,
To chant your miseries there. You’d better think
About it carefully. Don’t blame me when you suffer
Later on. You need to be sensible now.
Your constant pretext is simply this: I killed
Your father. Yes, I did. I’m well aware of that
And won’t pretend to deny it. Justice determined
His death; I wasn’t alone. And you should have taken
The side of Justice, if you’d had any sense.
Listen! This father of yours whom you’re always lamenting
Committed the most barbaric crime: he sacrificed
Your sister to the gods. Iphigenia’s birth
Never cost him the pains of labour that I went through.
Very well. Now answer this question. Why did he sacrifice her?
To help the Greeks? But they enjoyed no right
To kill a daughter of mine. Or did he kill
My child to help his brother Menelaus?
In that case, didn’t he owe me some satisfaction?
So long as I still had word that our brother Orestes
Was alive and well, I went on hoping that he
Would one day come to avenge his father’s murder.
But now that he’s gone for good, I’m looking to you.
You mustn’t flinch. Your sister needs your help
To kill Aegisthus—the man who perpetrated
Our father’s murder. No secrets between us now.
Where will inaction get you? What can you still
Look forward to? Only resentment in being deprived
Of your father’s heritage. Only the pain of growing
Old without the blessings of love or marriage.
Those joys are nothing more than a forlorn hope.
Aegisthus isn’t foolish enough to allow
A son of yours—or a son of mine—to grow
To manhood and so to ensure his own destruction.
Yes, women, if Electra had any sense at all,
She wouldn’t have thrown all caution to the winds
Before giving tongue. What are you trying to do?
Why are you putting on this audacious front
And calling on me to follow? Don’t you see?
You’re not a man, but a woman. You haven’t the strength
To conquer your foes. Their star is rising daily,
While our fortunes are ebbing away to nothing.
Who could plot to murder a man as strong
As Aegisthus and then emerge from the fray unscathed?
I swear, yes, I swear, Artemis be my strength,
I’ll never stoop to fear my old foes again.
Those stay-at-homes, those spare weights
On earth’s floor, those womenfolk!
Be careful, now. The spirit of war can still be strong
In women. Your own experience should tell you that.
No, Orestes, for god’s sake,
Don’t give him the chance to argue with you.
When a man’s been caught and is doomed to die,
What can he gain by a moment’s delay?
Kill him at once; kill him, and then
Throw out his corpse for the dogs and birds to bury
Out of our sight. No other payment
For all I’ve suffered could be enough for me.
O seed of Atreus, how much you have suffered!
But now this attack has forced you out
Into freedom. You’ve come to the ending.