At the center of Sophocles’s tragic play Electra is the grief and mourning of Electra, the play’s protagonist and title character. Electra’s deep anguish is the result of her father Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of her mother, Clytemnestra, and her mother’s husband, Aegisthus. Public mourning was expected of women in ancient Greece, as it was thought to keep the memory of the dead alive and promote catharsis; however, mourning during ancient times was also highly structured and involved a strict timeline. Commemoration of the dead was often performed at yearly festivals, but the type of raw grief and prolonged public mourning displayed by Electra typically did not occur beyond the first anniversary of death. At the time of the play, it has been over 20 years since Agamemnon’s death, yet Electra continues to mourn her father and lament her miserable life. Electra’s grief consumes her, and she grows increasingly obsessed with avenging her father’s murder, even if that means killing her own mother. Through the portrayal of Electra’s profound grief, Sophocles contends that grief is a raw and overwhelming human emotion that cannot (and should not) be confined to a predetermined period of socially acceptable mourning, while simultaneously arguing that grief can blind one to what is right.
Electra’s entire life, and much of the play, is dedicated to her grief and mourning. In this way, Sophocles implies that grief is not a neat and tidy emotion but is often devasting and constant, and it therefore cannot be restricted to official mourning periods. Electra claims the sun is a frequent witness to her grief, as the “beating” of her “bleeding breast” is often “marked” by the lifting of “the mists of the dark.” In other words, Electra grieves each and every day—her emotions do not subside over time, as is often suggested to be the case. As sure as the sun comes up, Electra is racked with grief and sorrow. Regardless of any changes in external circumstances, Electra’s grief is unrelenting: “But I shall never / End my dirges and bitter laments,” she claims. “I’ll never find any relief from my sorrows / My dirges cannot be reckoned.” Electra maintains that nothing can end her suffering. No amount of passing time will lessen her pain, and no amount of sympathy can comfort her. Thus, Electra’s grief cannot possibly be structured or constricted to a specific period of mourning.
Throughout the play, Electra’s family and the chorus each try to convince her to stop her public lamentations, but she refuses. Electra’s grief cannot be contained, and it does not end just because others say it should. When the chorus arrives to offer Electra sympathy, they remind her that her “dirges and prayers” will not bring Agamemnon back. Her grief “offers no release from suffering’s chains,” the chorus says, “So why, why court such senseless anguish?” Electra’s answer is simple. “None but a fool forgets their / Parents grievously gone to the underworld,” she says. In other words, mourning her father is Electra’s duty, and so she will never stop. This suggests that the nature of loss and grief is a lifelong struggle, particularly when grieving for a parent. Electra’s sister, Chrysothemis, warns her that if she doesn’t stop her public lamentations, Aegisthus will bury Electra alive in a faraway cave to “chant [her] miseries there.” Still, Electra can’t be swayed. “I’ll fall if I must,” she says, “for my father’s sake.” Her resolve suggests that grieving individuals cannot be suppressed by threats, and that no amount of punishment or abuse can stop genuine mourning.
As the play progresses and Electra’s grief consumes her further, she begins to lose sight of her morals and show signs of madness, which implies that prolonged periods of profound grief, though natural and understandable, can sometimes lead one to do things they otherwise would view as wrong or unethical. While Electra maintains early on that nothing can alleviate her sorrow, she eagerly awaits her brother Orestes’s return to Mycenae so that he might kill Aegisthus and Clytemnestra and avenge their father’s murder. Electra knows that to disrespect her mother in such a way is wrong and she says as much, but her grief clouds her judgement, and she therefore believes that their deaths will ease her pain. When Orestes finally returns to kill Clytemnestra, Electra stands outside and cheers him on. “Strike her a second blow, if you have the strength!” she yells. Not only does Electra want her mother dead, she wants her to suffer greatly. Electra is almost excited at the sounds of her mother suffering, which suggests that Electra’s grief is beginning to drive her mad.
During the third scene, as Electra hurls insults at her mother, the chorus says, “She looks to me / No longer concerned whether she’s in the right,” and this indeed seems to be Sophocles’s overarching argument. Electra’s grief effectively upsets her moral compass, and she moves from claiming that only a fool would forget a deceased parent to conspiring to kill her own mother. While Sophocles seems to argue that Electra should be left to mourn on her own terms, he also implies that grief, when it becomes overwhelming, can be very dangerous.
Grief, Mourning, and Morality ThemeTracker
Grief, Mourning, and Morality Quotes in Electra
But I shall never
End my dirges and bitter laments
While I still see the twinkling,
All-radiant stars and the daylight,
Nor cease to keen like the nightingale
Who killed her young, crying my sorrow
To the world here by the royal gateway.
But how, how will dirges and prayers
Help to summon your father back,
Up from the Lake of Death which none escapes?
No, in your limitless grief you are fatally
Parting from reason for pain without remedy.
This sighing offers no release from suffering’s chains.
So why, why court such senseless anguish?
None but a fool forgets their
Parents grievously gone to the underworld.
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.
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.
CHORUS LEADER [to ELECTRA]:
I see she’s fuming with anger. She looks to me
No longer concerned whether she’s in the right.
Why should I feel any concern for her
When she has hurled these insults against her mother?
She’s old enough to know better. Utterly shameless!
Don’t you believe she’d stoop to anything?
Let me assure you, however it looks to you,
I am ashamed of my actions and very aware
Of being untrue to myself. But your hostility
And cruel treatment force this behaviour on me.
Shameful ways are learned by shameful example.
O Lord Apollo, graciously hear their prayers
And mine besides. Many a time I have stood
In supplication before your holy altar
And offered there such gifts as I could afford.
So now, Lycean Apollo, with what I have,
I pray, beseech and supplicate your godhead.
Vouchsafe to aid us in this enterprise
And show to all mankind what recompense
The gods bestow on sinful wickedness.
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.