Sophocles’s tragic play Electra examines revenge and the ancient Greek “blood for blood” system of justice. Both Electra and her brother, Orestes, swear to avenge the murder of their father, Agamemnon, even though he was killed by their mother, Clytemnestra, and her husband, Aegisthus. According to myth, to appease the goddess Artemis and set sail for Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia. This prompted a chain of events that led to several deaths. After Agamemnon returned home from the war, he was killed by his wife and Aegisthus as revenge for Iphigenia’s sacrifice. In Electra, Orestes kills both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus to avenge his father’s death, and Sophocles implies that Orestes, too, could be justly killed to avenge the deaths of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Through Electra, Sophocles debates the wisdom of such cycles of revenge and questions if they are truly just. While he never offers definitive answers to such questions, Sophocles ultimately argues that, regardless of whether it is ethical, revenge as a form of justice is not particularly wise and only leads to more killing.
Revenge is passed on through the generations in Electra, and it is expected from the start that future sons will seek vengeance for the murder of Agamemnon. In this way, Sophocles implies that the understanding of justice in Greek society is closely associated with revenge. After Agamemnon’s murder, Electra sends an infant Orestes to live with an old slave in Phocis. It is assumed that Orestes will grow up to avenge his father’s death, and Electra sends him away to save her brother’s life. In other words, revenge is so expected in Greek society that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus fear even an infant. Clytemnestra accuses Electra of “bringing [Orestes] up” to be Clytemnestra’s “avenger,” and while Electra didn’t do this specifically (though she claims she would have if she “had the strength”), the old slave takes on this responsibility himself. “I brought you up as my own,” the old slave says to Orestes, “to avenge your father’s murder.” Revenge is so deeply ingrained in Greek culture that the old slave need not be told by Electra to instill vengeance in Orestes; he simply does it without being asked. Furthermore, Aegisthus won’t allow Electra or her sister, Chrysothemis, to marry, as they may give birth to sons who would grow up and seek revenge. “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,” says Electra to her sister. Both Electra and Chrysothemis are denied love and motherhood because of Aegisthus’s fear of revenge. Revenge killings are so common in Greek society that Aegisthus can’t take the slightest chance.
All of the characters who kill for revenge in Electra argue that the killing is just. The “blood for blood” system of justice “entitles” them to murder. Orestes asks the Delphic oracle how his revenge should be exacted, and the oracle says: “Not with the might of shielded host / Shall Justice see her purpose done. / By lone deceit and stealthy craft / Must blood be shed and victory won.” That is, the only way for Orestes to obtain justice for his father’s murder is to kill his murderers. Similarly, Clytemnestra tells Electra that her murder of Agamemnon was likewise just. “Justice determined / His death; I wasn’t alone,” Clytemnestra says. Agamemnon killed her daughter; therefore, Clytemnestra had the right, perhaps the duty, to kill him. After Clytemnestra has a dream in which Agamemnon is “restored to life,” she begins to fear that Orestes is returning to seek revenge, so she orders Chrysothemis to place libations on Agamemnon’s grave and pray for her safety. “Justice sent this dire dream,” the Chorus says. In short, it would perfectly just for Orestes to return and kill his mother to avenge his father.
Despite the obvious acceptance of revenge as a form of justice in Greek society, Sophocles questions if revenge really is all that just, and points out that it is easily abused and misinterpreted. Electra implies that Clytemnestra only used revenge as an excuse to kill Agamemnon, and that she was really motivated by lust and seduction. Clytemnestra, Electra suggests, really wanted Agamemnon out of the way so she could rule Mycenae with her lover, Aegisthus. By claiming revenge and justice, Clytemnestra was able to do what otherwise would be considered a crime. As far as Electra is concerned, Clytemnestra’s claim to justice is on shaky ground. “You say you killed my father,” Electra says to her mother. “What admission could be more shameful than that, / Whether or not justice was on your side?” Justice matters very little when revenge involves killing, Electra implies. She seems to think that murder is inexcusable, regardless of what the law says.
Electra claims there is nothing more shameful than murder, yet she doesn’t follow her own reasoning. Electra may not be the one to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, but she is certainly complicit in their murders, and Sophocles implies that the killing won’t stop here. There will always be a death to avenge in the “blood for blood” system of justice. Thus, the play suggests, there is little wisdom in continuing its vicious cycles.
Justice and Revenge ThemeTracker
Justice and Revenge 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.
Our crafty tale will bring them the glad tidings
That my body has been cremated and now consists
Of nothing but charred remains. What harm does it do me
To say I’m dead? None, if the outcome proves
My real salvation and wins me a glorious prize.
In my opinion, no word can be a bad omen
If it leads to gain. A false report of death
Is a trick I’ve often seen used by clever philosophers.
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?
They say she saw our father beside her again,
Restored to life. He then took hold of the staff
He used to carry and now Aegisthus wields,
And planted it on the hearth. This sprouted up
And grew to a leafy branch which overshadowed
The whole of Mycenae. So much I learned
From someone present when she revealed her dream
To the god of the Sun. That’s all I know, except
That our mother’s frightened enough to send me out.
When Pelops in past ages
Won the race with his chariot,
What never-ending sorrow
Struck this land!
When Myrtilus, his helper,
Was drowned beneath the ocean
Tossed headlong from his chariot,
He cursed the race of Pelops
And died in great anguish.
Since that day
This palace has been haunted
By suffering and anguish.
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?
Very well, then, listen. You say you killed my father.
What admission could be more shameful than that,
Whether or not justice was on your side?
I put it to you, it wasn’t justice that drove
You to kill him. No, you were seduced by the evil man
Who is now your partner. Ask Artemis, the hunter
Goddess, why she becalmed the fleet at Aulis,
As none of the winds would blow. What was she punishing?
I’ll give you the answer. We can’t cross-question her.
My father, as I’ve been told, was out on a hunt
In Artemis’ sacred grove, when his footfall startled
A dappled stag from its covert. After he’d shot it,
He accidentally let fall some boastful words.
This made the goddess angry, and so she held
The Greek fleet up, to make my father atone
For the stag by sacrificing his daughter.
That’s how it occurred. It was the only solution.
The ships couldn’t sail back home or across to Troy.
He sacrificed Iphigenia under compulsion;
With great reluctance. It wasn’t for Menelaus.
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.
These visions that came to me last night,
These doubtful dreams, Lycean Lord,
If they boded good, grant them fulfilment;
If evil, let them rebound on my foes.
If any by craft would steal the wealth
That I now enjoy, let it not be.
Vouchsafe me always to live as I am,
With life unharmed, to govern the house
Of Atreus’ sons and all this realm.
To dwell in prosperous joy with the friends
I love, who presently share my home.
And with those of my children who bear
No malice against me nor cause me pain.
These prayers, Lycean Apollo, graciously hear
And grant us our humble requests.
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.
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.
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.