The play opens at Agamemnon’s burial mound in Argos, before which stand Orestes (Agamemnon’s son) and his faithful companion Pylades. Orestes, who has been exiled from Argos for many years, prays to Hermes, the god of the dead, to give him strength. He cuts two locks of his hair and lays them on the grave, honoring Inachos (the god of a local river in Argos) and his dead father, begging forgiveness for his absence at his father’s funeral.
From the play’s opening moments, Aeschylus makes clear that Agamemnon’s death (which was detailed in Agamemnon, Aeschylus’s previous play in the Oresteia trilogy) still dominates the minds of his characters, and influences their actions. Orestes, meanwhile, immediately establishes his identity as a pious, faithful son who honors both the gods and his father.
As Orestes prays, Electra enters with the Chorus, a group of slave women who attend her. They are dressed in mourning, and bring offerings to the grave. Orestes, observing them, notices his sister and prays to the gods to let him avenge Agamemnon’s murder. He hides along with Pylades, anxious to know why the women are approaching the grave.
The Chorus describes their rituals of mourning—scratching their cheeks with their own fingernails, beating their breasts, and crying out with grief—and recounts how a seer in the house had a nightmare last night, warning them that the dead are calling out for revenge. They relate how the impious Clytemnestra has sent them to the tomb, fearful of the dead’s vengeance, but they call her offerings “empty gifts.” The Chorus laments the fall of the house of Atreus, and warns how Justice will inevitably exact its penalty. They then describe the earth as teeming with blood, and curse their lives as slaves, connecting their own plight with that of Electra, who silently and secretly mourns for the betrayed Agamemnon.
Violent mourning, for the Ancient Greeks, was a form of showing respect not only to the dead, but also to the gods. In contrast to the piety of both Electra and the Chorus, Clytemnestra does not mourn for her dead husband—even the libations she sends to the tombs are “empty” and meaningless. Perhaps surprisingly, this pious Chorus is also bloodthirsty—a clear demonstration of the complex way in which the Greeks viewed vengeance. Although they understood that it was an endless and violent cycle, they still believed that it was often necessary and honorable.
Electra praises the Chorus, thanking them for accompanying her to Agamemnon’s grave. She begins to lament her father’s death, adding that she cannot bring him love from Clytemnestra as she pours sacred oil over his tomb. She then tries a more traditional prayer for the dead, but cannot finish it either. Last, she wonders whether she should simply remain “silent, dishonoured” just as her father was when he died. She compares herself to a slave, and asks the Chorus for advice, reminding them that whether free or enslaved, all humans are subject to Destiny.
Because Electra is a “proper” Ancient Greek woman, she is essentially powerless to change her circumstances. Unlike her brother Orestes, she cannot leave her home, nor can she take up arms against her hated mother and stepfather. The Chorus, also made up of women, relates to Electra’s feelings of stasis and suffocation. These qualities contrast with the unfeminine Clytemnestra—who is a murderer, but also a woman with agency and power.
The leader of the Chorus tells Electra that she should say a prayer for “those who love you…[and] hate Aegisthus.” Electra laments that she is entirely alone except for the Chorus, but the leader urges her to remember Orestes. She goes on to instruct Electra to pray that either a “god or man” punish “the murderers” (Aegisthus and Clytemnestra). Electra wonders how she can pray for vengeance and “keep my conscience clear,” but the leader asserts that it is her duty to do so in order to pay back her enemies.
Here Aeschylus introduces a crucial question within his play: How can characters seek out bloody vengeance while still remaining moral and pious? The Chorus, however, asserts that morality/piety and vengeance actually go hand in hand, and that it is the duty of moral people to punish evildoers. Note that even here, although the Chorus tells Electra to pray for vengeance, they don’t tell her to carry it out herself—as a woman, that is not her role.
Electra kneels at the grave and prays to Hermes, begging him to ask the dead and Mother Earth to hear her plea. She asks the spirit of Agamemnon to pity both her and Orestes, whom she feels her mother Clytemnestra has sold in exchange for her murderous lover Aegisthus. She describes her near enslavement and Orestes’ exile, asking that Orestes be returned home, and that she remain purer than her mother is. For her enemies, she asks for vengeance and justice.
In her prayer, Electra again shows the very real influence that both the gods and the dead have on the lives of the living in her culture. She also directly compares herself to Clytemnestra, a juxtaposition that will remain present in the audience member’s minds throughout the rest of the play.
Electra then calls upon the Chorus to add their prayers to hers. The group of women laments the death of Agamemnon, and begs the gods of the dead for the appearance of an avenger to free the house from the corruption of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
Since the Chorus represents the general atmosphere of the play’s setting, it is clear that the entire kingdom of Argos hates the tyrannical Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
Having finished her prayer, Electra spots Orestes’ locks of hair on the ground. She notes that the hair is identical to her own, and she and the Chorus wonder whether it signifies the presence of Orestes. Electra believes that Orestes sent the lock to honor Agamemnon, and the Chorus adds that he will “never set foot on native ground again.” At this, Electra is overcome by grief. She praises her brother as “the dearest man I know,” and curses her impious mother, who would never cut her hair for Agamemnon. Simultaneously fearful and hopeful, she prays to the gods to help her understand the mystery.
Having been oppressed for years by a mother and stepfather she hates, Electra can hardly believe that her brother may in fact be in Argos once more. The matching locks of hair, meanwhile, make it clear how bonded the siblings are (despite the long time that they’ve spent apart). They are, in essence, two halves of the same person, one male and one female.
Within moments, Electra spots Orestes’ footprints in the dirt (as well as Pylades’). Comparing the tracks to her own feet, she notes that they are perfectly matched. As she follows the tracks towards Orestes, he emerges and walks towards her until the two meet. Orestes tells her to pray for success in the future—unable to believe that it is actually her brother, Electra asks what the gods have ever given her. Orestes tells his sister that the gods have returned him to her, but she continues to struggle with disbelief and mistrust, asking him why he laughs at her pain. Orestes responds that their pain is one and the same, and matches the lock of hair to both his head and hers. He then shows her his clothing, which she herself wove. At this, Electra falls to her knees and sobs. Orestes lifts her up and the two embrace.
The footprints that Electra finds add to the sense of her connection with Orestes. The moment in which she actual sees him, yet cannot believe her eyes, only underscores how traumatized she is from years of living, lonely and afraid, under the command of her mother. Even in this heightened emotional moment, it is crucial to note that both Orestes and Electra remain pious, crediting the gods with bringing them back together. Amidst this tragic drama about a violent family, this moment of reunion displays the only healthy emotional connection within the play.
As the Chorus rejoices, Orestes warns his sister not to give herself to joy, since his arrival has put them in grave danger. Electra explains that Orestes is not only her brother, but now he must also replace her father (dead at Clytemnestra’s hands), her mother (a betrayer), and her sister (Iphigenia, dead at Agamemnon’s hands). Electra prays to Zeus, the king of the gods, for safety and success.
Once more, Aeschylus emphasizes to the audience how isolated Electra has been, and how important her bond with Orestes is. Her prayer to Zeus reminds us of the power of the gods, and of their ability to change the course of human events. The characters essentially assume that they are the pawns of the gods and fate, and so prayer is just as important as action.
The Chorus, too, prays to Zeus, comparing the dead Agamemnon to an eagle killed by a treacherous snake. They once again compare their enslaved state to that of Electra, and praise Agamemnon for his generosity and protectiveness. They describe the house (family) as “ruined,” and ask Zeus to restore it to “greatness.”
In Greek tragedy, families are often cursed with terrible misfortune due to the sins of their ancestors. This is undoubtedly true of Orestes’ and Electra’s family—the house of Atreus—which has been “ruined” by bloodshed for several generations, starting with Agamemnon’s father Atreus, who murdered his brother’s children and tricked him into eating them.
The Chorus leader warns Orestes and Electra to be wary of Aegisthus’ and Clytemnestra’s spies. Orestes responds that he is under the protection of Apollo, and that the god’s oracle has ordered him to hunt down Agamemnon’s killers. He relates what the oracle has told him: that if the dead go without vengeance, they infect the land itself, causing disease and famine. Orestes goes on to describe the Furies, goddesses of vengeance who attack men who deal unjustly with their kin. Should he not avenge Agamemnon, Orestes warns, he will be shunned by all and die alone and unloved. On top of the god’s command, Orestes adds his own reasons for wanting vengeance: his grief, and his desire to regain his homeland.
This is the first time that Orestes mentions a crucial plot point: that he has been ordered by the god Apollo to kill his mother in order to avenge Agamemnon. He also mentions the Furies, figures who will become important later in the play and who will play a huge part in its sequel, The Eumenides. Aeschylus also takes this opportunity to distinguish between the pious and the personal. Orestes must kill Clytemnestra because it is the god’s command, but he also wishes to kill her because of what she has done to his father, his sister, and himself.
Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus gather to pray at the grave. The Chorus invokes the Fates and Zeus, praying that they exact justice. Orestes prays to his father and to his ancestors. The Chorus Leader observes that the rage of the dead inflames the hearts of the living, while Electra begs her father to end her and Orestes’ pain. Both the Leader and Orestes praise Agamemnon, and the siblings wish that their father had died an honorable, warrior’s death at Troy. The Chorus prophecies the end of Clytemnestra’s and Aegisthus’ reign, and then all three begin to beg the gods for violent, bloody vengeance. They curse Clytemnestra for impiety and brutality, and Orestes swears that he will make her pay for dishonoring and mutilating his father. Electra incites him further, telling him of her own grief and servitude.
This passage of prayer reminds us that the gods are closely linked with fate, another omnipresent force in the lives of the ancient Greeks. It also emphasizes the power of the dead over the living, as the Leader of the Chorus describes how the dead are able to influence our decisions from beyond the grave. Agamemnon died shamefully and ignobly—deceived in his own home, and at the hands of a woman—yet another reason that his children feel they must avenge him. It is telling that in his death, Agamemnon is made into a saintly figure, when in life he was a warlord who killed his own daughter in order to begin a war of revenge, and who brought back a concubine (essentially a sex slave) when he returned home to his wife. Yet he was a powerful man and victorious in battle, so he is glorified.
The Chorus leaves Electra and Orestes at the grave. Orestes prays for the power “to rule our house” while Electra begs for Aegisthus’ death, and her own freedom. The siblings promise their father’s spirit offerings, prayers, and honor. Growing more incensed, the two remember the plot that doomed Agamemnon, in which Clytemnestra used a net to trap the king while he was in a bath. The leader of the Chorus reemerges, joining with Orestes and Electra and rejoicing in their bravery.
The siblings’ prayers again remind us that they believe their future acts of vengeance to be divinely sanctioned. Their recollection of Agamemnon’s death, meanwhile, illuminates how present the murder still is for them, and how much it galvanizes each and every one of their actions.
Before leaving, Orestes wonders why Clytemnestra sent libations to Agamemnon’s tomb, considering her impiety and her hatred of her dead husband. The leader of the Chorus explains that Clytemnestra was shaken by a bad dream in which she gave birth to a serpent, which then bit off her nipple as she breastfed it. Clytemnestra has sent offerings to the tomb in an effort to ease her guilt and her terror.
The bad dream that Clytemnestra has is a sign that her death is destined to be—it is under divine, not human control. We also learn here that Clytemnestra is aware both of the power of the dead and the force of vengeance, and that she fears for her life.
Orestes wonders if he himself is the serpent, and if this dream has in fact predicted Clytemnestra’s death at his hands. The leader of the Chorus encourages him to share his plan with them. He replies that it is simple: Electra and the Chorus will return to the house, while he and Pylades will disguise themselves as travellers from Delphi (the shrine of Apollo) and ask for shelter. He predicts that the impious Aegisthus and Clytemnestra may not be hospitable (another mark of their sinful nature), but resolves to find his way into the palace no matter what. Once inside, he will confront Aegisthus and kill him. Orestes urges Electra to be watchful once she is inside, and orders the Chorus to keep his secret. Last, he prays to his dead father, asking Agamemnon to guide his sword. Then he, Pylades, and Electra exit.
Orestes’ speculation about himself being the serpent creates a curiously double-edged symbol. On one hand, snakes usually emblemize treachery and entrapment, while Orestes himself has been portrayed as a noble, pious character. This tension reveals the multi-faceted nature of vengeance, which may sometimes be well deserved, but which is always bloody and brutal. Orestes’ decision to disguise himself as a traveler from Delphi, meanwhile, reminds us of his fealty to Apollo, and emphasizes the fact that his murder attempt will be divinely sanctioned by the god of prophecy and truth.