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an analysis of the play by Euripides

The following essay on Electra was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 301-3.

The Electra of Euripides was apparently produced towards the close of the Sicialian expedition, in the spring of 413 [B.C.]. Of all the extant plays it goes the furthest in reducing the grandeur of the heroic world to an ordinary level. Electra has been given in marriage to a rustic labourer; and the play commences with a picture of cottage life, with all its humble surroundings and toilsome occupations. These preliminary scenes have attracted more criticism than any other passages in Euripides; and though the criticism has often been carried to extreme lengths, it is not altogether undeserved. Not that it is necessary to regard the domestic treatment of the legend as a fault in itself. The inferiority of the Electra lies, not so much in the general conception as in the execution. These scenes of humble life are hardly written in the happiest vein. There is an air of unreality and affectation about them. The rustic is too conscious of his own virtues, and too profuse in maxims which recall the eloquence of the melodramatic stage. He lets us know that "his heart is honest, though his fortunes are poor," and that "labour is the only road to prosperity." He extols his own moderation in treating Electra as a virgin, and refusing to take advantage of the unequal marriage which fortune had thrown his way. Electra herself insists on fetching water from the spring when it is not required, in order to show her neighbours to what degradation she has been reduced by Aegisthus. When urged to spare herself the trouble, she talks about the duty of "lightening her husband's toils." The rustic, unable to stop her, consoles himself with the reflection that it is only "a very little distance to the well." The whole proceedings have a somewhat artificial appearance, as though husband and wife knew that the eyes of the audience were upon them, and wished to create a favourable impression.

More than this, the effect of the play is impaired by a certain perversity of treatment, which causes the sympathy to be enlisted on the wrong side. Electra, during the later scenes, displays such venomous malignity of nature, that it is impossible to rejoice in her deliverance from trouble. Take, for example, her behavior during the murder of Clytaemnestra. The plot has been carefully arranged. Orestes, axe in hand, is waiting inside the cottage, ready for the slaughter. Electra, standing at the door, receives her mother with mock humility and ironical compliments. Clytaemnestra begins to show compunction for her past crimes; and her references to the neglected condition of her daughter, and to her own remorseful feelings, are touching and natural, and excite compassion. But Electra is so far from being softened, that as her mother enters the cottage to meet her doom, she pursues her with satirical advice not to "dirty her clothes in the smoky room," and with horrible equivocations about the "sacrifice" that is shortly to be performed. The stern inflexibility of the Sophoclean Electra, though repugnant to modern ideas, was majestic in itself, and consistent with the general tone of the play. But in the present scene the homely and natural character of the surroundings ony brings into stronger relief the spite and treachery and inhuman jeers of the heroine.

The Electra, then, cannot be included among the more successful efforts of Euripides. Yet it is the one by which he is most often judged, owing to the facility of comparison with the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles on the same subject. But to estimate the respective merits of the three poets by these particular works is manifestly unfair to Euripides. The comparison may be interesting, in so far as it illustrates the difference in their dramatic methods, and the ingenuity with which they were able to ring the changes on the same theme. But it becomes misleading if used for other purposes. The real greatness of Euripides is to be seen, not in the Electra, but in plays like the Hippolytus and the Medea, in which the realistic treatment of the old legends is found to be not incompatible with artistic grace and dignity.

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