Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Freedom & Justice in Euripides' Electra

Phoebus, Phoebus – I say no more, as he is my royal lord; wisdom is his but wisdom was absent from the command he gave you.

Electra offers the reader both a nuanced version of an older, but still significantly popular and relevant tragedy-play and a unique chance to become acquainted with the thoughts and opinions of an author who, judged from the hindsight of modernity, clearly had a progressively pensive mind. What seems apparent, after reading the play, is that Euripides wrote Electra in reaction to or, at least, in obvious familiarity with, Aeschylus' second play in the Oresteia trilogy, the Libation Bearers, as numerous references throughout the play unquestionably demonstrate. However, although the similarities and parallels between the two plays seem manifest and, at times, even subtly comical, Electra clearly conveys a serious message and, moreover, imbues the reader with an impression that is thoroughly different from that found in Aeschylus' plays. Richard Rutherford suggests that the differences between the two plays are a result of constraint—Euripides was writing a single play, whereas Aeschylus a trilogy—but I think this suggestion diminishes the significance of the content and intent found within the differences. In Euripides' play the vendetta motif or the repeating/reciprocal nature of violence equating to justice found in Aeschylus' plays is seriously challenged, mostly by the main heorine of the play, of which it takes its name, Electra. Another significant difference in Electra is the noticeable lack of involvement of the gods and, to the extent that they are involved, there is a sense of poignant skepticism and questioning of the wisdom employed in their will.

In the passage above, spoken by the demigods Castor and Pollux, Electra and her brother Orestes have just been informed that their egregious deed, done in the name of divine justice and in obedience with Apollo's edict, now lacks its legitimacy in the eyes of the divine, because Apollo apparently forgot to put his wisdom cap on that day when he gave his matricidal command. Taking this into consideration, the prescribed punishments or sentences that Orestes and Electra receive from Castor are not capital punishment, but rather a charity service and probation type sentence, which is to say an odious, but more tolerable than death, sentence: Orestes is condemned to a life of exile and Electra is wedded to the taciturn Pylades. Before we delve into the implications of this passage, however, it is perhaps wise to back track a bit and provide some background context.

The seemingly shocking information that Castor pronounces in the aforementioned passage to Electra and Orestes had been pondered by the latter and thus subtly foreshadowed earlier on in the play. In lines 971-989, for instance, Orestes laments Apollo's command and questions his wisdom, but is eventually persuaded by his sister who initially tries to persuade him by reminding him that to disobey Apollo's command would be an act of impiety, and then, since Orestes reservations seem to persist, decides another, more effective tactic, and calls into question his very manhood(!) and Orestes, not fond of being called a Mr. sissy-pants, immediately concedes. Another example comes just after Orestes and Electra have committed the act of matricide, when they return to the chorus and Orestes, right after Electra makes her guilt-stricken remarks, avers “O Phoebus, what you proclaimed in song was justice veiled in darkness” (1190). From these passages alone it is obvious that conflict between a character's actions and his pious obligations to fulfill the will of the gods is much more prevalent and center stage in Euripides' play than it was in any of Aeschylus' plays. In Aeschylus' trilogy conflict did appear, for instance when Agamemnon had to sacrifice Iphiginea, but his decision was unquestionable and passed off as necessity, whereas in Euripides' play the conflict between actor and divinity is raised to the fore and challenged without propriety.

One of the major differences found in Euripides play, in contrast to Aeschylus, is a shift of an individuals responsibility for his/her actions from the heavens to the hands of the actor. Evidence of this shift can be extracted from the text itself. The two long chorus odes found in lines 434-484 and 700-744 recount past historical events of ancient Greek notoriety, but within these tales is a certain, my suggestion is intended, pattern: people suffering as a result of divine interference. This point becomes despairingly sharper at the end of the play when Castor suggests that all the suffering humans have endured has neither 'rhyme nor reason', since wisdom is not always present to advise a god when he gives his command. So, for example, the Trojan war which had been triggered by Helen, was really just a mistake by Zeus, who sent a phantom Helen (1280-84). Which means that the lives lost, the sacrifices made, everything up to the present matricide committed by Orestes and Electra, was all because of Zeus and not because of man. Thus, if what Castor says is true, then man is not following the wisdom of the gods, so much as their whims.

The message that comes out of the conclusion of the play, then, seems to be the following: divine interference is a deleterious nuisance to mankind that prolongs suffering. In Electra, Euripides does not portray the gods as providing order to the universe, but instead sees them as casting the seeds of disorder, anomie, and perpetual violence in the world of man. Perhaps one of the main themes of the play, that of individual responsibility and character, is what Euripides finds lacking most in the judgments of and commands made by the gods. There are numerous hints that this is the case, but none of them are very explicit. In line 1051, which comes right after Clytemnestra has just finished her lengthy disquisition on why she is innocent and was just in her murderous act, the Chorus leader says “There is justice in what you have said but it is a shameful justice.” It was shameful, according to the chorus leader, simply because she is a she, but one might propose that whereas Agamemnon's act of murder displayed piety by obeying the will of the gods, vindicating him from the sacrifice of his daughter, Clytemnestra's act of murder was a display of iniquitousness because she acquiesced to the nefarious whims of anger and malice, and that is perhaps why it is shameful. As she herself admits in lines 1035, “Oh, we women are too often ruled by our hearts, I don't deny it.” Euripides, after reading Aeschylus' trilogy may have sympathized with Clytemnestra and not seen her as the play's paragon villain. In Electra we see elements of ready forgiveness, because she is more perturbed about how her mother has treated her and her brother in the present, than she is over the crime her mother committed in the past, unlike Orestes, but Electra, in all her fickleness, still feels that justice must be done, “if bloodshed, sitting in judgment, requires bloodshed, then I and your son Orestes will kill you in vengeance for our father. If justice was in that deed, justice is also in this” (1093-4). Thus it seems that obligation of the individual to piously obey divine justice or in other words, the will of the gods, does not end violence, it perpetuates it.

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