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Objects, Emotions, Words: Orestes and the Empty Urn

Joshua Billings

The urn in Sophocles’ Electra may be the most affectively fraught object in Greek tragedy, but it is also presents an epistemological question: what truth can objects convey? Electra’s lament over the urn that she believes to contain the ashes of her dead brother – but the audience knows to be empty – confronts viewers, onstage and off, with a troubling conjunction of genuine emotion and acknowledged falsehood. The question of how to relate to such pathos is embodied onstage in the figure of Orestes, who, after planning the trick of the empty urn, finds his own emotions painfully drawn into the scene. The paper considers Orestes’ changing relation to the urn as a reflection on the affective and religious efficacy of objects, and connects this to late fifth-century discussions of rhetoric and epistemology.

Orestes’ planning of and response to the trick suggest a problematic relation of words, objects, and emotions. On one hand, words can appear infinitely manipulable, with a limited, and fleeting efficacy; on the other, words can not only cause (and prevent) suffering, but, by investing objects with meaning, can cross into the realm of action and taboo. These two attitudes can be paralleled in Gorgias’ On Not Being and Encomium of Helen. Gorgias’ writings show both possiblities of the play’s attitude to language and meaning: a denial of the epistemological value of language in On Not Being, and a celebration of the power of speech to act on the emotions as a drug (φάρμακον) in the Encomium. In the former, words appear useless for the transmission of knowledge, while in the latter they appear magically powerful for arousing emotion. The urn, as an object invested with meaning through Orestes’ story, reflects both the epistemological emptiness of language and the affective plenitude it can create.

Against this backdrop, the reading of the Electra proceeds in three steps: first, it considers Orestes’ presentation of the trick (lines 59-66) as a denial of the efficacy of language, which establishes a problematic relation of truth and falsehood in the play.  Second, it shows that Electra’s lament (1126-70) and Orestes’ response reestablishes the efficacy of words in the play by way of emotion, and traces this power to the presence of the urn as a physical correlative of the falsehood. Finally, it argues that Orestes’ confrontation with Electra over control of the urn (1205-19), demonstrates the danger that objects can cross over from manipulable tools to religiously significant entities, and lead to linguistic taboo (εὔφημα φώνει, 1211). The power of the urn within the story stems from its simultaneous presence as a bearer of contingent linguistic meaning and an agent of meaning and affect in its own right. This reflects in turn on an epistemological ambiguity of objects within dramatic representation: props are unique within the stage world in both representing and being the objects they “portray.” Props create a unique crossing of the planes of truth and illusion within Greek drama, and so have the potential – as Electra’s urn does – to confuse reality and representation, truth and falsehood.

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Objects and Affect: The Materialities of Greek Drama

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