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Electra’s Living Death in Sophocles’ Electra

Jonathan Fenno

The University of Mississippi

The underworld is a murky, ambiguous place about which we mortals naturally have certain doubts and fears (Plato Rep. 1.330de; cf. Dover 243–46, Mikalson 114–31). This ambiguity is repeatedly exploited in Sophocles’ Electra to present characters experiencing wide ranges of emotion and to accentuate the irony of their situation. The tragedy’s plot turns on the developing theme of the living dead, as a supposedly deceased Orestes unexpectedly returns alive, with the possible assistance of his father’s spirit (e.g., Soph. El. 51–53, 59–64, 82–85, 417–23, 453–58, 1314–17 with 1361, 1417–21, 1477–78). Individual characters, including the chorus, may express sincere beliefs or hopes about the afterlife that are inconsistent from one episode to another, or they may treat the issue as a hypothetical possibility so as to score a point in a debate or to mock a powerless adversary. Included within that larger thematic program, this paper shall argue, are two passages which allude to a potential afterlife or living death of Electra (291–92, 379–84). The general consensus of modern scholarship, including the most recent commentary, denies any such allusion beyond this lifetime (e.g., Jebb and Kells ad 291–92; Finglass ad 291, 292, 375, 378–84, 381). But that interpretation, which needlessly restricts the meaning of the Greek to a mundane level, ignores not only the immediate context and the drama's extensive network of references to potential life after death (e.g., 400, 548), but also the significance of relevant parallels elsewhere.

For the purposes of this abstract we may briefly consider the first passage, where Electra reports the “evil” and “insolent” reproaches which Clytemnestra casts against her for constantly lamenting her father’s murder: “May you perish miserably, and may the gods below never release you from your [present] lamentations” (Soph. El. 291–92, as translated by Lloyd-Jones, with necessary supplementation). Focusing on the second part of Clytemnestra’s wish, Jebb (essentially followed by Kells and Finglass) asserts that it applies only to Electra’s lifetime, not to any afterlife. But because Clytemnestra finds her daughter’s mourning excessive, she would naturally want her to stop, not to irritate her constantly with continued mourning in this life. Moreover, underworld powers are typically invoked to bring about death, not simply a miserable earthly existence (e.g., 110–17, 1391–97). The influential interpretation endorsed by Jebb effectively ignores the first wish and weakens the entire curse, since the force of “and ... never” would be stronger if applied (also) to the afterlife rather than only to Electra’s mortal life. Clytemnestra’s bipartite wish, with its brief first clause and longer second clause, expresses her exasperation in rhetorically heightened terms: may you die, and may you continue lamenting even thereafter. The orthodox interpretation is needlessly restrictive and anticlimactic.

As parallels we may compare analogous references to the postmortem status of other Sophoclean heroes. Creon directs similar sarcasm against an intransigent Antigone, whom he has sentenced to death for insisting on burying her brother. When she famously professes that she was born to share in love, not in hate, Creon retorts that she can then go down below and love her brothers there (Ant. 523–25). As she was in life, so too shall the heroine be in death. Creon’s twofold command corresponds nicely to Clytemnestra’s paired wishes. One may further compare Oedipus' otherworldly rationalization for his own impetuous blinding. When the chorus claims that he would have been better off killing himself, he explains the enduring advantage of blindness, claiming not to know how he could ever bear to look with his eyes on his father or mother, after going to Hades; nor would he desire ever to see his children (OT 1371–77)—either in this life or the next, one might add. Again, Sophocles has conjured a memorable image of the afterlife to focus on a defining and persistent feature of a major character: sorrow, love, blindness. 

Session/Panel Title:

Agency in Drama

Session/Paper Number

9.2

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