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Lost in Transit: Political Displacement in Euripides’ Electra

Demetra Kasimis

University of Chicago

In Euripides’ Electra, the protagonist’s dislocation from and relocation to a home emphasize the ways she is differently displaced from her brother, Orestes, who is also banished from their familial oikos. Where he roams, city-less, she stays in Argos in a forced countryside marriage she likens to death, homelessness, and the condition of an “exile” (phugas). The structure of Euripides’ tragedy invites persistent comparison between the siblings’ expulsions, at times figuring their predicaments in unusually similar political language. Yet it is ultimately Electra’s situation to which Euripides trains sustained attention. The play homes in on the ways that women’s subordination in the polis requires and is sustained by dislocating them dissimilarly from men. Accordingly, critics have argued that Electra constitutes a reflection on what it means to exile a woman.

Athenian tragedy frequently depicts women as single, even wandering phugades despite the fact that women in classical Athens “were not banished in real life,” as Angeliki Tzanetou explains, “since banishment signified the deprivation of civic rights” (which men enjoyed). Scholarly efforts to reconcile this tension typically start with the presumption that the phugas connotes a historical category of political exclusion associated with men whose movement was unrestricted and polis membership full, direct, and therefore losable. When tragedy deploys a political category constituted by the exclusion of women from full membership to figure women, it does so allegorically, in other words, to make visible a dynamic of precarity, dislocation, and loss of de-privileged civic standing to which women were uniquely vulnerable as women.

Criticism on Euripides’ Electra has tended to share this habit of thought. Kirk Ormand finds that “[e]ven in exile” “the relation to the city that Electra has been denied is not a direct, political relation.”  Froma Zeitlin qualifies Electra’s phugas claim by calling her “virtually an exile.” Electra’s language appears not to establish a literal equivalency with her brother, on these accounts, so much as carve out a space for acknowledging her difference from him. If Electra deploys a political category always already gendered (male), the function of her claim is to draw attention to the sexualized division of membership.  That Euripides “genders” exile in this play is clear. The question that guides this paper is to what critical effect Electra does so. To mark Electra’s deviation from the standard meaning of exile without asking the attendant question of how her speech might be theorizing the concept anew risks closing down the transformative possibilities of Euripides’ figuration. What would it mean to take Electra’s words at face value? Might the play offer a counter-conception of the phugas tout court through an examination of women’s banishment?

Individual women in classical Greece did move—from oikos to oikos, under guardianship, and in the service of creating families through marriage. This traffic in women could go wrong, and in Electra, it does. Euripides’ play stands out not only for making Electra married but for making her ambiguously and, as Electra interprets it, infelicitously so.  Most of the characters act as if Electra’s marriage counts, and there is a sense in which this would be enough to make it so. Electra lives with (sunoikein) the farmer, after all, a practice commonly taken as evidence of marriage. What is more, Electra is included in the rituals that make up women’s civic participation but refuses to take part for the private reason that she sees herself as unmarried. I argue that Electra speaks and acts so as to emphasize the failure of her betrothal: she insinuates that a transgression of the rituals of bridal exchange has made her a phugas. In Electra, the traffic in women that functions to eliminate the possibility of a wandering woman nevertheless produces a phugas, and an immobilized one at that.  From the perspective of Electra, a liminal figure somewhere between wife and maiden, the phugas emerges not as a wanderer but as one who cannot be integrated into the categories of political kinship that are available.

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Migrants and Membership in the Greek City-States

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