My paper examines flaws in legal procedure in Euripides’ Electra. By viewing the play as a parable about procedural, rather than substantive, justice I hope to resolve some of the ambiguities that have troubled previous readers of the text. Instead of asking whether Clytemnestra should be killed—a question Euripides pointedly declines to answer—it is more fruitful to consider the procedural flaws in Electra’s ‘trial’ of Clytemnestra, and the conflict between the two women’s agon and Clytemnestra’s execution. Viewed in this light, the play’s coda becomes less problematic, and more concordant with the opposition between law and feud that has underlain this narrative since the Oresteia.
This analysis owes a great deal to the rise of law-and-literature analysis in legal scholarship. In recent years, scholars have increasingly used legal systems and reasoning to approach ethical problems in literature (White 1994, Ward 1995, Posner 2009). The Orestes/Electra myth is particularly well-suited to such analysis, given the explicit role of law in Aeschylus’ Eumenides and the general connection between tragedy and legal rhetoric described by (among others) Mastronarde 2010. However, scholars such as Wohl 2010 and Nussbaum 1994 have used literature to examine law, my paper reverses this hermeneutic by considering law's power to inform literary tropes.
Many current readings of the Electra attempt to either justify or condemn Electra’s behavior, despite Euripides’ explicit moral ambiguity. When Burnett 1998 argues that Electra’s behavior is justified, or Ianov 2012 that she is an irrational murderess, I submit that they neglect a necessary element of the myth; the murder of Clytemnestra, pitting filial duty against matricide taboos, is by definition an unsolvable ethical problem. Electra’s jury splits their votes (1265-6), and Apollo himself can only offer á¼„σοφοι á¼νοπαá½¶ on the topic (1302). If the substantive issue—whether Electra should kill Clytemnestra—could actually be determined with certainty, the play would be either shockingly anti-religious (with Apollo being unable to solve a simple moral problem) or portraying human justice as inferior to divine (thus running counter to previous treatments of the myth). By contrast, upon considering procedural issues in the play—whether Electra uses the right process in determining Clytemnestra’s guilt—it becomes clear that Electra, in refusing to seek community sanction for her vengeance, is acting outside the law.
These procedural defects are clearest in the agon between Electra and Clytemnestra; this contest bears a striking similarity to the Athenian jury trial, suggesting a legal resolution to the dispute, which is then aborted by Clytemnestra’s murder. The agon begins in a notably juridical fashion, with discrete, polished speeches delivered before a large audience, before degenerating into squabbling and violence. At the moment when an audience familiar with jury service would expect to deliberate and vote, Clytemnestra is instead brutally murdered. By showing how the conflict could have been properly resolved (a jury trial, ending with execution or acquittal), Euripides demonstrates the impropriety of Electra’s vengeance and justifies her eventual punishment.
This reading has several advantages; firstly, it makes the Electra’s explicit theme of epistemic difficulty (passim, but especially 367-90) central to the play’s outcome, as Electra does not know how to evaluate the rightness of her actions. Furthermore, focusing on procedure reveals the meaning of the δÎ¯καια paradox on 1244. Clytemnestra must die, but process still matters—by relying on oracles rather than trials, Electra rejects her community’s adjudicative methods and is thus exiled from those whose laws she has ignored. This reading also accords with the themes of mythical vs. modern behavior that appear in Euripides' Orestes as well as the Eumenides. Whether or not Electra’s actions are appropriate is tangential; what matters are Electra’s antisocial methods of seeking justice, and her disregard for law’s power to subordinate violence into a larger community framework.