In This Article Euripides’ Electra

  • Introduction
  • Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides
  • Chorus and Choral Odes
  • Reception, Reperformances, and Adaptations

Classics Euripides’ Electra
by
Martin Cropp
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0260

Introduction

Euripides’ Electra was first performed in Athens, probably between 421 and 416 BCE. It is thus one of his later plays (his production career spanned the years 455–406) and has some of the features which became more prominent in his latest plays: a complicated intrigue plot, swings in emotional intensity, elements of comedy and surprise, engaging minor characters. The play dramatizes the story of Orestes’ vengeance on his cousin Aegisthus and his own mother Clytemnestra who had conspired to murder his father Agamemnon and usurp his throne. This vengeance is already celebrated in the 7th-century epic Odyssey and was dramatized in the 5th century by Aeschylus in Choephori (458 BCE, the second play of his Oresteia trilogy) and Sophocles in his Electra as well as by Euripides. This is the only case in which plays on the same subject by all three of the great Greek tragedians can still be read and performed today, and the comparisons illuminate both our understanding of each play and the history of Greek tragedy as a genre. Aeschylus treated the murder of Agamemnon and the punishment of his killers by Orestes as a matter of cosmic significance, supervised by divine powers and leading to the establishment of a system of civic justice at Athens; Electra has a relatively small part in the first half of Choephori as Orestes returns from exile and is reunited with his sister. In Sophocles’ play she is the central figure, enduring and resisting the oppression of her father’s killers until Orestes returns to rescue her from despair at his reported death and inflict a just punishment on the usurpers. The problem of Orestes’ duty to avenge his father by killing his mother is explicit in Aeschylus’s Eumenides (the third play of his trilogy) but in that play is resolved by divine fiat. In Sophocles’ play it is largely suppressed and Clytemnestra is portrayed in the same inhuman terms as Aeschylus’s murderess. Euripides’ Electra conspicuously advertises its difference from Aeschylus’s play and uses many of the same motifs as Sophocles to different effect—though whether it was he who reworked the Sophoclean motifs or Sophocles the Euripidean ones is an undecided question; either way, the contrast is striking. Euripides transposes the tragic events from the royal palace to a mundane rustic environment, eliminates the Aeschylean family curse, minimizes the element of divine guidance and the larger issues of justice, and creates a devious intrigue plot in which Aegisthus and Clytemnestra become victims to treacherous assassinations. The leading characters are recast accordingly, and the killing of Clytemnestra becomes a tragic catastrophe driven by Electra’s vengeful resentment and immediately repented by both her and her brother as they face exile and renewed separation, albeit absolved by Apollo of blood-guilt, at the end. This dramatization of the story raises challenging questions about Euripides’ attitude to the mythical traditions on which Greek tragedies were based and the religious beliefs that they embodied.

Texts and Commentaries

The current standard texts are Diggle 1981 and Donzelli 2002. Distilo 2012 provides the fullest (but not always reliable) edition with textual commentary. For commentaries in English see Denniston 1939 and Cropp 2013, and for texts with English translation Kovacs 1998 and Cropp 2013. Donzelli 1978 is virtually a commentary on the whole play in discursive form.

  • Cropp, M. J. 2013. Euripides. Electra. 2d ed. Aris and Phillips Classical Texts. Oxford: Oxbow.

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    Greek text with brief critical apparatus, facing English translation, introduction, and commentary keyed to the translation. Designed primarily for students. First published in 1988.

  • Denniston, J. D. 1939. Euripides. Electra. Oxford: Clarendon.

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    Greek text with introduction and commentary. Still important for detailed discussions of text, language, and meter. The Greek text is reproduced from Gilbert Murray’s now obsolete Oxford Classical Text of 1913 but Denniston corrects this at many points in his commentary.

  • Diggle, J. 1981. Euripidis Fabulae. Vol. 2. Oxford Classical Texts. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Greek text with brief introduction in Latin and concise critical apparatus. Part of Diggle’s authoritative edition of all the extant plays of Euripides. This volume includes Suppliant Women, Electra, Heracles, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia in Tauris, Ion.

  • Distilo, Nuala. 2012. Commento critico-testuale all’Elettra di Euripide. 2 vols. Padua, Italy: S.A.R.G.O.N. Editrice.

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    In Italian. Includes an introduction discussing the manuscript tradition, Greek text, exhaustive philological commentary (632 pages), and bibliography (700 items). The book is usefully thorough but is sometimes inaccurate and needs to be used with caution.

  • Donzelli, G. Basta. 1978. Studio sull’ Elettra di Euripide. Catania, Italy: Università di Catania.

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    In Italian. Separate chapters discuss previous interpretations of Electra, chronology, and each of the play’s major dramatic segments. Detailed attention throughout to problems of text and interpretation.

  • Donzelli, G. Basta. 2002. Euripides. Electra. Munich and Leipzig: K. G. Saur.

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    Valuable edition of the Greek text with brief introduction in Latin, bibliography, and critical apparatus. A more conservative text than Diggle’s (i.e., less inclined to alter the manuscript tradition). Bibliography lists editions since 1545 and more than four hundred textual and other studies. Apparatus identifies conjectures on the text by cross-reference to the bibliography. Reprint with minor corrections of the edition of 1995 (Stuttgart: Teubner).

  • Kovacs, David. 1998. Euripides. Suppliant Women, Electra, Heracles. Loeb Classical Library 9. Cambridge, MA, and London.

    E-mail Citation »

    Greek text with brief critical apparatus, facing English translation with occasional explanatory notes, and brief introduction. Replaces the obsolete Loeb edition of A. S. Way.

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