Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A character analysis of Clytemnestra in 'Electra' by Sophocles

Electra is a tragedy written by Sophocles that chronicles a chapter of the ongoing difficulties of the House of Agamemnon.

Years earlier, Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter to the gods when it seemed that some supernatural force was preventing the Greek fleet from advancing. The girl's grieving mother, Clytemnestra, eventually killed her husband in revenge. (Her motive was complicated by the fact that she was involved with another man, Aegisthus, who helped her commit the murder and whom she subsequently married.) Three surviving children feature in the play Electra: the boy Orestes, the girl Chrysothemis, and another girl, Electra herself.

When the play opens, Electra is grieving the death of her father Agamemnon. Electra defends the sacrifice of her sister as having been necessary and she finds fault with her mother Clytemnestra for having killed her father.

Clytemnestra first appears onstage a third of the way into the play, at which point she delivers two monologues. She has only short lines for the rest of the play.

In her first monologue, Clytemnestra criticizes Electra for having started the fight between them. She defends the righteousness of her choice to slay Agamemnon on the grounds of a mother's love. She makes the somewhat strange argument that a different man could have sacrificed her daughter or else another girl could have been chosen; she finds it particularly repellent that Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter by his own hand.

Electra asks to be permitted to share her opinion, which Clytemnestra makes a pretense of being willing to listen, saying "didst thou always address me in such a tone, thou wouldst be heard without pain." After listening to Electra's complaint, she angrily vows "thou shalt not fail to pay for this boldness, so soon as Aegisthus returns."

Clytemnestra's second monologue is a prayer to Apollo foreshadowing her own death, asking that no evil come to her. She asks to enjoy prosperity in the company of her friends and specifically with only those of her children "from whom no enmity or bitterness pursues me."

A messenger then comes to announce the accidental death of Clytemnestra's son Orestes, who had allied with Electra in opposing their mother. Clytemnestra rejoices in a muted and conflicted fashion as it seems that her prayer has already been answered. "'Tis a bitter lot," she admits, "when mine own calamities make the safety of my life." She had feared that Orestes might kill her. "A mother may be wronged," she adds contemplatively, "but she never learns to hate her child."

As it turns out, the announcement of Orestes' death is a lie. Orestes soon appears and, with his sister Electra's approval, kills his mother Clytemnestra and his stepfather Aegisthus in revenge for their murder of his father Agamemnon. The victims are not given an opportunity to speak before they are killed. Clytemnestra only manages to shriek a few words of alarm offstage before her end comes. Her conflicted character does not achieve any sort of resolution or final apology in this play.

Article originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 29, 2011.

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