Truth, Justice, and the Greek Way

In Sophocles’ Electra the driving force behind the plot is the notion of achieving justice outside of a formal justice system. The play shows how seeking justice can quickly turn into plotting revenge. Without any formal authority, cycles of violence quickly develop as tit for tat justice is played out among rival factions. The thin line between justice and vengeance is one that the characters in “Electra” tread. Despite all of the horrible deeds that transpire in the plot, all of the characters feel that they are in the moral right. This leads to the question of how justice is best served, and who has the right to determine what that justice is. As a modern audience we must ask ourselves if the outcome of the play conforms to what we would consider a fair system of justice. The culminating event in the plot of the play is a brutal home invasion that leads to a double homicide. If we saw an event like this played out on the news we would be aghast at the barbarity of such a vile act, but in the context of the play we are meant to view this as a triumph for Electra and Orestes. The chorus joyously sings out, “O seed of Atreus: you suffered and broke free, you took aim and struck; you have won your way through to the finish” (2004-2008). If we are to believe that this is a joyful event then we have to reconcile this with a set of circumstances that allows us to change our view from the one we held in the news story situation. The facts we have to work with in this case come in the form of the information we receive in the play. Electra and Orestes clearly feel that they are justified in the murders of their mother and Aegisthus. The siblings believe that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus should be killed to avenge the death of their father, Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s death came as a result of domestic violence involving an axe, another crime we would label as heinous if we had read about it in the newspaper. If this information was all we had to work with then we might be forced to concede that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus were deserving of punishment, but there are other facts to consider. When Electra confronts her mother in front of their home, Clytemnestra tries to defend her actions against Agamemnon. Clytemnestra blames Agamemnon for the death of their third daughter, and rightly so. “For this father of yours, this one you bewail, this unique Greek, had the heart to sacrifice your own sister to the gods” (707-710). Agamemnon did sacrifice his own daughter to save his fleet. Clytemnestra saw justice in Agamemnon’s death just as Electra and Orestes had later seen justice in Clytemnestra’s death. “Your father got his death from me. From me! That’s right! I make no denial. It was Justice who took him, not I alone” (703-705). Clytemnestra clearly has a point. If Electra is willing to kill Clytemnestra over a father’s death then why shouldn’t Clytemnestra be willing to kill Agamemnon over a daughter’s death? Or for that matter, why shouldn’t Aegisthus’ relatives feel justified if they wish to kill Orestes for his crimes? These shades of gray offered up in the play further the contention that revenge v. justice constitutes the key theme in the work. As illustrated by Sophocles’ play, it is readily apparent that attempts to achieve justice without any formal guidelines or laws quickly degenerate into a self-sustaining cycle of death. If everyone who lost a family member to murder went out and perpetrated the same crime against the killer then soon no one would be left. This eye for an eye mentality is clearly what Orestes takes for justice when he says, “You shall not die on your own terms. I will make it bitter for you. And let such judgment fall on any who wish to break the law: kill them! The evil were less” (1998-2003). In Ancient Greece there was no formal system of law set up to deal with this type of situation until long after the death of Agamemnon. In its absence the characters in the play depend on the same thing people in Ancient Greece did — namely, the Gods. The Gods play an important role in Electra. Even though they never come on-stage as actual characters there are numerous occasions of them being invoked by one of the on-stage characters. Electra prays every day to the Gods, begging for Orestes’ arrival and the revenge that will follow. “I pray the great god of Olympus give them pain on pain to pay for this!” (280-283). Clytemnestra gives offerings to the Gods after her disturbing nightmare about Agamemnon. “I will offer prayers to this our king and loosen the fears that hold me now. Do you hear me Apollo? I call you my champion!” (857-860). The chorus even advises Electra not to waste her life trying to obtain revenge against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus because the Gods will seek Agamemnon’s revenge when they see fit. “Zeus is still great in heaven, he watches and governs all things. Leave this anger to Zeus: it burns too high in you” (234-236). The characters see the Gods as judge and jury rolled into one. If you accept the Gods as the final arbiters of what is right and just then in some ways Electra and Orestes would be right in killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. When Agamemnon killed his daughter he did it as a sacrifice to Artemis, who was displeased with him over the death of a deer that was near to her. It was Artemis’ will that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter, so what he did was just. He did not murder his daughter, he offered her up to the Gods. If this logic is accepted as fact then Clytemnestra had no justification for killing Agamemnon because he had done nothing wrong, at least in the eyes of the Gods. This unjust killing would then give justification to Electra and Orestes when they carried out their murder plots. The justice system that is touted in the play is this justice of the Gods, which leads to the play’s conclusion that what has transpired is cause for celebration. While this conclusion may have worked for the audience Sophocles was writing for, it does not ring as true for audiences now. Modern society would agree with Clytemnestra’s point of view about the sacrifice of her daughter, but it definitely would not respond in the same way. Modern society would also find merit in Electra’s claims against her mother, but again, it is hard to accept the actions she took to correct her mother’s misdeeds. The idea and meaning of justice have arguably evolved beyond the standards any of the play’s characters hold. To a modern audience this is not a celebratory tale, but a cautionary one about the difference between justice and revenge. The lesson we learn from this play is not the same one audiences in Sophocles era did. Works CitedSophocles. Electra.Trans. Anne Carson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.