Sophocles’s Electra: The First Anti-War ‘Movie’?

 

Sophocles

Sophocles

Though close to 2500 years old, SophoclesElectra remains relevant and speaks to several important social issues.  It is surprising, for instance, how pertinent the story is to issues related to war. In the face of the recent controversy surrounding his film American Sniper, Clint Eastwood has come out to suggest that the film is actually anti-war, noting the narrative depicts the ways in which war tears apart the domestic sphere (though if that were the case he likely should have spent more time in the domestic sphere and less time showing the protagonist killing people and being celebrated for it).  There is perhaps no narrative that better encapsulates war ruining the domestic sphere than the tale of Agamemnon, whose time away at war allowed for the destruction of his own family, a conflict that propels Sophocles’ Electra.  The play also speaks to the ways in which loyalties to the past shape and corrupt the future, adding an existentialist element to both the Greek tale and current military conflicts.  Sophocles, though, does more than simply speak to war, as he also addresses gender.  Whilst the famous narrative typically sees a focus placed on both Agamemnon and Orestes, two male figures at the center of the conflict, Sophocles makes Electra the title character, shifting the focus away from the masculine realm and recognizing the importance of the female perspective.  The play then, through its commentary on war, its existentialist arguments, and its focus on the female realm, is perhaps the most relevant of all his plays from a contemporary perspective and allows contemporary readers to view the work, not as an obsolete play from antiquity, but rather as a living text that continues to speak to audiences as if it were written this century.

 

WAR

 

Murder of Agamemnon, painted by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

Murder of Agamemnon, painted by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

Eastwood’s film does spend some time looking at the domestic sphere, but the devolution of the home is far more apparent in Electra.  Gone for ten years’ time (damn that Trojan war!), Agamemnon arrives home and finds something much worse than a ‘Dear John’ letter.  His wife, like the wives of many soldiers, has sought physical comforts in the arms of another, but rather than simply leaving him, she opts to murder her husband, likely because she still wants to be queen. Electra, doubtful of the purpose of war and the mild fortune gods bestow on man, questions why “the bloody god of war released [her father] from Troy/ That alien country, just for [Electra’s] mother/ And Aegisthus… To cleave his head with a murderous axe” (60).  If the purpose of going to war is to preserve the domestic sphere, then it serves as a catch-22 as it implodes the domestic sphere it is meant to protect.  Electra’s mother, Clytemnestra, defends killing her husband upon his arrival home because his war efforts caused the death of their daughter, Iphigenia, whom he sacrificed her to the gods in order that his warships received fair winds.  This is further demonstrative of the ways in which war tears the domestic sphere asunder, but is also demonstrative of the ways in which the military rationalizes the killing of children.  Just as Eastwood rationalizes the killing of children in American Sniper when protagonist Chris Kyle is congratulated on killing a child and his fellow soldier defends such killing by stating that it saved the lives of several soldiers, so to does Agamemnon defend the killing of his own daughter, believing that her death was required to win the war.  The war casts the entire family into conflict as Orestes is exiled and Electra is placed into servitude, whilst neither she nor her sister Chysothemis are permitted to accept suitors and continue the family line.  Far from protecting the domestic sphere, the Trojan war serves to tear it asunder.

 

 

Manisha Koirala, who plays Clytamnestra (re-named Diana) in a Bollywood film adaptation of the play that takes great liberties with the source material.

Manisha Koirala, who plays Clytamnestra (re-named Diana) in a Bollywood film adaptation of the play that takes great liberties with the source material.

The play also speaks to the innate hypocrisy of war.  Clytemnestra defends the murder of Agamemnon, stating that it was justice for Iphigenia.  This defense, however, offers no rationalization for Clytemnestra’s infidelity, nor does it justify why the exile of Orestes (in some narratives he was exiled, in others Clytemnestra planned to murder him before Electra had him smuggled out of Argos).  It also fails to validate why Clytemnestra has placed her daughters into servitude.  None of the children are culpable of the wrongs Agamemnon has committed, so Clytemnestra’s maltreatment of them placed her on a par with her husband.  Electra notes this when she says that if Clytemnestra were to “start inventing laws”, she should “take care [she doesn’t] invent for [her]self pain and remorse./ Because if [they] were swapping life for life, and [Clytemnestra] got what [she] deserved, [she]’d be the first to die” (75).  This observations has interesting applications when applied contemporary military actions, as America has taken military action in response to 9/11, that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in foreign, far outnumbering the less than 3000 civilians that were killed on 9/11. These civilians, like Agamemnon’s children, are not culpable of the crimes committed by others.  Punishing them for crimes they are not guilty of and rationalizing it as a response for killing one’s own civilians is problematic because when applied to America’s action, this logic calls for a far more violent response against America.  When using the actions of Clytemnestra within her own domestic sphere as an analogy for international military responses, it becomes clear that Electra’s criticism of her mother have broader implications when applied to the American military actions that follow 9/11, highlighting the overt hypocrisy of such actions.

 

EXISTENTIALISM

 

A caricature of Jean-Paul Sartre, borrowed from here.

A caricature of Jean-Paul Sartre, borrowed from here.

Though Jean-Paul Sartre would eventually bring the existentialist elements of the Electra/Orestes narrative with his play The Flies, existentialist themes are central to the play Sophocles wrote as well, notably the ways in which identity is shaped by one’s context.  Electra, for instance, asks “How… any woman of generous spirit [could] behave… given the torment that she” endured (65).  Though Electra suggests that her authentic self, or her ‘existence’, which precedes essence that is defined by exterior influences, is generous, she suggests that deterministic influences have shaped and corrupted her nature.  This is reinforced when Electra notes that “a horrible life/ Impels horrible ways” (64), before telling her mother that it is Clytemnestra’s “antagonism and behaviour [that] make [Electra] act against [her] nature” and that “Bad examples teach bad behaviour” (77).  It is outside forces that shape much of one’s personality, which speaks to the notion of one’s facticity and how people are often shaped by factors in their lives that they have no control over, such as who their parents are, when they are born, or where they are born.  Electra, then, serves as Sophocles’ mouthpiece for the deterministic arguments that sit in opposition to existentialism theory, at least in the early portion of the play.

 

 

Bollywood actress Nayatara, who portrayed Electra in the 2010 Bollywood film adaptation.

Bollywood actress Nayatara, who portrayed Electra in the 2010 Bollywood film adaptation.

If Electra is emblematic of determinism, her sister Chrysothemis and the play’s chorus  represent existential ideals, particularly arguing how Electra should define herself outside of her facticity.  The chorus sees that Electra is consumed by the grief and sorrow rooted in the death of her father, and warns her that when grief runs wild, it will destroy everything and will not “ever annul the hurt”, going on

to ask her “why [she is] so devoted to anguish” (62).  Facticity not only relates to factors one does not choose, but also to one’s past.  In letting the murder of her father and past sorrow perpetually shape her, Electra allows these factors to form her identity.  The chorus warns her that the “self-pity/ Is fueling [her] suffering” (63), leading her to ask if they are implying that “it is good to neglect the dead” (64).  Whilst Electra seems rooted to past deeds, both the chorus and Chysothemis encourage Electra to define herself on her own terms.  The chorus warns Electra that “No amount of earnestly praying/ Will raise [her] father from the marsh of Hades” (61), suggesting that the actions that are dedicated to the past can do nothing to change it and noting the futility of allowing the past to have such a strangle hold on the present.  For her part, Chrysothemis advises that Electra get “away from the life [she] live[s] at present” (69) and later argues that “Human life is not saddled by a single fortune”.  This suggests that one incident in the past should not determine one’s future.   She also states that though her life and Electra’s have “been full of awfulness” they can achieve happiness and do not have to be defined by past misery.  Both the chorus and Chrysothemis, then serve to challenging the degree to which one’s facticity should shape one’s identity.

 

FEMINIST EXISTENTIALISM

 

Chrysothemis’s argument against facticity is problematic in that it still relies on ‘fortune’ to change their state, and it is ultimately Electra that emerges as the existentialist heroine of the play.  When Chrysothemis argues that she and Electra can be happy, it is framed in terms of patriarchal determinism, meaning that they allow patriarchal figures to shape their destiny.  Chrysothemis suggests that they can be happy because she believes Orestes has arrived to avenge their father.  This places them squarely at the mercy of fortune and gives them no autonomy.  Believing that her brother is dead, though, Electra challenges her sister to join her in shaping their own future by murdering their mother and stepfather.  This stands in sharp contrast to the gender-specific belief dictated by Orestes that states “men must seize the opportune for every act” (59) by illustrating that women can also seize such opportunities.  Attitudes like those presented by Orestes are reinforced by Chysothemis, who argues that Electra can’t challenge Aegisthus because she is “a woman, not a man” (88), demonstrating how some women internalize and accept their oppression (I think we call that Stockholm syndrome).  Electra’s new-found autonomy, which stands in contrast to this, likewise shows growth in Electra as she had prior said that Orestes “would come… to avenge his father” (87), placing her future on his patriarchal shoulders instead of lifting them to her own.  Electra is firm, commanding her sister to join her and “not flinch in helping [Electra] to kill [their] father’s murderer, Aegisthus” (87).  Here, Electra is no longer waiting for fortune to shape her past, and is instead willing to take action to shape it herself and create and authentic identity.

 

A rendering of Electra and Orestes.

A rendering of Electra and Orestes.

Though Chrysothemis declines this opportunity to take hold of her autonomy, Electra makes a strong case and appeals to the existentialist notion that identity is socially constructed.  After Chrysothemis declines to help murder her mother (go figure), Electra notes that they would get support from others for their actions by asking “What citizen or foreigner will not salute [them] admiringly at sight” (88), and goes onto stat that “All should love them./ All should respect them./ All should pay them homage” (88) should they avenge their murdered father.  This appeal might be dismissed by any logician as an appeal to the majority, but in existentialist terms, it works with Sartre’s famous notion that ‘hell is other people’, as we often rely on the collective perceptions of others to validate our beliefs and actions.  Though the argument doesn’t sway Chrysothemis, it is clear that the argument used speaks to existentialist themes and relies on the ways in which identity is socially constructed.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Orestes and Electra, presented as is V. C. Andrews likely would have imagined them.

Orestes and Electra, presented as is V. C. Andrews likely would have imagined them.

In framing the Orestest/Electra narrative in an existentialist context, it is certainly Sartre’s The Flies that works best, but Sophocles’ Electra is equally effective in many respects and has the added bonus of being a play that focuses on the female perspective, rather than the more traditional male perspective.  As such, it serves to highlight feminist themes and questions the nature of patriarchal determinism.  The play also serves as a pertinent commentary on war, both by demonstrating how the domestic sphere that war is meant to protect is torn asunder by was, and also by highlighting the overt hypocrisy of war through domestic conflicts within the narrative that are analogous with current international conflicts.  With its existentialist overtones, engagement in feminist discourses, and its relevant commentary on war, Electra reads as if it were a contemporary narrative, demonstrating the timeless nature of Sophocles’ talent and vision.

 

If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow my on Twitter @LiteraryRambler, and if you would like to read more about the existentialist nature of the Orestes/Electra narrative, be sure to check out my review of The Flies and other works by Jean-Paul Sartre.

 

Quotable Quote:

Tutor: “How can I be brief where there is so much to tell.”  (79)

Electra: “there’s no success without a struggle.”  (87)

 

Words I thought I’d look up:

Monody: A Grecian ode sung by a single voice.

Pusillanimity: Cowardly.

Turbid: Disorganized or confused.

Vacillation:  Hesitancy.

Berserk: Crazy and violently wild, as it is commonly used, but it comes from the name an ancient Norse warrior who ate shrooms before going into battle and in turn fought in with a frenzied rage.

Dithering: Irresolute.

Stalwart: Loyal

 

Works Cited:

Sophocles.  Electra.  From Sophocles: The Complete Plays. Trans. Paul Roche.  New York: Signet Classic.  2001.  Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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