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The leading characteristic of the Choephori is the tre-
Supernatural agency.
mendous importance of those invisible and supernatural allies who assist the vengeance. Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Hades, the spirit of Agamemnon, are felt throughout as if they were present with the human agents. This is the significance of the prolonged scene at the tomb, which forms more than one half of the play. It is not properly a suspension of action, but rather a dramatic prelude, emphasising the greatness of the issues involved in the action to come. It brings out the heinousness of the crime which calls for retribution, the appalling nature of the divine mandate to Orestes, and the supreme need of arousing and marshalling those superhuman forces which alone can secure the victory. The human strategy, as subsequently developed, is not especially skilful. The story told to Clytaemnestra by the pretended Phocian, who mentions the death of Orestes as a bare fact casually learned from a stranger, was not well fitted to find ready credence with the astute woman whose fears had just been quickened, as the conspirators knew, by a warning dream,—even if they assumed that she had missed the meaning which her dream at once conveyed to Orestes. And that Clytaemnestra did, in fact, suspect the ‘Phocian's’ story appears from her wish that Aegisthus should bring his body-guards. But then again the old nurse of Orestes was hardly the safest person to whom a message of such critical moment could be entrusted. The gods indeed justify the maxim of Pylades; they are the worst enemies of the guilty.

From the moment when the two ‘Phocians’ enter the house,

Clytaem nestra.
the swiftness of the concentrated action is unchecked, save by that brief pause in which the tragic interest culminates,—the dialogue between Clytaemnestra and her son. She holds the same place in the retribution which she held in the crime. Her death is the climax; it is by her Erinyes that Orestes is driven forth to seek refuge with Apollo. The fate of Aegisthus is a subordinate incident1. Though Clytaemnestra's longest speech is limited to twelve lines, and her whole part to forty-six, Aeschylus has been marvellously successful in continuing that sense of horror, hard to describe or to define, which she produces in the Agamemnon. When she welcomes the strangers, there is in her language a ghastly reminiscence of another welcome which she had given beneath that roof; they will find, she tells them, ‘warm baths, a couch to give rest from toil, and the presence of just eyes’; this is a house in which travellers arriving from a long journey find—‘what is fitting2.’

The attitude of the Aeschylean Orestes is illustrated by the nature of the command which he obeys. In the play of Sophocles the oracle briefly directs that he shall take the just vengeance without the aid of an armed force. But in the Choephori he speaks of reiterated admonitions from the god, full of explicit threats as to the penalties which await him if he refuses to act. Spectral terrors shall haunt him in the night; leprous ulcers shall rise upon his flesh; his whole body shall be shrivelled and blasted with torturing disease; he shall be an outcast, under a ban cutting him off from human fellowship and from the altars of the gods. Oracles of such a tenor plainly intimate that the task prescribed was one from which even a brave man might recoil. Apollo's purpose is to make Orestes feel that disobedience is the greater of two evils. It is dreadful to shed a mother's blood, but worse to leave a father unavenged. In the Choephori Orestes is indeed resolute; not, however, because the duty before him is simple, but because the god's messages have braced him to perform it. Once—at the moment when a mother's claim to pity is presented in the most pathetic form—he does hesitate;— “Πυλάδη, τί δράσω; μητέρ᾽ αἰδεσθῶ κτανεῖν3; But Pylades reminds him of the god's word. It will presently be seen how marked is the contrast here between Aeschylus and Sophocles.

The Electra of Aeschylus appears to have no sister living. She performs the errand which Sophocles assigns to Chrysothemis, by carrying her mother's gifts to the tomb; she could not refuse, for she is virtually a slave4. Turning to the real slaves, her companions, she appeals to the common hatred which unites them5, and asks what prayer she is to make. The Sophoclean Electra would hardly have sought advice on that point; yet the question is in place here, since her action, if contrary to the queen's orders, might compromise her unhappy escort. The heroic fortitude and bold initiative of the Sophoclean Electra are qualities which Aeschylus, with his different plan, has not desired to portray; but he has done full justice to her steadfast and affectionate loyalty. And with regard to the actual mechanism of the plot, she is, in one sense, even more important with Aeschylus than with Sophocles. It rests with her alone to decide whether the young stranger is her brother, and, if she is convinced, to aid his plan within the house. The latter service is assigned by Sophocles to the old man, who could also have established the identity of Orestes, if there had been need. When the ‘recognition’ has been effected, and the prayers at the tomb are over, the Aeschylean Electra can be dismissed from the scene. Orestes directs her to go in, and watch events in the house. She does not speak after verse 509, and is not seen after verse 584; that is, she appears only in the first of the three ‘acts’ into which the play may be divided.

The part of Aegisthus is notably brief, even allowing for the

Minor persons.
indifference with which his fate is treated. He merely passes across the scene; fourteen verses are all that he has to speak. The part of the Nurse is a masterpiece in its kind. And we note the happy inspiration by which Pylades is made to break silence once—at the supreme moment—as the voice of Apollo.

Nearly a third of the play is lyric. The Chorus have their

The Chorus.
share in the action; at the outset they are the counsellors of Electra; they persuade the Nurse to help the plan; and they send Aegisthus forward to his doom. But their function is, above all, to interpret the sense of reliance upon divine aid. ‘Justice may delay, but it will come,’ is the burden of the choral song; ‘the sinner shall suffer’ (“δράσαντι παθεῖν”); ‘even now, Destiny is preparing the sword.’ And when, at the close, a dark cloud gathers over Orestes, it is with unwavering faith that the Chorus commend him to Apollo, though no human eye can pierce the gloom which rests upon the future.

The title ‘Choephori.
No one of the three Greek plays on this subject takes its name from Orestes, though his deed forms the central interest. Aeschylus calls his play the Choephori, because that title suggests the claim of the murdered father—as Eumenides expresses that of the mother slain by a son—and therefore suits the link in the trilogy. On the other hand, if the story was to be treated in a single play, the antecedents of the vengeance became especially important. Electra, the daughter who, remaining at home, had been faithful to her father's memory throughout the interval between the flight and the return of Orestes, was the character best fitted to supply the needful background. Thus far, Sophocles and Euripides had the same motive for describing their subject by her name.

The Electra of Sophocles.

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hide References (5 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (5):
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 101
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 135
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 668
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 899
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 989
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