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Throughout the play, there is not a hint that a son who slays his mother is liable to the Erinyes. This silence cannot be explained by the plea that Sophocles was concerned only with the vengeance itself. For, although the pursuit of Orestes by the Erinyes was not to be included in the plot, still the play shows him both when he was meditating the deed, and after he has done it. Yet he neither shrinks from it in prospect, nor feels the slightest uneasiness when it has been accomplished. From first to last, his confidence is as cheerful as the morning
Question thus raised.
sunshine in which the action commences. When he comes forth with dripping sword, this is his comment; ‘All is well in the house, if Apollo's oracle spake well.’ How could an Athenian poet of the fifth century B.C. venture thus to treat the subject before an Athenian audience, whose general sentiment would assuredly be that of the Choephori, and in the forefront of which sat priestly exponents1 of the religious view which was so signally ignored? Euripides is here, at least, at one with Aeschylus. True, Sophocles has been careful to remind us, again and again, how completely Clytaemnestra had forfeited all moral claim to a son's loyalty. The question here is, however, not moral but religious; a matter, not of conduct, but of kinship. It may also be granted that the Sophoclean oracle of Apollo differs from that in the Choephori. It is a brief command to do a righteous deed; it threatens no penalties, and so implies no reason for reluctance. Still, that does not alter the fact of the matricidal stain upon Orestes. I do not know any adequate solution of this difficulty, which seems greater than has generally been recognised: I can only suggest one consideration which may help to explain it. The Homeric colouring in the Electra is strongly marked; thus the Odyssey is followed in the version of Agamemnon's murder as perpetrated at the banquet,—there are even verbal echoes of it2; the chariot-race in the Iliad (book XXIII) has furnished several traits to the narrative of the disaster at the Pythian games3. Sophocles seems to say to his audience, ‘I give you, modified for drama, the story that Homer tells; put yourselves at the Homeric stand-point; regard the act of Orestes under the light in which the Odyssey presents it.’ The Homeric Athena declares that Orestes has won universal praise by slaying the villainous Aegisthus. The final scene of Sophocles is designed to leave a similar impression; the tyrant is exhibited in all his baseness,—insolent and heartless; he is driven in to meet his just doom; Orestes points the moral; and the Chorus welcome the retribution. Having resolved to limit his view by the epic horizon, Sophocles has executed the plan with great skill. But his plot labours under a disadvantage which no skill could quite overcome. He could not, like his Homeric original, dispense with Apollo: the Apolline thread had long ago become so essential a part of the texture that he could not get rid of it. But, the moment that Apollo is introduced, the thought of the stain upon Orestes becomes importunate, since the very purpose for which Apollo first came into the story was that of showing how the supreme arbiter of purity could defend his emissary against the claim of the Erinyes. Stesichorus and Aeschylus had deeply impressed this on the Greek mind; and it would have been hard for Athenians, familiar with the lyric and the dramatic Oresteia, to feel that the story, as told by Sophocles, reached a true conclusion. His Chorus might, indeed, close the play by describing the house of Atreus as

τῇ νῦν ὁρμῇ τελεωθέν”.

But would not many spectators have ringing in their ears the last words of the Choephori?

ποῖ δῆτα κρανεῖ, ποῖ καταλήξει μετακοιμισθὲν μένος ἄτης”;

Character of Electra.

1 The “θρόνοι” of Pentelic marble which form the lowest row of seats in the Dionysiac theatre are generally referred to the Roman age, and no view has made them older than the time of Lycurgus (c. 330 B.C.). The inscriptions upon them are unquestionably of the Roman age. We cannot appeal to them, then, as certain evidence for details of arrangement in the time of Sophocles. But they must embody, in the main, an old tradition: and they show a large representation of the Apolline cult. The priest of Dionysus Eleuthereus has (as in the fifth century B.C.) the central place of honour. The “θρόνος” on his right is inscribed “Πυθοχρήστου ἐξηγητοῦ”,—the interpreter of the sacred law, appointed by the Delphic oracle. Other seats are those “Ἀπόλλωνος Πατρῴου, Ἀπόλλωνος Λυκήου, Ἀπόλλωνος Δηλίου”. Cp. MA. üller, Lehrbuch der Griech. Bühnenalterthümer, p. 93 (1886).

2 See commentary on v. 95, and on vv. 193—196.

3 See on vv. 712, 721 f., 748.

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