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It has hitherto been generally held that the Electra of Sophocles belongs to an earlier date than its Euripidean namesake. A contrary view is however maintained by v. Wilamowitz, who further thinks that the Electra of Euripides was the stimulus which moved Sophocles to treat the subject1. Certain relations (the able critic contends) exist between the two plays which show that one of them was influenced by the other, and a closer scrutiny proves that the play of Euripides was the original. I propose to examine this view.

The first resemblance to which the critic points is between

The openings of the two plays compared.
the openings of the two dramas. In the Euripidean prologue Orestes appears and speaks (vv. 82—111). Then Electra sings a monody (112—166); and she is presently joined by the Chorus (167). In the Sophoclean prologue also Orestes appears; then there is a monody for Electra (86—120); and she is joined by the Chorus (121). Such a coincidence, it is argued, cannot be accidental. And there is internal evidence that Euripides was the model. For, with him, the appearance of Orestes at that early moment is necessary; while, with Sophocles, there is no reason why Orestes should be seen until he is ready to enter the house. Again, the Chorus of Euripides have a motive for their visit; they invite Electra to a festival. But the Sophoclean Chorus come without any special cause. Nor has Sophocles the reason of Euripides for composing his Chorus of persons external to the palace; indeed, it is hard to see how such persons could have established such intimacy with Electra, who was almost a prisoner.

In reply to this argument I wish to point out, first, that the likeness between the two openings, in the particular points just noticed, is immeasurably less striking than the general contrast. The play of Sophocles begins with a dialogue between the old man and Orestes, after which they and Pylades leave the scene. Electra then comes forth and sings her monody. Euripides opens with a speech by the farmer, who next has a dialogue with Electra. They depart. Orestes enters with Pylades, to whom he makes a speech. Presently he sees a slave, as he thinks—i.e. Electra—approaching. He and Pylades draw aside; and Electra then sings her monody. Is it not manifest that, so far, the openings are fundamentally different? But, it will be said, the Parodos, at least, is, in each play, shared between Electra and the Chorus; is not this suspicious? Even here the contrast is stronger than the likeness. The Sophoclean Parodos is a long ode of 129 verses, containing a discussion of Electra's wrongs and hopes, and of the course which she ought to pursue. The Euripidean Parodos consists of only 35 verses. The maidens briefly invite Electra, and she declines.

It seems to me, then, that the openings of the two plays entirely fail to support the critic's major premiss, viz., that one of them must have been imitated from the other. But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that such imitation could be proved. Is it true that internal evidence points to Sophocles as the imitator? His Orestes, we are told, has no reason for appearing at the house before he is prepared to enter it. In defending a dramatist on such a point, it suffices, I suppose, to show that the action is natural and probable; we are not required to prove that it is necessary. Orestes and his companions have just arrived, and have hidden the urn somewhere near the house: the time is day-break. Is it strange that they should reconnoitre the ground on which they will soon have to act, or that the old man should point out the chief features of the scene? As to the poet's motive, that is evident. His invention of the double embassy from Phocis was a novelty, and he wished to give a clue to it at the outset, since the spectator, who is thus in the secret, will enjoy the play more. Again, it is said that Sophocles bewrays his model when he composes his Chorus of persons external to the house. A desire to vary from Aeschylus would account for this as easily as a desire to copy Euripides; but why should not the poet's motive have been independent of both? The free-born women of Mycenae are exponents of the public goodwill towards the rightful heir. But how, we are asked, had they become friends of Electra? Chrysothemis and Clytaemnestra tell us, it may be answered, that Electra frequently passed beyond the doors. Lastly, it is objected that the Chorus come to Electra without a definite reason. Is there not reason enough in their purpose of consoling and counselling her,—the purpose which she gratefully acknowledges?

Thus, even if the openings of the two plays could justly be regarded as showing a debt of either to the other, still there would be no presumption that Sophocles was the debtor.

Relation of Electra to Clytaemnestra.
A further argument is, however, adduced in support of the view which we are discussing. Both Sophocles and Euripides bring Electra into controversy with Clytaemnestra. In the play of Euripides, the tenor of this controversy is such as to mitigate the odiousness of Clytaemnestra, and to emphasise the hardness of Electra. This was what Euripides meant to do. The aim of Sophocles was the opposite, to concentrate our sympathy upon Electra. But, says Prof. v. Wilamowitz, Sophocles has involuntarily given the advantage in dignity and self-command to Clytaemnestra; and this shows that he has (unskilfully) imitated Euripides. Is it true that the Clytaemnestra of Sophocles appears to more advantage than his Electra? Every reader must judge for himself; I should not have said so, nor, indeed, do I find it easy to understand how any one could receive that impression. But, even if this were granted, the inference of an imitation would still be unwarranted, since the controversies in the two plays respectively differ both in topics and in style.

Finally, let us consider the more general ground upon which

Argument from general probability.
it is argued that Sophocles was stimulated to write his Electra by the work of Euripides. The Euripidean Electra is certainly a play which Sophocles would have viewed with repugnance. He would have thought that both the divine and the human persons were degraded. The earlier scenes, with their homely realism, approximate, in fact, to the stamp of the Middle Comedy. The whole treatment is a negation of that ideal art to which Sophocles had devoted his life. It is perfectly conceivable that such a piece should have roused him to make a protest,—to show how the theme could once more be nobly treated, as Aeschylus long ago had treated it, and yet without raising the moral and religious problem of the Choephori. But is such a hypothesis more probable than the converse? Suppose that the Sophoclean Electra was the earlier of the two. Is it not equally conceivable that Euripides should have been stirred to protest against the calm condonation of matricide? Might he not have wished to show how the subject could be handled without ignoring, as Sophocles does, this aspect of the vengeance, and also without refraining from criticism on the solution propounded by Aeschylus? This, in my belief, is what Euripides actually did wish to do. But assume for a moment that the other theory is right, and that the Euripidean Electra was the earlier. Then, surely, when Euripides had just been renewing the impression left by Aeschylus,—that matricide, though enjoined by a god, brings a fearful stain,—Sophocles would have chosen a peculiarly unfortunate moment for inviting Athenians to admire the unruffled equanimity of his Orestes.

I cannot, then, see any valid reason for supposing that Euripides preceded Sophocles in treating this subject. On the other hand, the new line taken by Euripides is the more intelligible if he had before him the pieces of both the elder dramatists2.

The Electra of Sophocles is one of his later plays.

1 Hermes, vol. XVIII. pp. 214—263: Die beiden Elektren.

2 Eur. El. 883 f. (“ἥκεις γὰρ οὐκ ἀχρεῖον ἕκπλεθρον δραμὼν ἀγῶν᾽ ἐς οἴκους”) seems to glance at Soph. El. 680—763.

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (2):
    • Euripides, Electra, 883
    • Sophocles, Electra, 680
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