Study Guide

Electra Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Sophocles

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Clytemnestra's Dream

What was up with that whacky prophetic vision of the Queen's? Let's take a closer look:

They say she saw our father beside her again,
Restored to life. He then took hold of the staff
He used to carry and now Aegisthus wields,
And planted it on the hearth. This sprouted up
And grew to a leafy branch which overshadowed
The whole of Mycenae.
(418-22)

There are a couple of different ways that you can interpret this dream. The "staff" mentioned could symbolize Agamemnon's power, generally speaking. The old King might be physically gone, but the roots he once put down in Mycenae still have great influence and continue to sprout. On the other hand, the scepter could symbolize Orestes himself. Orestes, at first just a tiny harmless seedling, has grown up to be a threat of major proportions. And now he's back and overshadowing the Mycenae that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus govern. Regardless of the way in which you interpret this symbol, there's no denying that Agamemnon's presence is still felt.

The Fake Story of Orestes's Death

The audience knows that Orestes is alive and that the slave is tricking the Queen and manipulating her into believing that Orestes is dead. So why, oh why, does Sophocles give him nearly 100 lines to tell a drawn-out tale of Orestes's supposed chariot-related death?

Despite being a lie, this story itself is thrilling. Just read a few of these heart-thumping lines and you'll get caught up in the drama, we promise. Many critics have pointed out that this story is in keeping with the Homeric tradition – it reads like a passage out of the Odyssey.

The story also gives us more information about the characters who listen to it. Consider Clytemnestra's reaction. She laments the death of her son for about two seconds, and admittedly out of a sense of maternal obligation rather than out of any genuine feeling. Her primary reaction is a selfish one: now she doesn't have to worry anymore about Orestes killing her. If we were on the fence in the Electra-Clytemnestra debate, we'd probably be tipped by this scene.

The Door

It's probably no coincidence that Electra spends all of her time standing in a doorway. Physically she's straddling the palace and the outdoors; morally she's in a real pickle. Though she is staunchly committed to avenging her dad, Electra hasn't actually gone through with a murder yet. This means she's still on the threshold of moral decay – or of moral victory, depending on how you view the final vengeful act of the play.

The Apollo Statue

It can be easy to miss if you're doing a quick read through, but Apollo's statue is always on stage. Apollo never makes an appearance himself, and the gods aren't directly involved in the play – and yet, there's his statue, always hovering on the edge of the action. The point is that the gods are indirectly involved in the plot; remember that Orestes is sent to Mycenae in the first place because Apollo's oracle told him to go. In addition, Clytemnestra's dream has is probably sent by the gods, at least in her mind. The gods are somehow present all the time, and the statue serves as a constant reminder.

The Characters as Symbols

One perspective of Electra is that the play is a moral one. Sophocles is interested in the different viewpoints of a morally sticky topic: vengeance. We can see each character as a different prism through which we examine this theme. Electra is staunchly idealistic; Chrysothemis is firmly pragmatic; Orestes is resolutely determined.

The debates between the two sisters, in particular, can be seen as representative of a larger dialectic going on in the play. This moral debate is one aspect of Sophocles's Electra that makes it stand out from the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides. In fact, this kind of debate and the larger issue of morality are noticeably absent from other Greek tragedies, and lend a more modern feel to the play.

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