The Electra of Euripides has the distinction of being, perhaps, the best abused, and, one might add, not the best understood, of ancient tragedies. “A singular monument of poetical, or rather unpoetical perversity;” “the very worst of all his pieces;” are, for instance, the phrases applied to it by Schlegel. Considering that he judged it by the standards of conventional classicism, he could scarcely have arrived at any different conclusion. For it is essentially, and perhaps consciously, a protest against those standards. So, indeed, is the tragedy of The Trojan Women; but on very different lines. The Electra has none of the imaginative splendour, the vastness, the intense poetry, of that wonderful work. It is a close-knit, powerful, well-constructed play, as realistic as the tragic conventions will allow, intellectual and rebellious. Its psychology reminds one of Browning, or even of Ibsen.
To a fifth-century Greek all history came in the form of legend; and no less than three extant tragedies, Aeschylus’ Libation-Bearers (456 B.C.), Euripides’ Electra (413 B.C.), and Sophocles’ Electra (date unknown: but perhaps the latest of the three) are based on the particular piece of legend or history now before us. It narrates how the son and daughter of the murdered king, Agamemnon, slew, in due course of revenge, and by Apollo’s express command, their guilty mother and her paramour.
Homer had long since told the story, as he tells so many, simply and grandly, without moral questioning and without intensity. The atmosphere is heroic. It is all a blood-feud between chieftains, in which Orestes, after seven years, succeeds in slaying his foe Aegisthus, who had killed his father. He probably killed his mother also; but we are not directly told so. His sister may have helped him, and he may possibly have gone mad afterwards; but these painful issues are kept determinedly in the shade.