Somewhat surprisingly, Sophocles, although by his time Electra and Clytemnestra had become leading figures in the story and the mother-murder its essential climax, preserves a very similar atmosphere. His tragedy is enthusiastically praised by Schlegel for “the celestial purity, the fresh breath of life and youth, that is diffused over so dreadful a subject.” “Everything dark and ominous is avoided. Orestes enjoys the fulness of health and strength. He is beset neither with doubts nor stings of conscience.” Especially laudable is the “austerity” with which Aegisthus is driven into the house to receive, according to Schlegel, a specially ignominious death!
This combination of matricide and good spirits, however satisfactory to the determined classicist, will probably strike most intelligent readers as a little curious, and even, if one may use the word at all in connection with so powerful a play, undramatic. It becomes intelligible as soon as we observe that Sophocles was deliberately seeking what he regarded as an archaic or “Homeric” style (cf. Jebb, Introd. p. xli.); and this archaism, in its turn, seems to me best explained as a conscious reaction against Euripides’ searching and unconventional treatment of the same subject (cf. Wilamowitz in Hermes, xviii. pp. 214 ff.). In the result Sophocles is not only more “classical” than Euripides; he is more primitive by far than Aeschylus.
For Aeschylus, though steeped in the glory of the world of legend, would not lightly accept its judgment upon religious and moral questions, and above all would not, in that region, play at make-believe. He would not elude the horror of this story by simply not mentioning it, like Homer, or by pretending that an evil act was a good one, like Sophocles. He faces the horror; realises it; and tries to surmount it on the sweep of a great wave of religious emotion. The mother-murder, even if done by a god’s command, is a sin; a sin to be expiated by unfathomable suffering. Yet, since the god cannot have commanded evil, it is a duty also. It is a sin that must be committed.