The (Frustrated?) Regality of Electra

  • Guido Avezzù


The story of Electra, the ‘unwedded’ princess – alektros: ‘excluded from the marriage-bed (lektron)’ – is symptomatic of a sort of inversion of the dynastic schemes: she is not destined to ensure the continuation of her own or of any other dynasty, but to cherish the memory of her father. Yet, according to Pausanias (second century CE), she becomes the custodian of the sceptre that was the sign of Agamemnon’s kingship, an object that implies a complex symbolism, in the first place dynastic but also, in Sophocles’ Electra, sexual and generative. However, while the Sophoclean Electra was excluded from dynastic schemes, Aeschylus’ Choephori and Euripides’ Electra variously focused on the preservation of kingship and its transmission to the legitimate heir. In the earlier of these two tragedies Electra suggests, albeit indirectly, a vision of her role that does not fit in with the irrelevance to which she seems confined; but when we come to Euripides’ play we can actually see the failure of the dynastic expectations with which she burdens her brother. This essay will be concerned with Electra not so much as a mythical heroine but rather as a tragedic character, and will consider those elements not always in agreement with the most time-honoured conception of this character, or those that are at least considered problematic – elements which in the various ‘Oresteiai’ and particularly in Aeschylus’ and Euripides’ enable us to discern the distinguishing features of the various Electras and their expectations about the restoration of legitimate kingship.

Keywords: Electra; Orestes; kingship; Oresteia; Aeschylus’ Choephori; Sophocles’ Electra; Euripides’ Electra