As a small child, I told my mom one year that I thought, since it would be hard to make a delivery at every home in the country in a single night, there must be one Santa for each state. (I had a magnetic puzzle of the United States. I guess I didn’t know about other countries. In my defense, I was only about four.) I wasn’t ready to disbelieve in Santa Claus; I just needed to fit him into the universe I knew to be true. I sometimes read that Euripides didn’t believe in the gods. But they sure show up in his dramas a lot, and I wonder if he faced a crisis like mine with Santa: he wanted to believe, but the stories about these all-too-fallible masters of Olympus just didn’t make sense.
After finishing Sophocles’ Electra at the beginning of this month, I then read Euripides’ version of the story. He covers the same ground: Orestes comes back after many years of exile to find his sister Electra and to avenge his father’s murder by his mother and her now husband, the usurper-king Aegisthus. Euripides introduces four big differences in the plot, though. First, Electra has a husband in this version. Her mother and step-father have allowed her to marry a peasant so that any children she has won’t be accepted as heir to the throne of Mycenae. She still mourns her father for twenty years, but Euripides lets her have some calm, tender moments with her spouse rather than letting us imagine that she never says a word about anything other than unpaid justice throughout all the days of her life. Second, Euripides makes Aegisthus a continually horrible man, frequently desecrating the grave of his victim, Agamemnon, and taunting the absent Orestes for not having the courage to come and wreak his vengeance. Third, a result of the second difference, the people in Euripides’ Mycenae aren’t happy with Aegisthus as king. They enjoy no happy status quo here, as they do in Sophocles, and have no reason to resent Orestes’ arrival. In fact, when he does show up and kills Aegisthus, the people crown him on the spot. And the fourth difference: in this version Electra is willing to kill her mother (although she only helps Orestes hold the sword in the end), while in Sophocles’ telling, she is “only a woman” and must wait for Orestes to do all the hard work.
All these changes support a running theme in the play: character, not wealth, determines a person’s worth. “Learn to judge men by their converse, and by habits decide who are noble,” says Orestes. And Electra says to the corpse of Aegisthus, “Herein lay thy grievous error, due to ignorance; thou thoughtest thyself some one, relying on thy wealth, but this is naught save to stay with us a space. ‘Tis nature that stands fast, not wealth.” Aegisthus thinks that marrying a rich king’s widow and pairing his step-daughter with a poor peasant will assure his ascendancy, but his evil deeds lose him all the popular support a good man might have enjoyed. Electra, on the other hand, may be poor, but the scenes with her husband show her to have some social graces, and her assistance in the final bloody deed exhibits her courage.
But then there’s a twist! Clytemnestra’s brothers, the recently deified Castor and Pollux (aka Polydeuces) show up at the end to judge the act of matricide. I said in the last post that Sophocles makes assumptions about the divine oracle that we could doubt. Well, Euripides raises that very critique. Orestes hesitates before killing his mother. He says here (for the first time in this play – Sophocles makes it clear from the beginning) that Apollo’s oracle has told him to deliver justice, and he has no trouble following the command where Aegisthus is concerned. But ending the life of the woman who gave you yours isn’t just an execution of justice, and perhaps, Orestes says just before entering his home to do the deed, he heard a demon speaking for Apollo. Critique Stage One. But after the blood is spilled, his divine uncles tell him that Apollo himself is to blame: god though he may be, he made a bad call. Critique Stage Two. In this play, the standard of right and wrong is greater even than the gods.
Christians can – and some do – claim that we can get nothing out of a story based on a false religion. But, as C. S. Lewis points out several places, a false religion isn’t necessarily false in every detail. I, too, believe in right and wrong. I, like Orestes, live in a life of moral dilemmas. I have words from God, but I often need additional wisdom to put them into action in specific circumstances. I’m grateful that the theological dilemma of the play’s end (if god is greater than goodness, then goodness is arbitrary, but if goodness is absolute and above god, then god isn’t supreme and doesn’t get a capital letter) finds resolution in the existence of one God Who is the Standard of Goodness. But still I learn from Euripides and his troubled characters. As the chorus sings: “Tales of horror have their use in making men regard the gods” – or God.