Tensions of duty fill the dramas of Sophocles. Honoring the dead comes into conflict with king’s command. Personal justice comes into conflict with the needs of the larger society. The commands of the gods come into conflict with tradition. As Electra begins, the title character, daughter of the slain Argive warrior Agamemnon, grieves that her father’s killers go unpunished. Her view, though, directly opposes that of the king, who happens to be her stepfather and one of the murderers. Life has gone on for years, so what’s the right thing to do? Maintain the status quo or upset material tranquility in order to settle an old score? Tensions for Electra. Tensions for us.
Queen Clytemnestra simplifies the problem by waving aside her guilt with a Podsnappian flourish. She imposes duty only on others and simply enjoys her pleasant life. When she hears the rumor that her son is killed, she frankly expresses relief that all this business about revenge can be over now. But Electra does no better merely cutting off the other horn of the dilemma. Dismissing pleasure and makes vengeance and filial duty absolute. Are we seriously supposed to identify and sympathize with a girl who mourns every minute of every day for years?
Electra’s sister Chrysothemis just tries to balance everything, running from issue to issue like a plate spinner. When she sees her sister mourning, she tells Electra that life can go on after so many years. On the other hand, when she herself hears that her brother has died, she mourns. But when she sees Electra mourning Orestes, she reminds her that we all have to die sometime. She understands justice at the moment someone explains it to her, but she also understands that the king’s gifts to her are quite nice. Chrysothemis doesn’t feel torn at all, but not because she has found a solution; she doesn’t even rise to the level of the conflict.
To my mind, the only character who resolves any tension is Orestes (who isn’t really dead after all). If no one punishes any murderer, the wicked will run free and justice will never be served. But if someone just keeps killing every person who kills someone else, the cycle of vengeance will go on forever. Orestes, though, has divine instruction: the oracle of Apollo has told him to make return home libations and effect justice. And as if the decree of god weren’t enough, Orestes invokes the name of the law at the end of the play. In Sophocles’ world, one person cannot rightly decide on his own to act against the law; divine decree sanctions law, and only divine decree (not even royal decree) can supersede law. We can, and should, make one more step back and ask how humankind can know the divine decree (placing human reason to an extent over our knowledge of God’s will, not over God’s will itself). But everybody in the mythological world Sophocles presents accepts the word of the oracle, so it forms the basis of the only possible way out of the moral dilemmas Sophocles loves to explore.