Open main menu



The beginning of this play is lost, through an injury to the single MS on which it depends. The MS only begins at "Ha, what sight is this?" which is conventionally numbered l. 10, though probably there were at least twenty or thirty lines preceding it. Curiously enough, three passages from the missing part are quoted by different ancient authors, so that a good deal of it can be supplied.

P. 15, l. 2, The meaning of this phrase was obscure even to Aeschylus' contemporaries, and is discussed in Aristophanes' Frogs 1126 ff. It seems to mean that Hermês Psychopompos (Guide of the Dead) is son of Zeus Chthonios (Zeus of the Underworld). "Saviour" and "Help in War" are other titles of Hermês.

P. 16, l. 6, Înachos: The river of Argos. So Achilles on reaching manhood cut off his long hair as a gift to the River Spercheios. Rivers in a land subject to drought were worshipped as "life-giving" or "rearers of young men" (κουροτρόφοι).

P. 17, l. 22, Chorus: The Chorus are slave women taken in war. We know no more of them. They certainly do not seem to be Trojans, and, like the Nurse later, they have the feelings of loyal old retainers towards the House, hating Aigisthos and loving the memory of Agamemnon. Throughout the play Aigisthos is represented as a usurper and a tyrant, holding his rule by fear. Cf. (ll. 885 ff., 935 ff.) the exultant tone of the two last choruses.

P. 17, l. 32, "Dread, very dread": Clytemnestra had a dangerous dream. If she had gone at once to a skilled interpreter, he might possibly have given it a favourable interpretation and thus partly averted the consequences. Instead of this she shrieked in terror. That shriek was itself an interpretation which could never be explained away. The prophets, when consulted, explained that the dream came from the anger of Agamemnon, and Clytemnestra then made the fatal mistake of sending offerings to his grave to appease his wrath. This was far too slight a thing to appease him; but it did awake him, and so enabled him to help his avengers.

P. 18, l. 61, "Who knows the great Wheel's swing," etc.: A difficult passage. It seems to mean that justice (i.e. both retribution to the sinner and reparation to the sinned-against) sometimes comes quick and clear; sometimes is long delayed, and sometimes is wrapt in night, i.e. no one can say for certain whether it comes at all.

P. 19, l. 84, Electra feels that it is a mockery, and perhaps an impiety, to pour the peace-offerings of the murderess. The Leader urges her not to hesitate, but deliberately to use the offerings as an appeal for vengeance. The thought at first appals her, but she nerves herself to it. In her prayer she deliberately tells her father the things that will most sting him into wakefulness. The passage "I lay these tokens down," seems to mean that she puts upon the grave stones or some other objects to act as a perpetual reminder and keep her prayer alive.

P. 22, l. 151, Chorus: "Let fall the tear," etc.: The grave is a barrier-stone between the dead and the living, a "turner-back of Evil as of Good"; yet not absolutely so. The prayers of his children, and the tears of their suffering, may after all get past the barriers and reach the "darkened heart" of the dead. This idea is in the essence of the play.

P. 23, ll. 165–210, Recognition scene. It was a traditional story that Electra had recognized Orestes by a lock of hair, a footprint, and a bit of weaving. Aristophanes (Clouds, 534 ff.) speaks of his comedy, "like Electra of old, recognizing its brother's tress" when it meets a spectator of true Attic taste. It would be a mistake to apply realist canons to this ancient tale. Among barefooted peoples family likenesses are apt to be chiefly traced in the feet and hair. Both Arab and Australian "trackers" are cited to this effect, as also is the Odyssey (iv. 148 ff., xix. 358, 381). See Tucker's Choëphoroe, p. lxvi. It is interesting to note that Sophocles in his Electra omits the traditional signs altogether. Euripides uses them, but uses them in a completely original way to illustrate Electra's state of mind. An old peasant tries to show the "signs" to her. She longs to believe that Orestes has come, but in fear of disappointment refuses to look at them and rejects every suggestion of comfort. See my version and note there. (P. 31 ff., ll. 508–548.)

P. 25, l. 211, "Torment of heart and blinding of the brain": Electra bows down and buries her face in her hands. When she next looks up, there is an armed man like her father standing just above her father's tomb. Note that she begins by refusing to believe. A motive which is afterwards deepened and elaborated by Euripides has been suggested by Aeschylus. See above.

P. 29, ll. 269 ff., "Oh, Loxias shall not mock," etc.: Orestes at the end of the play goes mad; before that certain of his speeches are strangely violent and incoherent. Scholars have generally supposed the text to be exceptionally corrupt, but I think it will be found that this particular tone of incoherence never comes except when there is a mention of Delphi and Apollo's command. I think, therefore, that the wildness of these speeches is intentional, and the madness of the end does not come unprepared. It will be noticed in the last scene with what psychological daring as well as subtlety Aeschylus depicts the final collapse of his hero's reason.

P. 29, l. 275, "The wild bull's way": Ought Orestes to accept a money payment to atone for his father's slaying, or, like a wild bull driven out from the herd, should he accept no peace but insist on a life for a life? The commutation of the blood-feud for a money payment was, of course, a softening of primitive manners. As such, it is elaborately provided for in various codes of early law. Yet, while it marks a social advance, at the same time it often involves a softening and weakening of the sense of duty in the individual. Orestes could probably have lived in comfort if he had been willing to accept a large blood-price from Aigisthos and say no more about it. He prefers, with all its misery and danger, the absolute fulfilment of his duty to his father. To us, and in this special case to Aeschylus, the rule of vengeance seems savage. We speak glibly of the "duty of forgiveness." But it should be remembered that we expect the police to arrest the offender and the judge to see that he is hanged. In Orestes' days men had to do justice on the wicked with their own hands, or else leave them unpunished and triumphant.

P. 29, l. 290, "That bronze horror": The meaning is not known. It may be some instrument of torture, but more likely it is something intended to make a noise, like the bell sometimes worn by lepers in the Middle Ages, to warn people of the presence of the Accursed One.

P. 30, ll. 315–510, The Invocation. This extraordinary scene is really the heart of the play and gives to the Choëphoroe a strange supernatural atmosphere which is absent from both the Electra plays. There is no invocation scene in Sophocles; there is a brief one in Euripides (Electra 671–685). It has great emotional effect but is only about 15 lines long and does not attempt to produce the cumulative impression of this scene, in which we feel human suffering and love gradually breaking through the barriers of death and earth and darkness. At the end the dead Agamemnon is awake, and Orestes hardly needs to think about the details of his dangerous plot. A power more than mortal is behind him. It will be noticed how the scene works up, like certain religious litanies, to a pitch of more and more overpowering and almost hysterical emotion: then, in the regular Greek manner, it descends again to something like calm.

P. 33, l. 380, "Ah me, that word, that word": The thought that he himself hates his mother is what pierces Orestes' heart. In his next speech also he is bewildered. Not till l. 434, "All, all dishonour," does he lose all scruple in the storm of his passion.

P. 35, ll. 428–442, "Ho, Mother; ho, thou, Mother, mine enemy!" First Electra tells of the shameful secret burial: this rouses Orestes to fury. Then the Leader tells of something worse. The murderess had mutilated the body; cut off the dead man's feet so that he could not pursue, and his hands so that he could not lay hold of her. This would make Agamemnon helpless, and so leave Orestes without hope. The unexpected abomination breaks Orestes down.—This device of terrified murderers is a piece of primitive magic. It is attributed to Clytemnestra by Sophocles (Electra 445), and to the witch Medea by Apollonius Rhodius.

P. 38, l. 471, "The House hath healing," i.e. the House itself can cure bloodshed by bloodshed, sin by vengeance.

P. 40, l. 510, "Behold, ye have made a long and yearning praise": The dead must surely now be satisfied. Even if neglected for years he has now had such a lamentation as requites him for all.

P. 40, l. 515, "What power the Daemon hath which guardeth thee": The word Daemon has no connotation of evil in classical Greek.

P. 41, l. 517, "One dead and feeling not!": Not strictly consistent perhaps with the invocation scene, but psychologically right. The dead are past feeling . . . unless something very extraordinary is done to make them feel. Then, who knows?

P. 41, l. 527, Clytemnestra's dream that she gave birth to a serpent is traditional. It is found both before Aeschylus and after. The asps of Libya and divers other serpent things were "matricides"; at birth they tore and killed their mother. See Herodotus 3, 109; Euripides' Orestes 479.

P. 43, l. 563, "An accent of Parnassian speech": It is interesting to note that there is no trace of Phocian dialect in Orestes' actual language later on. To make him talk broad Phocian would, according to convention, have made him "comic," like certain Boeotians, Spartans, and Scythians in Aristophanes. On the other hand, an oriental colour is often allowed in tragic language, especially in lyric passages, e.g. in Aeschylus' Persae.

P. 43, l. 574, The reading is doubtful. I read μ᾽ οἱ for μοι and καλεῖν for βαλεῖν.

P. 44, l. 583, "One Below": i.e. Agamemnon.

P. 44, l. 585, Chorus: The sense of this chorus is often difficult and the text apparently corrupt, especially the end. "There are many terrible things, but none so terrible as a woman's passion; for instance (602), Althaea, daughter of Thestios, who slew her son Meleâger; or (612) Skylla of Megara who betrayed her father Nîsos; or (631) the Lemnian women, who slew their husbands; and, after all (623—a stanza has been transposed) have we not an example here in Clytemnestra?"

Althaea: See Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon. When her son Meleâger was born she saw in the room the three Fates, one of whom foretold that Meleâger should die when a red brand then burning in the fire was consumed. Althaea leapt out of bed and saved the brand. Afterwards, when Meleâger fell in love with Atalanta, and in a feud on her behalf killed his mother's two brethren, she threw the brand into the fire.

Skylla: Skylla, daughter of Nîsos, King of Megara, whose life depended on a magic lock of hair. She fell in love with Minos, who was besieging Megara, and betrayed her father to him. The rings of Cretan gold were apparently a love-gift.

Lemnos: The native women of Lemnos in one night rose and killed their Greek husbands, perhaps because the men had left them for Thracian concubines, perhaps for other reasons. See Rise of the Greek Epic, Ed. 2, p. 77.

P. 47, l. 652, The time is now evening and the scene is in front of the castle of the Atreidae. In Aeschylus' time there was probably no actual change made in the stage arrangements. The back wall represented a palace front, while in the centre of the orchestra was an altar or mound which stood for Agamemnon's tomb. In the first half of the play you attended to the tomb and ignored the back scene: in the second you attended to the castle and ignored the mound.

Observe the delay before the door is opened. This increases the dramatic tension and at the same time makes us feel that the House is "beset with evil." An ordinary great house would be thrown open at the first knock.

P. 48, l. 668, The first entrance of Clytemnestra, about whom we have thought and talked so much, is immensely important. She comes unexpected, standing suddenly in the great doorway where we last saw her, with blood on her brow and an axe in her hands, standing over the dead bodies (Agamemnon 1372). Before that we had seen her in the same position, hardly less sinister, calling Cassandra to her death: "Thou, likewise, come within." (Agamemnon 1035.)

The first entrances of Clytemnestra in the two Electra plays are also striking. In Sophocles (Electra 516) she bursts in upon Electra, like a termagant, in a sudden agony of rage. In Euripides (Electra 998 ff.), when we have been led to expect a savage murderess, we meet "a sad, middle-aged woman whose first words are an apology, controlling quickly her old fires, anxious to be as little hated as possible."

P. 48, l. 674. There is an almost reckless fluency about Orestes' speech. In his bitterness he treats the news of his death as a trifle, not showing, nor expecting from others, any particular emotion about it. As a matter of fact, it gives Clytemnestra a greater shock than he expected. There is no reason to doubt the general sincerity of her words. Of course, she feared Orestes and knew he was her enemy. When it comes to a fight she is ready. At the same time, she has, as shown in the last scenes of the Agamemnon, an aching sense of disaster and friendlessness, and would like to think that, when all the rest of the House had gone under, the son she had sent away was living somewhere unhurt, and might perhaps be grateful to her. As it is, her old enemy, the Curse of the House, has beaten her.

P. 51, ll. 731–782. This poignant and vivid scene of the old nurse, ludicrous in her tears, is a striking departure from the stately conventions of Greek tragedy. Neither Sophocles nor Euripides has left any scene like it. Herakles in the Alcestis is pro-Satyric. The panic-stricken Phrygian slave in the Orestes (Orestes 1369–1530) is grotesque, but grotesquely horrible. In actual language the nurse's diction is on the whole tragic in colour and her metre correct: the grammar is rather loose and exclamatory. The name "Kilissa" (Cilician woman) suggests a slave.

P. 53, ll. 783–837. Again the sense is difficult and the text extremely uncertain. The chorus pray in the name of their innocence and Agamemnon's long service to Zeus for pity; to the Gods of the Possessions of the House (Latin "penates," sometimes grouped together as Zeus Ktêsios) to help in the cleansing and rebuilding of the House (l. 800); to Apollo of the Cavern of Delphi, the God of Light, to help the House to light out of darkness (l. 812); to Hermês, the God of craft and secrecy, to help in a plot for the right (l. 819). The battle will be a battle of liberation from tyrants.

P. 56, l. 827. Orestes should think of his duty to his father and forget all else. As Perseus when killing the Gorgon turned his eyes away lest her face should freeze him to stone, so let Orestes, when he meets his mother, veil his eyes and smite.

P. 56, l. 838, Aigisthos: Just as they mention "him who sowed the seed of wrong," he enters. In a short but vivid scene we may perhaps see the man's harshness and confidence, but the truth is that in Aeschylus we are told almost nothing about Aigisthos except that Clytemnestra loved him.

P. 57, ll. 855–874. The usual rather low-toned, prayerlike song broken in upon by the death-cry. (Cf. Agamemnon 1342, Euripides' Electra 1163, etc.) The Chorus naturally shrink away from the house in order not to be involved in imminent danger. This also has the advantage that it leaves the scene empty, and the slave who rushes out in terror crying for help finds no one. I receive the impression that the scene is meant to be dark, which would imply that at the end of the play Orestes stood between men holding torches. There is wonderful power in this scene. There are no men to help; no women even; all the world is dumb and asleep. Then suddenly there is Clytemnestra.

P. 59, l. 886, "The dead are risen": A deliberately riddling line, in the Greek meaning either: "I tell thee the dead are slaying the living man," or "I tell thee the living man is slaying the dead."

P. 59, l. 893, "Aigisthos, my beloved": Up to this moment she has been ready to fight. The death of her beloved unstrings her. One would like to know whether Aeschylus meant her actually to have the axe and drop it, or whether Orestes is intended to come too soon. Note with what intensity even when the fight has gone out of her she fences for her life. Every line of the scene is charged with meaning and feeling. The thing that breaks her is the sudden realization (928) that this is the serpent of her dream. An interesting piece of technique which I have not tried to represent is here found in the original. Orestes' words in 927 are so arranged as to produce almost exactly the word "hisses" (σοὐρίζει for ὁρίζει = συρίζει).

P. 61, ll. 920, "A woman starves": This is her first argument in Agamemnon 862 ff.: "That any woman thus should sit alone," etc.

P. 62, ll. 935–972 Chorus: A short song of exultation. Justice has come both to Troy and to Argos. Hermês, the God of Guile, has done it, but Justice held his hand and he only did her will. We have had several times already the scruples of Orestes' conscience, but this is the first doubt expressed by the Chorus as to the righteousness of the mother-murder. "Is the power of God hemmed in so strangely to work with wrong?" All doubts, however, are swallowed up in joy at the liberation of Argos and the downfall of the tyrants.

P. 65, l. 973–end. This marvellous scene scarcely needs comment. The showing of the robe in which Agamemnon was slain is, perhaps, imitated in the Forum Scene of Julius Caesar, which came to Shakespeare direct from Plutarch's Lives (Brutus ch. 20, Anthony ch. 14). But the main interest here is in something quite different. The madness of which we have seen the approaching shadow now closes in upon Orestes. The first definite sign of it comes at l. 996, where, as Conington followed by Dr. Verrall pointed out, he tries to find a name to describe his mother. As he gropes for the word, the great crimson robe with the stains of blood obsesses his mind and he calls her "a winding-sheet, a snare, a net," and so on. (So Cassandra in Agamemnon 114 calls her "a net and a snare.") We may notice that "dead without a child" (1006) is a more awful curse in Greek than in English. He appears at this point to sink into speechlessness, only to rouse himself more fiercely at l. 1010: "Did she the deed or no?" The few low-toned lines of music by the Chorus add a great beauty to the scene.

P. 67, l. 1043. Orestes' last sentence is unfinished; as he was evidently going to leave behind him some word of bad omen, the Leader of the Chorus interrupts with words of comfort. As she mentions the "two serpents' heads" (1048) there is a cry of horror, and the "armed slayer" is seen appealing to the slave women to protect him. He has seen the shapes with snaky hair beginning to crowd upon him. The last touch of tragedy is in 1061 when he realizes that he is alone in his suffering ("You cannot see them; I alone can see") and knows that he "shall never rest again."

P. 69, ll. 1065–1076. The last chorus states with a clarity unusual in Aeschylus and more characteristic of Euripides, the exact problem of the Trilogy. First came the sin of Atreus against the children of Thyestes—though that too was an act of revenge; second, the punishment of that by Thyestes' son Aigisthos when he and Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon; thirdly, the punishment of that second crime at Apollo's bidding by Orestes. Is Orestes the Third Saviour, or is his act only another link in the interminable chain of crime? If the Curse is now brought to sleep, is that because the House is really purified or because there is nothing left for the Curse to work upon? For the "Third Saviour," see my Four Stages of Greek Religion, p. 46 ff. "First comes this year with its pride and its pollution, then the winter that kills it, then the clean spring. First comes the crime, then the punishment, which is only another crime, then perhaps the redemption." Whether Orestes is a saviour or a final caster-down of the race is determined in the next play, the Eumenides.


Printed in Great Britain by