Academic journal article Helios

Dominance and Submission, Rhetoric and Sincerity: Insights from a Production of Sophocles' Electra

Academic journal article Helios

Dominance and Submission, Rhetoric and Sincerity: Insights from a Production of Sophocles' Electra

Article excerpt

There is a mainstream consensus about Sophocles' Electra. Most interpreters believe that Sophocles expected his audience to approve of the "heroic constancy" of Electra, and to be gratified by the triumph of Orestes and Electra. (1) Jebb wrote of "a deed of unalloyed merit, which brings the troubles of the house to an end," while more recent commentators have elaborated on this reading. Bowra wrote that " ... a new light shines for men. Justice and order are restored, and even in the welter of vengeance and hatred rises a new force of love." (2) This reading is not simply a product of the pro-liberationist stance that was often adopted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; Gardiner and March have aggressively revived it in recent years. (3) The reading seems to me to be quite impossible, however, in the light of what actually happens in the tragedy, especially in the finale; it also interprets Electra without any reference to its cultural context. Sheppard (1918, 1927) and Kells pioneered an a lternative interpretation, which I outline in what follows. (4)

In the late fifth century, a new and disturbing variant on traditional Greek values emerged. Greek ideals of excellence had always given priority to the agathos himself and his oikos. Very few Athenians saw anything wrong with the desire to increase one's possessions at the expense of others, and in the late fifth century ordinary men would still define arete as the ability to succeed in helping your philoi and harming your enemies. (5) In our sources for this period, however, we repeatedly encounter ruthlessly amoral men who went considerably beyond this. They believed that "might is right" and that absolutely any course of action is to be commended, provided that it succeeds in achieving your aim. What is expedient is good.

There was also an increased feeling, as the Peloponnesian war developed, that sudden change could happen at any time, and there was little point in believing in gods or oracles. (6) To many, Tyche--the daimon of fortune, of pure blind chance--seemed to rule the world. (7) With both human and divine sanctions in question, it was unclear whether there was any external basis for morality. "What action is wrong, if it does not seem so to those who do it?" said Macareus in Euripides' Aeolus, in justifying consensual sex with his sister Canace. (8) Many claimed that there was no such thing as moral responsibility. Love, for example, is an overwhelming force, which cannot be resisted, and therefore absolves those under its influence from blame for their actions. (9)

These trends caused concern to every major writer of the period, whether their medium was tragedy, comedy, history, or philosophy. Thucydides singled out the discussions at Athens on how to deal with the revolt of Mytilene, and the abortive negotiations before the sack of Melos, composing their essence into remarkable set-piece debates that expose, with chilling objectivity, the ruthlessness of Athenian Realpolitik. Plato in two separate dialogues recreated debates in which Socrates attempted (with only partial success) to tackle head-on two unrepentant exponents of the doctrines that "might is right" and "justice is [effectively only] the interest of the stronger." [10] Aristophanes repeatedly pilloried the new amorality, in particular through the portrait of Cleon as Paphlagonian in Knights, the victory of the Unjust Argument in Clouds, and the character of Philocleon ("Cleonlover") in Wasps.

Euripides was fiercely critical of the new, expedient amorality. The brutal speech and behavior of Menelaus in Andromache (11) may primarily be a reflection of Spartan crimes against humanity in the early years of the Peloponnesian War, but the sentiments he utters were also beginning to be heard at Athens. The total self-interest and hypocrisy displayed by Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Polymestor in Hecuba (c. 425) are matched in the shocking conclusion by Hecabe's own revenge. …

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