Electra (Sophocles)


Sophocles (sŏf´əklēz), c.496 BC–406 BC, Greek tragic dramatist, younger contemporary of Aeschylus and older contemporary of Euripides, b. Colonus, near Athens. A man of wealth, charm, and genius, Sophocles was given posts of responsibility in peace and in war by the Athenians. He was a general and a priest; after his death he was worshiped as a hero. At the age of 16 he led the chorus in a paean on the victory of Salamis. He won his first dramatic triumph in 468, over Aeschylus, and thenceforth wrote copiously (he composed about 123 dramas), winning first place about 20 times and never falling lower than second. A definitive innovator in the drama, he added a third actor—thereby tremendously increasing the dramatic possibilities of the medium—increased the size of the chorus, abandoned the trilogy of plays for the self-contained tragedy, and introduced scene painting. Seven complete tragedies (difficult to date), part of a satyr play, and over 1,000 fragments survive. Ajax is perhaps the earliest tragedy; three actors are used but the form is handled imperfectly. In his other plays, whether with two or three actors, the dialogue is polished and smooth. Antigone (c.441) contains extraordinarily fine characterization. The most famous of his tragedies (cited by Aristotle as a perfect example of tragedy) is Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannus (c.429), in which Greek dramatic irony reaches an apex. The plot is based on the Oedipus legend. Electra (date uncertain), the Trachiniae (date uncertain; on the death of Hercules by the blood of Nessus), and Philoctetes (409) followed. Oedipus at Colonus was written shortly before Sophocles' death and was produced in 401. A sequel to Oedipus Rex, it tells of the last days and death of Oedipus; it is a quiet, simple play of great beauty and power. There is also extant about half of a satyr play (Ichneutae or The Trackers, written perhaps c.460) on Hermes' theft of Apollo's cattle. The characters in Sophocles are governed in their fate more by their own faults than by the actions of the gods as in the tragedies of Aeschylus. Sophocles is supposed to have said that Aeschylus composed correctly without knowing it; Euripides portrayed people as they were; and he painted people as they ought to be. The translation by Richmond Lattimore and David Grene, The Complete Greek Tragedies (1959) is one of the many English translations of Sophocles.

See studies by C. H. Whitman (1951), A. J. A. Waldock (1966), R. P. Winnington-Ingram (1980), C. Segal (1981), and S. Goldhill (2012).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Electra (Sophocles): Selected full-text books and articles

Antigone; Oedipus the King; Electra By Sophocles; Edith Hall; H. D. F. Kitto Oxford University Press, 1994
A Commentary on the Plays of Sophocles By James C. Hogan Southern Illinois University Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Includes a chapter on Electra
Staging Premodern Drama: A Guide to Production Problems By Lee Mitchell Greenwood Press, 1983
Librarian’s tip: Includes "The Electra of Sophocles: A Problem of Proportion"
Sophocles and the Tragedy of Athenian Democracy By Josh Beer Praeger, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Electra"
On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy By John Jones Oxford University Press, 1962
Librarian’s tip: Includes "Sophocles's Electra: The Orestes Myth Rephrased"
Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks By Simone Weil; Elisabeth Chase Geissbuhler Beacon Press, 1958
Librarian’s tip: Includes "The Laments of Electra and the Recognition of Orestes"
Greek Tragedy on the American Stage: Ancient Drama in the Commercial Theater, 1882-1994 By Karelisa V. Hartigan Greenwood, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Includes "Greek Tragedy Comes of Age: 1915-1935"
Sophocles Revisited: Essays Presented to Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones By Hugh Lloyd-Jones; Jasper Griffin Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Includes "Sophocles' Electra in Britain"
World Drama from Aeschylus to Anouilh By Allardyce Nicoll Harcourt Brace, 1950
Librarian’s tip: Includes information on Electra in "The Glory of the Greek Theater: Sophocles"
Electra By Sophocles; Anne Carson Oxford University Press, 2001
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