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Volume 3, Number 6
February 1997

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Dale Grote,
Department of Foreign Languages,
University of North Carolina,
NC 28223,
e-mail: dagrote@unccvm.uncc.edu

Beginning at least with Aristotle's Poetics (1460a31-3), readers of Sophocles's Electra have been troubled by the Paedagogos's 'false messenger' speech at vv. 680-763. Aristotle does not specify his complaint, but it seems likely that he was protesting the anachronism of having Orestes perish in the Pythian Games, which would not be established until after the dramatic date of the story.(2) Even a scholiast could not resist needling Sophocles on this count: 'it is out of sequence, for the Pythian Games came after Orestes's time'.(3)

Not surprisingly, modern readers of the play are less disturbed by this problem than they are by having the action suspended for so long. The audience is indeed expecting a false report of some sort from the Paedagogos at this point in the play. In the opening scene of the play, Orestes laid out a rather general outline of what his tutor should say to gain passage into the palace (vv. 44-50):

Use this story: that you're a visitor from Phocis, sent here by Phanoteus. He is the greatest of their allies. Tell them -- and swear to it (4) -- that Orestes died in a fatal accident, that he fell out of his swift chariot in the Pythian Games. Let that be your story.

But nothing could have prepared the audience for the length to which this outline was elaborated. When he gives the deceptive report, the Paedagogos takes up fully 83 of the 1510 verses of the play. The lavishly depicted details of the chariot race, which include the exact line-up of the competitors at the gate and the breeds and even the colors of some of the horses, seem gratuitous at best, and extravagant bombast at worst. Even worse, the fact that an Athenian eventually wins the race looks like Sophocles is pandering to his Athenian audience -- and judges. Aside from noting Sophocles's reliance on the chariot race at Patrokles's funeral games in the Iliad at 23.287-650 (J.H. Kells, ed., Sophocles' Electra [Cambridge, 1973], ad loc. and A.S. McDevitt, 'Shame, Honour, and the Hero in Sophocles' Electra', Antichthon 17 [1983], pp. 1-12), there seems little more to say about the ∑¡sij or how it fits thematically into the Electra. I suspect the modern consensus of lay readers is that Sophocles saw and exploited an irresistible opportunity for poetic. Many critics agree -- even those who are generally well-disposed to Sophocles. Karl Reinhardt, Sophocles (New York, 1979), p. 151, called it 'little more than a virtuoso display'. G. Ronnet, Sophocle. Poete Tragique (Paris, 1969), pp. 217-8, goes so far as to call it 'un intermede, distine non aux personages, mais aux spectateurs, qui laisse a penser que Sophocle ne prend pas sa piece tout a fait serieux'.

There is no question that the ∑¡sij itself, as a false speech per se, echoes the conceptual, moral, religious problems being examined in the play of the disrupted relationship between language and reality. There is a definite movement throughout the play from the illusion of logos to the reality of úrga (the murders). The ∑¡sij, which occupies the numerical center of the play, acts a kind of thematic pivot point where speech starts giving way to deed. R. Minadeo ('Plot, Theme and Meaning in Sophocles' Electra', C&M 28 [1968-1969]), pp. 114-42) argues that the ∑¡sij is an 'unmistakable specimen of the logos motif' and 'that together [the dolos and logos in the speech] make possible the three great theatrical moments (all úrga) that follow' (p. 118).(5)

I am largely unpersuaded, however, by efforts to use the thematic relevance of the material in the ∑¡sij to account for its length. Schein (note 5) does as well as anyone at making this case. He raises three points (pp. 75-6): (1) the ode at vv. 473-515, containing a reference to the chariot race of Pelops that begins the curse, is answered and ultimately resolved by another 'treacherous' chariot race; (2) the fact that the analogue for Orestes is Pelops, who begins the curse, the way is left open for the audience to doubt that the curse has really run its course despite the play's apparent happy ending; (3) the pain which the false report inflicts on Electra compels a divided moral assessment of Orestes's deceit and provides the backdrop against which Electra's noble heroism is enhanced -- and the speech must be as long as it for its effect on Electra to be made visible. I see the two chariot races as much more vaguely and generally associated than this. And could not Orestes's analogue just as likely be Oenomaus, the one who perished in the original contest? I believe it better to think of these corresponding races as another example of Sophoclean 'lubrication', to ease one scene into the next. As to the third point, it's a plausible suggestion, but less than compelling. Sophocles's does an able job of exposing Electra's grief in her threnody after the ∑¡sij with Clytemnestra and then the Chorus, which could have stood on its own without the lengthy report.

My argument is that the ∑¡sij needs to be first locked into the theatricality of the play before we begin examining points of contact it make with other thematic issues that are being developed. Instead of looking into the Electra itself to account for the length of the ∑¡sij, we should consider the body of inherited material Sophocles had before him when his composed his play. This would have included above all Aeschylus's Libation Bearers with its flawed recognition scene. On this count, Sophocles had inherited a problem. The ∑¡sij, I believe, is the way he attempted to solve it.

I think it fair to say that the recognition scene between Orestes and Electra in The Libation Bearers is not skillfully handled. Or perhaps we should say it is not skillfully handled judged by later standards of theatrical realism. When the play opens, we see Orestes setting a lock of his hair on Agamemnon's tomb. While there, he leaves behind a footprint in the dust. Electra then arrives, and Orestes ducks out of sight. After her threnody and curse upon her enemies, Electra sees the lock of hair and the footprint. So far so good. But what follows is extremely improbable. At vv. 175-7, Electra claims that because the hair is identical to her own it must be her brother's, assuming, apparently, that siblings never have hair of different color or texture. Then, at vv. 205-11, she puts her foot into the print left behind by Orestes. Since her foot fits perfectly (!), it can only have been left by her brother. After having been thus convinced that Orestes has returned, Electra is frozen with expectation (v. 211: 'This is torment and the destruction of my mind'). Orestes's appearance follows in the next line.

We can never hope to know precisely how much artificiality or implausibility an Athenian audience would have tolerated in 462, the date of the Oresteia. But it is equally certain that standards were changing. Euripides mercilessly ridicules this scene in his own Electra (c. 418). In his version, Electra dismisses the same evidence pointed out to her by the Old Man. At v. 527, she says of the hair: 'How could a lock of his hair match mine? One would be from a nobleman trained in athletics, and the other combed and feminine?' Euripides treats the footprint even more scornfully. In his version, the print isn't from Orestes's foot, but from his boot, and on ground that would hardly allow much of an impression:

Old Man: Come and see if the print left by his boot is the same size as your foot, child.

Electra: And just how could there be an imprint of a foot in the rocky ground? And even if there is, the foot of two siblings wouldn't be the same when one is a man and the other is a woman. The man's is bigger.

It is hard to believe that Euripides's parody of Aeschylus's semeia was not intended to raise a laugh by reminding the audience of what they must have known from The Libation Bearers. (For discussion, see J.D. Denniston, Euripides' Electra [Oxford, 1939], ad loc.)

So Sophocles inherited a problem from The Libation Bearers.(6) Aeschylus's semeia of the hair and footprint probably had already assumed a widely recognized (and expected) role in the myth. Sophocles's options then would have been to parody them, improve on them, or to find a way to leave them out in a way that would not be noticeable. He chose the last way. And to increase the difference between his version and that of Aeschylus, Sophocles delays the recognition until the second half of the play. It is true that Sophocles invents a semeion of his own, the signet ring, but it plays an incidental structural role. It is really the elaboration of detail in the Paedagogos's false report which sets up the conditions necessary for the recognition between Orestes and Electra to occur. In order for this to be achieved, Electra must be convinced of the truth of his tale, which the Paedagogos does by convincing her that he was an first-hand witness to the event.

As if to underline the claim that he personally saw the events at Delphi, the Paedagogos repeatedly uses the sensual imagery of hearing and seeing as he describes the disaster: the sounds of the trumpets (v. 683), the colors and exact gate positions of the horses (vv. 701-11), the dust kicked up by their hooves (v. 714), etc. Finally, he rounds off his narrative with an almost exaggerated insistence of his most important claim: that he actually saw himself what had happened and personally felt the pathos of the disaster: 'This is what happened. Painful enough in words, but to those who of us who saw it. . . it was the worst thing I had ever seen'.

It is precisely this claim of additional authority, made plausible by the depth of detail, which persuades Electra. That this is so is made fully explicit later when Chrysothemis tries to tell her Orestes has returned. Electra says she knows Orestes is dead, for she heard about it 'from someone who was there when he died' (v. 927).

With Electra despairing after the ∑¡sij, the stage is now set for a proper recognition (vv. 1098-1325). Orestes arrives under the guise of a messenger from Phocis, bringing the funeral urn to Aegisthus. It is important to remember that Electra was to have played no part in the revenge, and the recognition between brother and sister was entirely accidental. The original plan was that Orestes be shown into the palace to deliver the urn, and once inside he would kill his mother. But as he witnesses the depth of Electra's suffering, which was pre-conditioned by the Paedagogos's tale, Orestes breaks down and reveals himself. The recognition is confirmed with a signet ring at vv. 1222-3.

In sum, Sophocles uses the lengthy, fictitious report the Paedagogos gives of Orestes's death at the Pythian games as a way to avoid Aeschylus's frail recognition scene in The Libation Bearers. As he wrote his play, Sophocles was confronted with the undesirable choice of either having to follow Aeschylus's well- known scene or to ridicule it. But he found a third way. The ∑¡sij surely does have multiple significance in the larger thematic movements in the play, as modern commentators have already pointed out. But its central, theatrical purpose is to make the recognition more plausible. By relating the minute details of the chariot race and by creating an account of the disaster such as could only have been known by an eyewitness, the Paedagogos convinces Clytemnestra and Electra that he was there when Orestes died. It is this belief that causes Electra's anguish, and which then sets the stage for the recognition to occur.


1. There is perhaps an even earlier review of the narrative in Xenophon's Oeconomicus, 7.9: 'What did you teach her first? It would be more pleasant for me to listen to you talking about this than if you were to tell me about some athletic contest or horse race'.

2. It may not have been so much the anachronism per se that troubled Aristotle as it was the way Sophocles thrust it into a central position in the drama. Aristotle recommended poets tuck the adunata and the alogon away, 'outside the story' (1460a27-33).

3. P.E. Easterling, 'Anachronism in Greek Tragedy', JHS 105 (1985), pp. 1-10, esp. p. 8, dismisses these complaints as 'learned polemic', rightly noting that it was Aristotle who first fixed the list of Pythian victors, hence establishing a reliable chronology for the games. Sophocles might not have known he was being anachronistic, nor would his audience.

4. Musgrave offers a very attractive emendation for the MSS ÷rkJ ('with an oath'). He suggests ÷rkon, so Orestes's advice to the Paedagogos becomes, 'Add some bulk', instead of the problematic 'Add an oath'. In the ∑¡sij, the Paedagogos never does swear an oath to confirm his story, but bulk is surely what he adds. (For discussion, see Kells, Sophocles' Electra, pp. 137-9.)

5. Equally, S. Schein ('Electra. A Sophoclean Problem Play', Antike und Abendland 28 [1982], pp. 69-80, esp. 75-6). C.P. Segal sees even more going on: 'The lie about the Delphic festival at the exact center of the play is a paradigm for the corrupted ritual and civic order. It reflects this society's incapacity for valid public rituals' (Tragedy and Civilization [Cambridge, MA, 1981], p. 270).

6. Naturally, depending on when he produced his Electra, Sophocles could also have been responding to Euripides's scornful mockery as well as finding a way out of Aeschylus's example. Given our current lack of evidence one way or the other, speculating about the relative dates of the plays is an enormous waste of time.

Dale Grote e-mail: dagrote@unccvm.uncc.edu

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 6 - February 1997
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606

DLA Ejournal Home | Electronic Antiquity Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search ElAnt and other ejournals