There is an undoubted spirit of skepticism in Euripides toward the mythology of his countrymen. His age regarded him as a notorious free-thinker, and it is apparent that he had little sympathy with much of the legendary material which he dramatized. He frequently showed his hostility to the current polytheism by making his characters express doubt in the wisdom and justice of the gods. He did not admire the old heroic legends and therefore often treated them with an almost modern realism.
His Electra is written in that spirit. The old heroic world is here stripped of its grandeur. Electra is married to a peasant and performs the ignoble office of a slave. She cherishes the deepest hatred against her mother and Aegisthus, bewails the disgraceful fate of her father, and prays that the exiled Orestes may return to avenge Agamemnon. The new element introduced by Euripides is the degradation and personal suffering of Electra at the hands of her mother and Aegisthus. This personal wrong done to Electra furnishes her and Orestes with an additional motive for wishing to avenge themselves upon Clytemnestra and her paramour. Aegisthus is killed in cold blood, but when Clytemnestra approaches, Orestes is seized with a feeling of horror at the thought of the crime he is about to commit. The Orestes of jEschylus also falters for a moment, but upon being reminded of the oracle of Apollo he unflinchingly strikes the blow. The Orestes of Euripides, however, doubts the wisdom of Apollo, because the god commanded him to commit a deed which is repugnant to his natural feelings and which he must regard as an impious crime.* After the murder of Clytemnestra Orestes is seized with remorse and anguish.
At the end of the drama the Dioscuri, the brothers of Clytemnestra, appear and pronounce her fate as just, though they doubt the wisdom of Phoebus in assigning the execution of the murder to Orestes.f They then declare that Orestes must leave Argos, that he is to be persecuted to madness by the avenging Furies, but that he is ultimately to be acquitted from guilt by the court of the Areopagus. Whatever may be the poetic limitations of the play, it is certain that Euripides has succeeded in humanizing the conduct of Orestes. His doubts, his inner conflicts, and his consciousness of guilt are essentially modern.
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