BMCR 2006.04.09

Sophocles: Electra

, Sophocles : Electra. Duckworth companions to Greek and Roman tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2005. 160 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0715632809 £11.99.

Lloyd’s volume on Electra is the third Sophoclean tragedy to appear in the Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman tragedy series.1 The aim of the series is to provide accessible introductions to ancient tragedies. This accessibility is expected to have two main characteristics: (i) to discuss the main themes of the play and the central developments in modern criticism, and (ii) to address the play’s historical context and the history of its performance and adaptation. Lloyd has done an absolutely excellent job in delivering on that brief.2

The volume has seven chapters. The first is an introductory chapter and outlines some general aspects of Greek tragedy and Sophocles’ life. The second chapter examines earlier versions of the myth which inspired this particular tragedy. The third, and longest chapter, is a narrative discussion of the play’s action. Chapters four to six consider specific thematic and dramatic aspects of Electra. The seventh and final chapter considers the adaptation of the tragedy by subsequent artists from antiquity to twentieth century A.D. Given the nature of this volume, there is nothing particularly contentious in it and, therefore, this review will be mainly descriptive. The volume is informative, directs itself to its intended readership, and does so without a patronising attitude. Lloyd has produced a book which will satisfy a general readership and be a very useful learning tool at university. A reader with no knowledge about Greek tragedy is well served by this book, even with its particular focus on Sophocles’ Electra, and undergraduate students have a clear and concise introduction to the play which will enhance their study.3

Chapter one, ‘Sophocles and his Theatre’, discusses, for the greater part, general aspects of Greek tragedy and Sophocles’ life. It initially considers the context of the Great Dionysia. This is followed by a discussion of the some technical aspects of tragedy and its Athenian context. Then there is a discussion of some biographical aspects of Sophocles’ life, where Lloyd rightly warns against reading the tone of Sophoclean tragedy in light of the ancient anecdotes about his amiable personality (pp. 15-6). The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the likely date of Electra, which Lloyd thinks was produced after Euripides’ version.

In the second chapter, ‘The Story before Sophocles’, Lloyd considers the literary and icongraphic evidence for the myth which inspired the Sophoclean tragedy. The literary evidence is examined, unsurprisingly, in chronological order, with a discussion of the iconographic evidence separating the analysis of early literature from that of other tragic treatments.

The third chapter, ‘The Action of the Play’, is a narrative of each section of the play. Lloyd uses the Aristotlean division of the play, based on the sequence of speech and song, supplemented with Taplin’s emphasis on actors’ exits and entrances, to determine the number of sections, or acts as such, in the play.4 The brief discussion of this feature of Greek tragedy typifies Lloyd’s approach throughout the book. In the space of a page and a half, he provides a succinct discussion of the issues involved in our understanding of the arrangement of the action in an ancient Greek tragedy. Thereafter, he describes each of the eleven sections he identifies in the play. The narrative is a fine examination of the play. It is a sympathetic treatment of the dramatic and intertextual significances in each section. It also includes references to the formal elements in Greek tragedy, which help to build up a picture of how Greek tragedy works in general; but Lloyd also shows how Sophocles used these elements in this tragedy to create a powerful drama.

The fourth chapter, Stagecraft, discusses a handful of performance-related issues. The earlier chapters do not neglect a treatment of stagecraft, but it was a good idea to elaborate on this important aspect of Sophoclean dramaturgy. It was certainly a good idea to separate these out from the narrative of the play’s action, where such a discussion could have been a distraction. However, I thought that this chapter wasn’t entirely successful and was left with a sense of an opportunity lost. The chapter offered a chance to discuss the stagecraft of Sophocles in the context of his other surviving plays, but, more often than not, the various elements were treated in their own right.5 For example, Lloyd considers the dramatic use of the urn in play alone, but he might have considered it in reference to other notable props in Sophoclean tragedy such as the bow of Heracles in Philoctetes and the sword of Hector in Ajax.

In the fifth chapter, ‘Electra’, Lloyd examines how Sophocles presents the character of play’s eponymous heroine. After a brief note on the concept of the ‘Sophoclean hero’, four of the play’s scenes are discussed in order they appear in the play: Electra’s lamentation, the first scene with Chrysothemis, the agon with Clytemnestra, and the second scene with Chrysothemis. There is also an illuminating look at the revenge in the context of contemporary Athenian ethical values and gender perceptions. About the complexity of Electra’s character Lloyd notes, towards the end of the chapter, that “Sophocles’ heroes invariably repel too comfortable an identification with their passionate subjectivity” (p. 97).

The sixth chapter, as its title ‘Matricide’ indicates, is a consideration of the murder of Clytemnestra. Lloyd considers the two main critical approaches to the matricide. First comes the affirmative interpretation — the view that the matricide is justified because it should be considered as the establishment of legitimate power in Mycenae (pp. 99-102). Greater attention is then given to the ironic interpretation — the view that Sophocles condemns the matricide (pp.102-10). Here he outlines the general critical approach and two passages in the tragedy which appear to support this interpretation. This is followed by a brief discussion of irony in Sophocles in which Lloyd outlines, by a fruitful comparison with Antigone, how the irony works in Electra. Lloyd is clearly an adherent of the ironic interpretation, and he conveys the strength of this position persuasively.6

The final chapter, ‘Afterlife’, is an examination of subsequent adaptations of Sophocles’ play. It starts with a discussion of adaptations in antiquity, though it is more a list of interesting anecdotes. The bulk of the chapter, and its most informative part, is a discussion of Voltaire’s Oreste, Hofmannsthal’s Elektra and Strauss’ Electka. It concludes with a discussion of dramatic adaptations in the twentieth century. As with the preceding chapters, Lloyd provides an engaging and informative analysis. And in the chapter’s, and indeed the volume’s, concluding observation, he brings together anecdotes about an ancient and a modern adaptation of Sophocles’ Electra which illustrate the enduring power of the character and the grief of Electra.7

The volume’s Endnotes are very helpful and provide a good starting point for interested readers to engage further with both the play and relevant topics in Greek tragedy. In line with the series’ general structure, the volume also has a ‘Guide to Further Reading’, a ‘Chronology’ and a ‘Glossary’. The ‘Guide to Further Reading’ comes with brief and helpful annotations. The ‘Chronology’ does what it has to, but the ‘Glossary’ is not comprehensive; it does not contain all the terms and concepts which feature in the volume.

As noted at the start of this review, Lloyd has done an excellent job in delivering on the series’ brief. The volume is, as far as I could tell, free of error and contained only a few typos.8 But most of all, this is a very readable and engaging introduction to the tragedy. Although the series is well into production now, this volume serves as an excellent model for future contributors and certainly sets a high standard for the remaining Sophoclean volumes to come.


1. The volumes on Ajax and The Women of Trachis by Hesk and Levett respectively were already available, while Roisman’s Philoctetes appeared very soon after Electra.

2. The brief is outlined on the rear page of the dust jacket.

3. The Sophoclean play is considered in the context of Euripides’ version and Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers. Undoubtedly, there is many a university course on Greek tragedy which expects students to do comparative studies of these three tragedies.

4. The Taplin reference is, of course, to the discussion in The Stagecraft of Aeschylus, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 49-60.

5. The topics covered are ‘The Palace of the Pelopidae’, ‘The City of Mycenae’, ‘The Messenger Speech’, ‘The Urn’ and ‘The Chorus’, though I’m not convinced that ‘The City of Mycenae’ is actually a stagecraft issue.

6. Lloyd outlines clearly how this irony works. In a play where there are two conflicting claims, Sophocles gives fullest weight to one side of the equation and gives no explicit expression to the other side. By presenting the drama in this way, Sophocles leaves inexplicit what is the main point of the play. See the discussion on p. 113.

7. Two relevant books for reception studies of Electra appeared in 2005, but were probably unavailable to Lloyd. They are Jill Scott’s Electra after Freud: Myth and Culture (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005) and Claudia Grndig’s Elektra durch die Jahrhunderte: Ein antiker Mythos in Dramen der Moderne (München: Martin Meidenbauer, 2005). The former complements, in many respects, Lloyd’s views on Electra and its afterlife.

8. A correction is the URL of Didaskalia, an electronic journal and resource dedicated to the study of ancient Greek and Roman drama in performance which is cited in the endnote (p. 145 n. 14). It is now to be found at