The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan

  Bollack, Jean. 2016. The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan. Trans. C. Porter and S. Tarrow with B. King. Edited by C. Koenig, L. Muellner, G. Nagy, and S. Pollock. Hellenic Studies Series 73. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

12. Two Phases of Recognition in Sophocles’ Electra*


Electra hates her mother, Clytemnestra, and she does not hesitate to tell her so. Their confrontation will represent the play’s major contest (agōn), a merciless struggle between the two women, up to the point when the dramatic action sets Orestes’ plan in motion and at the same time brings about Electra’s downfall. She does not want to be her mother’s daughter. David Bouvier (2001) reminds us of the customary lines of descent: the son is considered the father’s son, and, symmetrically, the daughter is viewed as the mother’s daughter. In Sophocles’ play, the roles are reversed. For her part, Electra breaks the ties that naturally bind her to her mother; she parts company with the women and at the same time places Clytemnestra’s husband, whom she loathes, in the women’s sphere. She assumes masculine characteristics and focuses wholly on her murdered father, rejecting all manifestations of life, remaining fixated on her father’s assassination, and moving in a space of non-life, which distances her from her entourage.

From the beginning of the play, she can in no way be seen as Orestes’ ally, left alone to await the act of vengeance linked to his return. She is in precisely the opposite situation, right up to the moment when the meeting occurs and the stranger from afar is identified. Before this event, she behaves like a pseudo-Orestes. Her recognition of her brother will first of all mean her defeat—the punishment for usurping a male role. The disguise she has clung to, until the final frenzy and the decision to kill Aegisthus, vanishes once the character whose role she has usurped completes the process of demystification and declares his identity. The drama, having set up a double plot, succeeds in representing these fantasies and their share of madness, as it does in Antigone. One is tempted to say that this situation is eminently Shakespearian, but it is indeed the work of Sophocles, and he has not always been given his due.


More than any other, the scene I have selected from Sophocles’ Electra needs to be situated within the dramatic action. It follows the famous recognition scene (lines 1174–1226), which is indeed very beautiful, but only if we understand that it specifically does not deal with a mutual discovery of identity between brother and sister, as an almost natural and naïve reading would have it. In the logic of the plot, one of the partners—namely, Orestes—is in control and stages the recognition scene; in this sense, it is like a play. The brother forces the sister to recognize him; he skillfully brings her to this point, step by step. But the game being played can be clearly analyzed only if we are aware that Electra submits to the questioning unwillingly, that she resists, then eventually gives in and rejoices, as if convinced by an excess of evidence rather than by her intuition. At this tragic moment, when Orestes’ presence becomes a physical reality in her consciousness, the character that she has embodied since the beginning—since {156|157} the moment after the prologue when Orestes flees upon hearing his sister’s lamentations in the house—no longer has any reason to exist.

The prologue revealed the whole plot and its planning, as it had been prescribed at Delphi. The action was hatched in darkness and lies, leaving the stage empty for a while, allowing the appearance of another action, one both legitimate and unfeasible. This is Electra’s world, incredibly dark, a woman’s world, at first triumphant, then shaken and finally breaking down into madness, when the time for revolt is overtaken by the action in the scene under consideration. The two plot levels then merge. The semantic relationship is complex; the contradiction is finally revealed in the drama and becomes essential to it. The plot that collapses had an element of truth; however, divine law sanctioned by Delphi invalidates it.

When the stranger, whom Electra said she was waiting for but who failed to arrive, is finally there before her, she is no longer the person she was when alone. Her actions have become meaningless. Orestes has only to integrate her into his camp, cajole and reconvert her. It is a metamorphosis that makes a disciplined warrior, an ally, out of a false Erinys.

The distinction between an autonomous formal structure and the unfolding of the dialogue in this framework is worth further examination. The form defines a particular space, reserved for the theme of recognition; it creates a background of intimacy, and a special proximity. The discussion that develops takes place outside the usual progression and apart from the ordinary on-stage confrontations; it opens up to a moment of awareness. Linked to the rhythm and the musical tonality, it is an expression in itself, even before a quiet and deep debate, appropriate to the situation, develops unexpectedly within this familiar framework.

In Ion, the recognition scene between Ion and his mother Creusa is by far the longest. It is not just a matter of reunion; the whole play is turned around and replayed in reverse. Ion has assumed several identities right from the start: first, he has been taken for the son of an unknown father, and, inasmuch as he serves in the temple, he has been taken for the son of the god, master of the sanctuary at Delphi, and for the son of Creusa’s husband. He is finally recognized as the son of Apollo, a now repentant lover. The mother, like an oracle, discloses her whole story; she goes back in time to the origin, to Apollo’s love affairs. In the end, the young man gains his true identity. Thus, after so many false recognitions, he is of one mind with Creusa, singing for a moment with her—as in a choral song—before the play ends with the usual commentary on the tragic alternation of misfortune and happiness.

The damaged text of Hypsipyle, a collection of papyrus fragments discovered in 1906, is the one whose remains, despite certain lacunae and unresolved questions, allow for the most complete reconstitution of a recognition scene. The play was composed during the last years of Euripides’ life. The scene in {158|159} question, most of which has been preserved, comes at the end (frag. 64, col. 28, lines 1593–1633); the last lines are incomplete). [5] The two sons of Hypsipyle and Jason, Euneus and Thoas, had left Lemnos in search of their mother, who had been banished from her home. They arrive in Nemea in the Peloponnesus, where Hypsipyle, enslaved by Lycurgus and Eurydice, is charged with the care of their child. An initial face-to-face encounter gives both mother and sons a premonition of the identity they are seeking. But it is only after the boys’ victory in a race in the newly created Nemean games, when their names are announced, that mother and sons really recognize each other. Euneus, the older of the two, speaks for his younger brother. The duo between Euneus and Hypsipyle recounts the whole story of the women of Lemnos, who hated men and killed all the males on the island, and the subsequent tale of the sons’ own rescue by Jason and their departure on the ship Argo. By means of the intervention of the soothsayer Amphiaraus, who mediates between the mother, her sons, and the ruler of Nemea, the expedition of the Seven against Thebes intersects with that of the Golden Fleece, on the Pindaric island of Lemnos, under the shadow cast by the tragedy of Hypsipyle.


The scene in Electra is divided into three parts: the strophe (lines 1232–1252) and the antistrophe (lines 1253–1272) are in dialogue; they are followed by an epode (lines 1273–1287). {159|160}

The sober and prosaic Orestes interrupts her; he tries to make her focus on the future and on the danger facing the servant who is in the palace. He places himself outside, as required by the plot; Electra remains wholly in the present of the completed event, her brother’s return. Within the confines of the palace, there is no danger, there are only women; she has never feared either Clytemnestra or Aegisthus. She invokes Artemis, with whom she identifies; the goddess draws her power from her roving virginity. The women, on the other hand, those cowardly and lazy creatures, are “this useless load of women who live indoors” (lines 1240–1241). This is a sparring match where Electra recovers her old resources, in the combativeness and resistance that resulted from her experience of her father’s murder. In order to bring her back to reality, Orestes turns the argument around: has Electra not had occasion to know the warlike power of these women, and of Clytemnestra in particular?

Horrified, Electra cries out: how could Orestes say such a thing to her? Was evil inflicted on her, or did she not rather provoke it herself, by her refusal to forget the crime that had been committed? A second time, she answers by recalling the role she has played in protecting their father’s tomb, a job that she accepted in rebellion against forgetting. Thus the strophe ends with a contradictory vision, which expresses the importance of the conflict. Orestes refuses to accept this point of view. Electra is obsessed by the murder, which justifies her actions; Orestes interprets the unhappy fate of the accuser as a punishment inflicted on her by the masters. She has been the victim of the supremacy of “those women,” who were defending their own pleasure. She thought that her stance would allow her to take her brother’s place and assume a right. The whole play is summarized here, with its two competing levels. So Orestes can conclude by repeating Electra’s words: yes, he agrees regarding the crime, which must {160|161} never be forgotten, but, as for vengeance, it is better to wait until circumstances indicate the right moment.

In the antistrophe, Electra makes the first move and challenges the argumentation: there is no present, there are no circumstances, there is no opportune moment (kairos). For her the crime is such that the need to revisit it takes over every instant of life. Justice requires that they speak of what happened. Once again, the same debate is pursued to the end, in greater depth. The crime did not stop life from going forward. Yes, she has now with great difficulty acquired the freedom to speak of it (line 1256), thanks to the savior who stands before her. He acknowledges her point, but turns around the course of the discussion. This freedom has to be realized; it leads to action: now she should get to work! The past has made her keep on talking; she must turn away from it and await the propitious moment rather than reject it! Here, Electra changes the subject and justifies both her tone and the topic. How can she be silent? If it is no longer the evil that has been done that forces her to speak, it is this very present good that she experiences with Orestes’ return. Is it not just as incredible? Does it deserve to remain unspoken? Electra, accepting the unexpected event, wants to speak of the good, just as she had earlier spoken of evil. Again Orestes corrects her; he understands that in the past she had to fulfil a responsibility, as long as he was not there; however, he waited (this is not the Libation Bearers) until the god called on him to return (the repetition of the term molein [“return”] is pregnant with meaning). [8]

Electra appropriates the response again to feed her insatiable loquacity. Has she not been rewarded, against all expectation, with her brother’s arrival? Now he mentions that he comes as a messenger of the gods. She is content with this sign, which assures a happy outcome—a guarantee (the word daimonion suggests the intervention of the gods). Orestes considers it necessary to make a distinction between the pleasure she feels at the idea of divine intervention and the fear that she will be overwhelmed by it. At this stage, he has already induced his sister to believe in him and in his action. Their debate is like a poem, constantly interrupted; it evolves and recovers, from one lyrical outburst to the next. A certain balance is almost achieved in the epode. And so Electra gets Orestes to join her in a song that looks forward to their future and seals their union. She still evokes her past, but as a “having been,” since she has now embarked on the divine path of Orestes’ return. It is here, at this very moment, that the recognition is achieved in unison, and that she abandons the persona of “Electra,” the {161|162} role she has played throughout the tragedy. She casts it off—one might call it a catharsis. She looks back: in her former persona, she risked losing her beloved brother. Orestes firmly supports her desire (line 1279), in a reference to the well-known device of upping the ante. In Book 24 of the Iliad, Iris describes to Priam the future behavior of Achilles: “neither will [Achilles] himself kill you but will hold back all the others” (line 185). [9] But with targeted irony, Orestes can integrate this phrase in an act of vengeance that would include his sister: “I would certainly be angry if I saw anyone else [prevent you from seeing me]” (line 1279).

Electra concludes: she gives an account of her history and absorbs the presence of Orestes into her soul and her action. At an earlier stage, at the beginning of the tragedy, she heard the voice, even though she had no hope, and then when she was told of his death in the games, she knew to remain silent and did not cry out at the news. Does this not assure the truth of this other Electra that she has resolved to become? So much for the past. As for the present, it is so radiant and convincing that, even in misfortune, it would give her the strength to resist (lines 1285–1287). It is a declaration of love; she is ready to seal a military pact.

Thus a model exists, very likely conceived by Euripides—the broken form of a hyper-lyrical discourse whose function is to create an intimate and closed-off space, an isolation and seclusion that promotes clear-sighted ecstasy. We have only to compare the excessive use of superlatives in the introduction (we find something similar in Helen and Iphigenia in Tauris). Two characters communicate with two contradictory voices, impassioned and sober, celebrating the joy of being reunited: brother and sister, mother and son, husband and wife. Beginning with this reminder of a close link, the discourse, strongly differentiated in each case, can follow the desired path, ready to confront all threats and advance toward danger. It is as if the confirmed feeling of close kinship had endowed the discourse with the power to transform itself, in the tragic sense, beyond pleasure, into lucidity. {162|}

Works Cited

Bouvier, D. 2011. “Comment et pourquoi comparer des tragédies? La relation ‘père-fille’ dans les tragédies d’Électre.” Conference paper, CorHaLi [a biennial conference for Hellenists sponsored by Cornell, Harvard, Lille, and other universities], June 9–11. Lille.

Dale, A. M., ed. 1967. Euripides’ Helen. Oxford.

Jebb, R. C., ed. 1894. The Electra of Sophocles. Cambridge.

Jouan, F. and H. Van Looy, eds. 2002. Euripide, Tragédies. Paris.

Kaibel, G., ed. 1911. Sophocles: Elektra. Leipzig.

Kamerbeek, J. C., ed. 1974. The Plays of Sophocles: Commentaries, Part 5, The Electra. Leiden.

Kannicht, R., ed. 1969. Euripides, Helena. Vol. 2. Heidelberg.

Schadewaldt, W., and H. Flashar, eds. 1994. Sophocles, Elektra. Frankfurt.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Les deux temps de la reconnaissance dans l’Electre de Sophocle,” in: Lexis 30 (2012), pp. 268–274.

[ back ] 1. J. March, ed. and trans., Sophocles’ Electra (Warminster, 2001), lines 171–172. [TN: All subsequent translations from this play are from this edition.]

[ back ] 2. Dale 1967:106. [TN: In the duo, according to Dale, Electra’s part was sung and that of Orestes was spoken.]

[ back ] 3. Kannicht 1969:176.

[ back ] 4. Kannicht 1969:175n6.

[ back ] 5. Jouan and Van Looy 2002:212–215.

[ back ] 6. [TN: These meters in Greek poetry are conventionally characterized as follows, where u represents an unstressed syllable and – a stressed syllable: dochmiac = ⏑ – – ⏑ – ; iamb = ⏑ –; bacchiac = ⏑ – – ; cretic = – ⏑ – ; trochee = – ⏑. The epode is the third part of a choral ode, sung after the strophe and the antistrophe.]

[ back ] 7. Line 1232–1233. Kamerbeek (1974:167) went back to the scholia, finding in the body (sōmatōn) the character of Agamemnon (see also Schadewaldt 1994 and others). Kamerbeek followed Jebb (1894), who however admitted the possibility of the periphrasis (“dearest of all men ever born”) that had been upheld by Kaibel 1911 (sōmata gegenènema). Grammarians have misconstrued or rejected an audacious figure of speech blending the meanings of “birth” and “son,” which explains the iteration: “o toi, fils, toi qui nais comme le corps le plus aimé de moi” (cf. “Ah birth—birth of a person to me most beloved,” in J. H. Kells, ed. Sophocles’ Electra [Cambridge, 1973], 199).

[ back ] 8. Line 1264. The responsio (see line 1244 in the strophe) requires a trimeter, but the line is missing. We do not need it for the meaning; (for what the reader can infer, see, for example, Kamerbeek: “In the line which has dropped out after this verse [line 1264], Orestes may have encouraged Electra quietly to put her trust in the gods” [1967:167]).

[ back ] 9. The Iliad of Homer, trans. R. Lattimore (Chicago, 1951).