I clearly remember reading this play for university and one of the things that the lecturer spoke about was how we have, from all three of the surviving tragedians, a extant plays that deals with the same subject, being the murder of Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra by the two of her children, Orestes and Electra. I believe that we actually looked at all three at university, if only to compare the similarities, and differences, in how the three tragedians dealt with the same subject. In fact, it is very fortuitous that we actually have these plays because it gives us a deeper insight into how the same even was viewed by differing contemporary authors.
The sympathy that Euripides shows towards women that was noticeable in Medea and Hecabe seems to be somewhat absent from this play. In fact there are indications in this play of the role that women generally played in Greece with no real criticism of their status. In a way one can empathise with Electra in that she is being persecuted by her mother's lover in that he fears retribution for his part in the death of Agamemnon, her father, but also we admire the peasant whom Electra has been married to in that he has chosen not to sleep with her in that he sees this as a marriage of convenience rather than of love. In a way, he recognises Electra's high status, her being a member of the nobility, while he, a peasant, has no right to such a noble wife.
The major theme of this play is the conflict between the virtue of vengeance, and the crime of matricide. All three of the plays weigh heavily on the crime of matricide and it is clear that such a murder would have been repugnant to the ancient Greeks. However, this is balanced out with the fact that it was Orestes' duty to seek vengeance against his father's murderers. It is a case of justice needing to be done, and it is the duty of the son to see that this happens. While it is seen that it is right to kill Aegisthus there is a conflict when it comes to Clyteamnestra. Orestes is hesitant as he is aware of the crime, however Electra is blinded by hatred and vengeance, not only for the murder of her father, but also for the life that she now lives. She is not the one doing the deed, it is Orestes, therefore she does not care.
We notice that at the end, the Discouri appear (that being Castor and Polydeuces, the heavenly twins, who are sons of Zeus and the brothers of Helen and Clytaemnestra) and condemn Orestes for his crimes. However, as is true with much Greek drama, his future is foretold to him, and it is decreed that initially he will be pursued by the furies (demonic creatures that torment the wicked) to Athens were he will seek shelter in the Temple of Athena and then be brought to trial on the Rock of Ares. It is also decreed that his trial will set a precedent in which if all votes are equal in a murder trial, then the accused will be acquitted.
It is interesting how this time as I read the play I could almost picture some of the places that were mentioned. The action is set not in Argos but on a farm just outside the city. The ancient city really does not exist any more, but if you travel to modern Argos you can still see the remains of the Roman city, including the theatre, the bath house, and the agora. I could also picture the rock of Ares in Athens, which functioned as the high court in ancient times. I can also picture the Athenians being familiar with what Euripides is saying, and many of them would probably cast their eyes around to the rock, and be reminded of the principles of justice upon which Solon based his constitution.
However we can also see different ideas about virtue in this play. To an ancient Greek, vengeance for the murder of one's father is not seen as a crime, and it is not necessarily the responsibility of the authorities (as it is these days). Rather, all prosecutions were private (unless it was treason, and even then that would be dealt with by a vote by all citizens). Another interesting thing about justice in Athens is that if somebody brings a charge against another person, and the person is found to be innocent, then the person bringing the charges is himself fined heavily. Not necessarily for a crime, but rather to discourage vexatious litigation (not that it actually stopped it).
One final thing I noticed was that right at the end the Discouri make a statement about leaving to watch over an expedition to Sicily. This comment actually gives us a very good idea of when the play was written and first performed, namely shortly before the launching of the Sicilian Expedition. Now, I am unsure if in those days the plays would have been performed more than once, but it appears that there is some hint in regards to this fateful expedition. While this play was being performed and produced though, the Peloponesian War was in full swing.
We also see Euripides' take on the Trojan War in this play, though his ideas regarding Helen are explored more deeply in the play of the same title. This is a belief, not necessarily created by Euripides but I will refer to it as Euripidean, that Helen never went to Troy, but was taken to Egypt instead. As such, the Greeks were chasing a phantom, and it did not become noticeable until after the war had been won. I am really unsure why they would take this idea as it was not necessarily needed for the Greeks to sympathise with the Trojans. In any case they were barbarians, but then maybe Euripides was commenting not only on the futility of war, but also how much destruction can come about from misunderstandings and jumping to conclusions.