Suspicious Circumstances: Pre-Recognition in Euripides’ Electra

Mallory Fitzpatrick (Bryn Mawr College) 

Knowledge of identity in Greek drama is frequently concealed by its characters until the opportune moment, resulting in ironic, delayed recognition scenes (Rutherford 335). These recognition scenes often offer a formulaic language pattern consisting of a proximal deictic, a distal deictic, and a form of εἰμί (Dugdale 28). Though scholars like Roisman, Luschnig, and Solmson have examined differences in the three tragedians’ recognition scenes between Electra and Orestes, detailed analysis on the recognition scene in Euripides’ Electra and how it illuminates the characters of both siblings has been inadequate. In this paper, I argue that Euripides’ Electra gives strong evidence that Electra suspects Orestes’ identity before she officially recognizes him.

Orestes hints at his identity throughout his dialogue with Electra, and her use of similarly ironic wordplay, especially as the explicit textual recognition nears, indicates her understanding of these hints. Electra’s mastery over language, as recognized by Gallagher, suggests that both her ironic wordplay and her manipulation of the usual recognition formula are intentional (411). Moreover, Electra’s careful orchestration of the recognition scene by summoning the Old Man, “the only one of my friends who would recognize [Orestes],” (εἷς ἂν μόνος νιν τῶν ἐμῶν γνοίη φίλων 285) reveals her suspicions before Orestes admits his identity. I contend that Electra’s repeated denial of Orestes’ presence in the face of increasingly obvious clues is due not to ignorance, as has been suggested, but to her fear that this Orestes, who “more than the other two Oresteses…is reluctant to take up the identity of Orestes,” is too weak to enact the required revenge plot (Roisman and Luschnig 248). Orestes’ hesitation to act implies that he is ill-suited for his heroic role and Electra’s fears are justified. Ultimately, Euripides’ Electra cannot truly accept Orestes until he embraces his identity by accomplishing the revenge plot.

Select Bibliography

Dugale, Eric. “Of This and That: The Recognition Formula in Sophocles’ Electra.” TAPA (Society for Classical Studies) 147, no. 1 (2017): 27-52.

Gallagher, Robert L. “Making the Stronger Argument the Weaker: Euripides, ‘Electra’ 518-44.” Classical Quarterly 53, no. 2 (2003): 401-415.

Roisman, H. M., and Luschnig, C. A. E. 2011. Euripides’ Electra: A Commentary. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Accessed April 21, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Rutherford, R.B. Greek Tragic Style: Form, Language and Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 

Solmson, Friedrich. Electra and Orestes: Three Recognitions in Greek Tragedy. Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsche U.M., 1967.