Article Title

When the King Suffers What the Tyrant Fears:The Disruption of Political Order in Euripides's Electra and Orestes


Marco Duranti


This article shifts the focus upon the male ruler in Euripides’s revision of the Oresteia myth in Electra. It investigates the extent to which the character of Aegisthus embodies the tyrant as described in Xenophon’s Hiero and Plato’s Republic where fear is identified as the most relevant characteristic. By analyzing various aspects and causes of Euripides’s dramatization of the tyrant’s fear, the article will show how Euripides challenges the distinction between tyrant and king, hinting that the latter may experience a typically tyrannical condition. This has a crucial “philosophical” bearing on the understanding of myth and human society. According to Xenophon and Plato, the main cause of the tyrant’s fear lies in the constant threat of plots and riots. By usurping the power in Argos, Aegisthus becomes a tyrant and is gripped by fear. Contrary to Xenophon and Plato, though, he is not afraid of domestic threats; what he dreads is the return of the legitimate heir, Orestes, who is forbidden to enter the city, as the old man tells him; he has no friends in Argos, and the contamination (miasma) ensuing the matricide he will commit, as predicted by Apollo, must be prevented. This paradox entails the reversal of the mythical construction of Orestes as a triumphant hero. It also, and especially, implies a corrosive criticism of that overall myth itself as developed by Aeschylus and Sophocles. Matricide is a crime which cannot be atoned for, it entails an ethical fault that cannot be cancelled, thus alienating the individual from the political community. But human society itself is no less to blame than the mythical deities, as it proves unable to reintegrate the matricide, as it happened in Aeschylus’ss Oresteia with the help of Athena. Along the fil rouge of Aegisthus’s fear of the legitimate yet alienated heir to the throne, the article will discuss the paradoxes of a play revising the Oresteia myth from the standpoint of the tyrant’s fear of a hero exiled from his homeland and his family alike, an outcast doomed to experience the pain of human loneliness.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.