elektra and clytemnestra

ELEKTRA: All my love
gone for nothing.
Days of my love, years of my love.
Into your child’s fingers I put the earth and the sky.
No mother did that for you.
No nurse.
No slave.
I. Your sister
without letting go,
day after day, year after year,
and you my own sweet child.

—Soph. El., trans. Carson, 1530–1540

I love, love, love the way Elektra is messing around with roles here.

So, as Carson mentions in her into, ἠλέκτρα (ēlektra) sounds like ἄλεκτρα (alektra), which means “unmarried” or “unmarriageble.” We’re meant to imagine Elektra as a woman past marriage age (possibly not quite as much an old maid as she complains to the chorus in their first conversation, but still). One of Elektra’s complaints against her mother and Aigisthos is that they won’t allow her to marry. As she puts it to chrysothemis:

ELEKTRA: Your losses are mounting,
the property gone and
seems a fading dream at your age—
or do you still console yourself with thoughts of a husband?
Forget it. Aigisthos is not so naive
as to see children born from you or from me—
unambiguous grief for himself.

—Soph. El., trans. Carson, 1264–1272.

Elektra has been denied the role of mother by Klytaimestra and in return Elektra rejects Klytaimestra as her mother from pretty much the start of the play. Elektra also claims that Klytaimestra isn’t a mother to Orestes when Klytaimestra treats his death as advantageous to herself and possibly even a deserved end for him. And remember: the whole point of Klytaimestra’s murder of Agamemnon (at least, if you ask her) is that she, as Iphigenia’s mother, has the right to extract vengeance on Iphigenia’s killer, even if that’s Iphigenia’s father.

But when Elektra mourns Orestes here, she puts herself explicitly in the role of his mother; her substitution of herself for her mother is complete.

I won't lie, my first instinct here was “oh wait maybe Jung had a bit of a point after all” but then I remembered this bit where she makes herself Agamemnon’s mother too. It’s not that she’s making herself her brother’s mother (and thus her father’s wife) in particular. She’s making herself the avenging mother to her father and brother’s wronged sons. She has no children of her own, so her dead father and brother are standing in for the role as she prepares to do violence against the one she blames for their deaths.

Tl;dr: she’s making herself Klytaimestra to justify murdering Klytaimestra.

“I am the shape you made me/filth teaches filth” indeed.