HAMLET IS THE MALE ELECTRA

I just wanted to comment on this statement that I heard at the discussion with Frank McGuinness after the performance of Sophocles’ “Electra” at NUIG last Monday.

Between the 5th. Century B.C. and the time of Shakespeare, Western culture had been transformed not least by the Copernican Revolution and the “Oration” of Pico de Mirandela; in addition many were reading the Classics. It is very likely that Shakespeare read “Electra” and decided, like most great writers, to write something totally different. He wanted to write a seminal piece about a Renaissance individual who broke from the tradition of corruption and revenge that had blighted humankind since one could remember.

The evil in the House of Atreus is that of the serial murderer: it is often sexually motivated (sex as a form of power), lacks any kind of moral judgement or control and frequently involves dismemberment if not cannibalism. Denmark is not too dissimilar in Hamlet and the post-modern mind is not free from the unconscious curse of Atreus either; witness genocide and rape.

It can be argued that Electra is complicit in this catastrophe as is her brother. Hamlet, on the other hand, cannot act and is frozen by some deep moral scruple; he ultimately fails in the role of sacred avenger* and dies honourably in a corrupt duel not of his own making. To make the comparison above is to miss this development totally and I suggest is to misunderstand Hamlet, the play.

Further, it is a contentious proposition (if one is being made) to set up Sophocles’ Electra as a stage for radical feminism, though of course the “part” is challenging: but we are not talking about “casting” here are we? Sophocles is totally non-judgemental and radical “anything” needs more moral fibre than that. In the context of the honoured guest “Factory Girls” would be safer ground.

* I realized later that this is a little inaccurate: Hamlet does stab the King in the final duel sequence so one could argue the revenge is achieved finally but only after he himself has been mortally wounded by the king’s venomous sword and has seen his mother drink the poison. It is an act of final passion in the last moments of his life and yes perhaps in that moment “reason” is overthrown. I still think that a comparison with Electra is inept and inappropriate.

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