The Greek term "dike" is defined at root as "custom, usage", as in "it
is the custom to behave in this manner." By the time of Homer, the
term had evolved to mean "according to law" or more simply, "Justice,"
and it is this Homeric meaning that is translated in the "Electra"
(not only in the Chicago translation, but in all standard
(See definition at Perseus, g.v. below.
"dike [i^], he, custom, usage, haute d. esti broton this is the way of
IV. after Hom., of proceedings instituted to determine legal rights,
2. trial of the case
3. the object or consequence of the action, atonement, satisfaction,
This implies a process, not merely an action arising from arbitrary
All the characters in the play agree that the Greek concept of
"Justice" involves adherence to customary practices and behaviors, to
the uncodified "Natural Law". Everyone agrees that murder is
punishable by the execution of the murderer, that children should
honor their parents, that the gods show their approval or disapproval
of human conduct through the favor that they grant or withhold. The
conflict arises from the differing interpretations that the opposing
characters place upon those concepts and beliefs.
Clytemnestra claims that she has acted in accordance with this natural
form of justice. She says that the killing of her husband Agamemnon
was the just requital for Agamemnon's sacrificial killing of their
daughter Iphigeneia, Electra's sister, prior to the sailing of the
Greek fleet to Troy.
" Your father, yes,
always your father. Nothing else is your pretext --
the death he got from me. From me. I know it,
well. There is no denial in me. Justice,
Justice it was that took him, not I alone.
You would have served the cause of Justice if
you had been right-minded.
For this your father whom you always mourn, 
alone of all the Greeks, had the brutality
to sacrifice your sister to the Gods,
although he had not toiled for her as I did,
the mother that bore her, he the begetter only."
This requital is the ancient custom, and it has earned the approbation
of the community at large, who have acquiesced in it through the
"I am not dismayed by all that has happened.
If you think me wicked, keep your righteous judgment 
and blame your neighbors."
(The Chorus and Chrysothemis constantly recur to the idea that
submission to the powerful is wisdom.)
She claims, also, that Electra, if she were right-thinking (see
above), would share this interpretation, that it is, in brief, her
filial duty to respect her mother's judgment and to accept the killing
of Agamemnon as just and necessary.
Electra counters that her mother is using the law of just requital as
a pretext for her own motives of lust and the hunger for power, that
Agamemnon was killed not because he had sacrificed Iphigeneia, but
because of Clytemnestra's adulterous affair with Aegisthus, who
plotted to usurp the throne of Agamemnon in Mycenae. Electra points
out that Agamemnon was acting at the express command of Artemis (561
ff.), whom he had offended, when he sacrificed Iphigeneia, and that he
had no choice but to obey if he were to expiate his crime (taking a
stag from her sacred preserve): the Greek army could neither have
returned home nor launched for Troy without the approval of the
goddess. Agamemnon had resisted the harsh penalty, but in the end had
obeyed, as was only just and proper he should, the will of the deity.
This is the crucial difference between Clytemnestra's and Electra's
interpretation of the natural law. For Electra, the just basis and
power of the law is the divine will, and only by following the express
will of the gods can a law or custom be rendered just and good: the
will of the gods is the spirit of the law. (Clytemnestra is basically
advocating the "law of the jungle" says Electra. "If this is the law
you lay down for men, take heed / you do not lay down for
yourself ruin and repentance./If we shall kill one in another's
requital,/ you would be the first to die, if you met with justice.")
Clytemnestra, however, had no such divine sanction for her actions.
Indeed, Electra has given one instance of the impiousness of
Clytemnestra's actions when she notes that the queen insituted a
celebration to be held monthly on the very day of Agamemnon's murder
to thank "the gods that had saved her." (280-281) It is true filial
piety for Electra to mourn her father and to resist his unsanctioned
The audience have already seen that Electra's interpretation is the
correct one. Orestes, the instrumentality of the divine will of
Justice, has returned secretly to Mycenae to exact the punishment
decreed by Apollo. Orestes has been given the god's explicit
instructions through the oracular Pythonesss of Delphi: he is to act
from concealment and to avenge the murder of his father.
"When I came to Pytho's place of prophecy 
to learn to win revenge
for my father's murder on those that did that murder,
Phoebus spoke to me the words I tell you now:
'Take not spear nor shield nor host;
go yourself, and craft of hand
be yours to kill, with justice but with stealth.'"
(This is interesting, too, as it implies a proportionate punishment.
The god commands that Orestes punish only those who had committed the
crime, not the entire city. He must not take an army, "host," and
fight a war, in contrast to the Trojan campaign, perhaps, but must go
himself in person to act with discrimination.)
Orestes shows that he is acting with true filial piety at this point
when he postpones putting the plan immediately into effect so that he
can visit the grave of his father and make offerings to the dead.
His ruse, the false report of his own death, causes Clytemnestra to
lower her guard and to admit the party of executioners. This comes
immediately after she has impiously prayed to Apollo for his approval
of her past actions and the continuance of her present state of good
fortune. The arrival of the Paedagogus with the false news is, in
effect, further evidence of the god's participation in the working out
of the plan, as the juxtaposition of prayer and its seeming
fulfillment misleads Clytemnestra to believe that the god is on her
side. She is shortly to be proven wrong.
Orestes concludes the executions by telling Aegisthus that those who
act above the law shall be killed. By this, he is clearly saying that
Aegisthus not only usurped the throne, he usurped the divine authority
of the law by acting without the sanction of the divinely inspired
natural law. It is only by swift punishment that deterrence of crime
is to be achieved.
"...Justice shall be taken 
directly on all who act above the law--
justice by killing. So we would have less villains."
Peresus Project Texts
Sophocles, Electra (ed. Sir Richard Jebb)
Greek-English Dictionary at the Perseus Project
Liddel, Scott, Jones
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon