By Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.)
A Study Guide
Introduction: The Libation Bearers as Part of The Oresteia Trilogy
Libation Bearers is a tragedy that was first performed in Athens, Greece,
in 458 B.C., along with two other plays: Agamemnon
and The Eumenides. These three
plays make up a set known as The Oresteia, considered Aeschylus's
finest work and one of the greatest works in world literature.
based the plot of The Libation Bearers and the other plays in The
Oresteia (also spelled Orestea) on a mythological story well
known to Greeks of his time. Because Aeschylus focused his plays only on
parts of this story, readers need to be familiar with the parts not included
in the Oresteia in order to gain a full understanding and appreciation
of The Libation Bearers. Following is an abbreviated account of
the myth, as well as information from the first play, to bring readers
up to date on what took place before the beginning of The Libation Bearers:
grown to young manhood, Orestes returns to Argos with his friend Pylades
to avenge the murder of his father, King Agamemnon, by his mother, Clytemnestra.
At Agamemnon’s grave, Orestes prays that the spirit of his father will
bless him in this task. Orestes lays down two locks of hair–one in tribute
to a river god, Inachus, for watching over him and the other in tribute
to his father. Orestes sees a group of women in the distance. When he recognizes
one of them as his sister, Electra, he and Pylades withdraw to observe
Hearken and awaken to our cry of woe!
Who with might of spear
Shall our home deliver?
.......Orestes, Electra, and the chorus of slave women all pray in turn that the plot against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus will succeed.
.......Curious about why Clytemnestra commanded Electra and the others to pour out wine offerings, Orestes asks for an explanation. The chorus explains that Clytemnestra had a dream about giving birth to a snake that sucked bloody milk from her breast. It so frightened her as an omen of doom, raising her “shivering from her couch," that she ordered libations poured on the earth to court divine intervention to protect her.
.......Orestes then sets himself to the task before him. Pretending to be a message-bearer from Phocis, he goes to the palace and tells Clytemnestra that Orestes has died. (Clytemnestra does not recognize him, for she has not seen him for many years.) The news saddens the old nurse who reared Orestes. Because Aegisthus is out in the city, the nurse leaves the palace to fetch him at Clytemnestra’s bidding. The chorus intercepts her, telling her to advise Aegisthus not to bring his bodyguards with him.
.......When Aegisthus appears at the palace, he tells the chorus, standing outside, that he will find out whether this messenger is reporting a mere rumor or whether the messenger himself witnessed the death of Orestes. Shortly after he enters the palace, the chorus hears a loud cry coming from inside. An attendant runs out of the palace to shout that Aegisthus has been slain. Clytemnestra comes out to inquire what the commotion is about. The attendant says, “The dead are come to slay the living." She now realizes what is happening and asks the attendant to bring the very axe used to kill Agamemnon. Orestes then rushes out with a blood-stained sword.
Stay, child, and fear to strike. O son, this breast
Pillowed thine head full oft, while, drowsed with sleep,
Thy toothless mouth drew mother's milk from me.
.......Orestes then sees an unsettling sight:
Handmaidens, see-what Gorgon shapes throng up
Dusky their robes and all their hair enwound-
Snakes coiled with snakes-off, off,-I must away!
Orestes flees. His destination is the holy place of Apollo at Delphi. There, he will seek protection.
The action takes place in Argos, Greece, at the palace of the late King Agamemnon, now occupied by the woman who murdered him--his widow, Queen Clytemnestra--and her lover, Aegisthus, who helped her plan and carry out the murder. Argos is a city on a mountainous peninsula, the Peloponnese, that makes up southern Greece. The peninsula is south of the Gulf of Corinth and north of the Mediterranean Sea. Argos is in the northeastern part of the peninsula. Citizens of Argos were called Argives.
Antagonists: Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the Furies
Orestes Son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. He plots the murder of his own mother because she murdered his father.
Electra Sister of Orestes. She supports him in his plan to kill their mother.
Chorus of Slave Women They despise Clytemnestra and voice support for Orestes and Electra.
Pylades Friend of Orestes.
Nurse Old woman who reared Orestes and sides with him against his mother.
Clytemnestra Mother of Orestes and murderer of her husband and Orestes's father, Agamemnon.
Aegisthus Conniving paramour of Clytemnestra.
The Furies Deities who exact vengeance against wrongdoers. They are terrifying to behold, for they have coiling snakes for hair. They pursue Orestes after he kills Clytemnestra.
Main Themes of the Trilogy
Retribution and Revenge
.......The gods of ancient Greece required humankind to pay for its sins. Sons and daughters of sinners could inherit the sins of their parents, just as the descendants of Adam and Eve were destined to inherit original sin in Christian theology. But of course each Greek also had free will, enabling him or her to choose good or evil. Agamemnon inherited the sin of his father, Atreus, in the form of a curse pronounced on Agamemnon by his brother, Thyestes. In the Aeschylus play, Agamemnon thus seems doubly cursed. On the one hand, he bears the guilt of his father; on the other, he bears his own guilt for sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, and for participating in the destruction of Troy’s holy places. One could argue that the circumstances forcing him to decide whether to sacrifice his daughter arose as a result of the curse pronounced on the House of Atreus by Thyestes. Whatever the case, Agamemnon lives under the weight of inherited sin and sin that he wills. Of course, killing his daughter and defiling Troy’s altars are not his only sins; he also commits adultery and indulges his own pride by walking on the purple carpet. After Clytemnestra murders him, she defends her action by saying she represented the gods carrying out a divine sentence. But it is obvious that she is also a human avenger getting even for the murder of her daughter and for Agamemnon’s infidelity. Ironically, Clytemnetra has also been unfaithful–with the son of the man who was wronged by Atreus. At the end of the play, the chorus declares that another avenger will appear to exact revenge against Clytemnestra.
Evolution of Personal
Vengeance Into a Civilized Court System
.......In Agamemnon, Argos is a male-dominated society that reduces women to subservient roles. However, Clytemnestra is a strong woman who rules the kingdom while Agamemnon is away. When he returns from the war to resume his rule, Clytemnestra is expected to yield to him. It may well be, though, that Clytemnestra is wedded to the throne, as it were, and has decided to kill Agamemnon not only as an act of vengeance but also as an act of ambition. This motif receives further attention in The Libation Bearers. In this play, Clytemnestra is described as a tyrant who oppresses the citizens of Argos and enslaves her own daughter. It almost appears as if testosterone, not estrogen, drives her. When Orestes plots her death, he cites reclamation of the throne from a woman as one of one of his goals. After killing Clytemnestra, Orestes is pursued by female deities, the Furies, and saved by a male deity, Apollo. Of course, a female deity has the last word: In The Eumendes, the goddess Athena votes to acquit Orestes, the pacifies the enraged Furies. Her action not only establishes a new order of justice but also reconciles the warring sexes.
Importance of Heeding the Will of the Gods
.......In Agamemnon, the title character faces doom in part because he sometimes failed to respect the gods and their laws. First, he killed an animal sacred to Artemis (an act alluded to but not described in detail in the Aeschylus play). For this offense, she prevented Agamemnon and his armies from gaining favorable winds for their voyage to Troy. The only way for him to reverse her action, she decreed, was to sacrifice his daughter. Second, he exhibited excessive pride on several occasions as commander of the Greek forces. Third, he allowed his soldiers to desecrate the holy places of Troy. After his return to Argos, he allowed his pride to get the better of him again, this time by walking in triumph on the purple carpet. Pride was considered a grave sin in ancient Greece because it placed too much emphasis on individual will, thereby downplaying the will of the state and endangering the community as a whole. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes hesitates when the time comes to kill Clytemnestra. His friend, Pylades, convinces him of the necessity of the act by reminding him that Apollo ordered the killing. In The Eumenides, everyone--including the Furies--accepts the will of Athena.
Fickleness of the Gods
.......The gods of Greek mythology could be fickle and hypocritical, just like humans. Not infrequently, they violated laws which they commanded humans to obey. For example, they frequently committed infidelity. They also lied, promoted violence, and displayed inordinate pride. In Agamemnon, the goddess Artemis exhibited hypocrisy when she withheld favorable winds from Agamemnon for killing one of her sacred animals. To understand her hypocrisy in this case, one must understand what her roles were. First, she was a protector of wild animals while also serving as the patron deity of hunters. She herself was a huntress. Yet she penalized Agamemnon for doing what she often did: kill an animal. Second, as a virgin goddess, she was the patron of chastity. Yet she told Agamemnon that she would not cancel her penalty unless he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, a virgin. Artemis thus exhibited hostility toward two humans she was supposed to favor: a hunter and a virgin. In Agamemnon, Aeschylus does not explicitly address the issue of divine hypocrisy, but he does allude to it–intentionally or unintentionally–in choral songs.
Infidelity: A Motif in
and The Libation Bearers
.......The climax of the play is Orestes' killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
uses images of darkness and light to symbolize the emergence of Greece
from the primitive age of personal revenge and vigilante justice, during
which powerful monarchs ruled city states, to the civilized age of law
courts, during which the people ruled through democracy. In the Oresteia,
the transition from one age to the other begins in the first play, Agamemnon,
when the watchman observes a mountaintop signal fire lighting the night
sky to alert Argos that the Trojan War has ended. Dawn follows shortly
thereafter. From then on, images of darkness and light vie with each other,
symbolizing the cultural and social struggle taking place.
Animal and Insect Images
.......In Agamemnon, eagles, hares, spiders, and other creatures exhibit the behavior patterns of humans, figuratively speaking, and thus become symbols for those humans. For example, spiders and snakes are associated with Clytemnestra because she has spun a web of treachery (like a spider) and has poised herself (like a coiling snake) to strike at Agamemnon. Eagles that prey on a pregnant hare are associated with Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, because they are fierce warriors destined to destroy Troy (the hare) and its future (the hare's offspring). In the third play of the trilogy, The Eumenides, the spider-web metaphor appears again when the god Apollo describes how Clytemnestra trapped Agamemnon:
And in the endless mesh of cunning robes
Enwound and trapped her lord, and smote him down.
.......The plays of Aeschylus are rich in a wide range of figures of speech that infuse his writing with dignity and majesty. Here are examples from Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers.
Metaphor, Personification, Paradox, Hyperbole, Synecdoche
As saith the adage, from
the womb of Night................[womb of
Night: metaphor, personification]
–Speaker and play: Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, referring to the Greek victory over the Trojans
Apostrophe, Personification, Metaphor
O mighty Hermes, warder of
the shades,..................[O mighty Hermes:
–Speaker and play: Electra in The Libation Bearers while praying at the tomb of Agamemnon.
Definition and Background
......."A contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the ‘tyrant' whom the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals, and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate them.
Major Sections of the Theater
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors.
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
Other Theater Sections
.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery.
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.