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The Libation Bearers | Study Guide


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The Libation Bearers | Episode 1 | Summary



Electra asks the Chorus what she should say to pay tribute to her father as she pours libations. She's not strong enough to say her mother, Clytaemnestra, brought gifts out of love. She doesn't want to use a traditional libation prayer wishing honor upon the senders of the "noble tribute," because she wants her treacherous mother punished. She can't simply stand in "silence and dishonor," although her father died dishonorably. She knows the Chorus also hates Clytaemnestra and encourages them to speak their minds around her.

The Chorus Leader tells Electra to bless her friends. Electra's not sure who her friends are, so the Chorus Leader says she should start with herself and add "anyone who hates Aegisthus," Clytaemnestra's lover and illegitimate ruler of Argos. And, the Chorus Leader adds, don't forget her brother, Orestes. The Chorus Leader advises Electra to call down revenge on the murderers. Electra wonders if it's righteous to petition the gods for vengeance, and the Chorus Leader assures her that praying "to pay back one's enemies for evil" is the right thing to do.

Electra calls on Hermes and the Earth to hear her. She asks her dead father to pity her and Orestes. She lives like a slave, and Orestes is far from home. Meanwhile, Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus are squandering Agamemnon's hard-earned wealth. She prays to have more self-control and righteousness than her mother. As she requests her father's blessing, she prays someone will avenge his death and make his killers pay. Electra pours out her libations while the Chorus sings a song of lament and prays for a "forceful man" to arrive and restore the house to its former glory.

Electra notices a lock of hair left as an offering on the tomb. She wonders who left it because she's the only one mourning Agamemnon's death. The hair looks exactly like hers. The Chorus Leader suggests the hair might belong to Orestes and wonders how he managed to come back. Electra suspects Orestes had the hair sent as a tribute and begins to weep. She hopes the hair belongs to her beloved brother and longs for the gods to send him safely home.

Then Electra notices two sets of footprints near the grave. The shape of one set of footprints resembles her own footprints almost exactly. Orestes comes out from his hiding place to greet her and tells her to continue praying to the gods for "what must still be done." He says the person she's prayed for has arrived, but Electra doesn't recognize him right away. She thinks he's a stranger trying to trick her. Orestes assures her he'd only be tricking himself. He reminds her of the signs he left and shows her the weaving of his clothing—it's her design. Electra is overjoyed, but Orestes reminds her to keep her wits about her because "our closest family is our enemy."

Electra tells Orestes he represents "four different loves" to her. He's her brother and also stands in for her father as the surviving male heir. The only other heirs are his sister Iphigeneia, who died as a sacrifice; his mother, the treacherous Clytaemnestra; and Electra. It was the conduct of Orestes that helped Electra maintain a sense of honor. Orestes reminds Zeus that he and his sister are orphans and outcasts now. He asks Zeus to support them as the house's only hope. The Chorus Leader, who sympathizes with Orestes and Electra, urges them to keep their voices down in case someone reports them to Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus.

Orestes says Apollo's oracle (or prophet) will protect him. It was the oracle who told him to return home and murder his father's killers, promising doom and death for Orestes if he didn't complete the task. The oracle showed Orestes the horrifying troubles "the wrath of blood guilt" would cause him, including physical plagues, attacks by the gods of the underworld, and the scorn of his friends. Even if Orestes didn't trust the oracles, he'd still need to exact vengeance because of his deep personal grief and his contempt for Aegisthus, "at heart a woman." The Chorus says Justice always "turns the scales" to punish criminals.

Orestes struggles to think of a funeral lament for his father, Agamemnon, and the Chorus assures him Agamemnon will be honored through vengeance for the guilty. Electra laments her fate and her brother's, but the Chorus says the siblings' dirges can be turned into "joyful songs." Orestes wishes his father had died in battle; then at least his countrymen would honor him after a noble death. Electra wishes her father hadn't died at all. She wishes his killers had been murdered by their own families first. The Chorus reminds the siblings it's easy to wish, but now they need to act. Orestes and Electra ask Zeus for his help striking down the guilty.

The Chorus knows death will only beget more death. Orestes and Electra feel helpless and grow more discouraged, their own mother causing them great grief and burying their father without proper rites. Orestes vows Clytaemnestra will pay. The Chorus describes Agamemnon's brutal death to remind the siblings how he suffered. Electra says she was imprisoned and disgraced herself. Together Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus call to Agamemnon and the gods of the underworld for power in their quest. Orestes wants to become master of the house of Atreus, and Electra wants to escape to safety. The siblings remind their dead father of the indignities he endured at his death, and ask him to take pity on his surviving children as the only hope for his lineage.

The Chorus says it's time for the siblings to do what they came to do. Orestes is curious about one thing: Why was his mother suddenly sending slaves to pour libations on Agamemnon's grave after so many years? Compared to her offense, the offering of libations was an insultingly trivial act. The Chorus Leader explains that Clytaemnestra began to have nightmares and sent libation bearers to her husband's grave hoping the dreams would stop. Clytaemnestra dreamed she gave birth to a snake and put the snake to bed like a child. She attempted to breastfeed the snake, which sucked blood from her nipple. The dream symbolism is clear to Orestes—the snake represents a man, himself, who will make her suffer, and the Chorus Leader agrees.

Orestes has a plan for revenge. He's going to deceive Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus the way they deceived Agamemnon. First, Electra will enter the palace, keeping her knowledge of Orestes's return to Argos secret. Then, Orestes will arrive disguised as a stranger, and Pylades will come with him as an ally. They'll speak in the dialect of another town, Phocis, to avoid suspicion. If no one lets Orestes and Pylades into the palace, they'll wait; eventually passersby will wonder why the royal family is breaching hospitality and not welcoming guests. Once inside the palace, Orestes anticipates "that man seated on my father's throne," Aegisthus, won't be able to meet his eyes. Orestes will kill Aegisthus before he says a word. Orestes asks Electra to keep an eye on everyone in the palace, and asks the chorus members (who will also be in the palace) to stay quiet and speak only if necessary. Their plan in place, Orestes, Electra, and Pylades head for the royal palace of Argos.


Electra performs the role of the suppliant, or a mortal who makes a request of the gods. The suppliant is a common trope in Greek drama. Certain plays, like Eumenides (the play following The Libation Bearers in the Oresteia) are "suppliant dramas" in which a central dramatic arc comes from a mortal in need requesting the gods' protection.

Like the chorus members who are afraid to recite Clytaemnestra's false prayer, Electra wants the right words to please the gods. If she doesn't speak correctly and from the heart, the gods might not honor her request. She wants the gesture of libations to have meaning and not be an empty ritual, so she rejects saying any words that do not represent her true feelings and thoughts. She asks the Chorus for guidance, demonstrating her respect for their wisdom even though the women are slaves and subordinate to her. In reality, Electra doesn't have much more power than they do. She's completely under the thumb of the new king, Aegisthus, a father figure she hates. She can't marry unless Aegisthus approves her marriage, or have a life in freedom. She identifies not with the royal family but with the slaves in the house, united in their "common hatred."

The Libation Bearers is the only Oresteia play in which Electra appears. She's a sympathetic character, grieving, confused, and without agency or options. During The Libation Bearers she tries to figure out her own role in the family and how she can play a part in its redemption.

The Chorus, as the moral anchor and conscience of the play, encourages Electra to see vengeance as a righteous goal. Electra worries about asking the gods to take someone's life. Is she overstepping her bounds as a suppliant? Any humans the gods view as too proud (filled with hubris, or pride) are swiftly punished. But the Chorus tells her she has the moral high ground. If murder accomplishes the greater good of punishing evildoers and achieving justice for the dead, it's not only acceptable, it's a moral duty. Orestes will cling to this line of argument when he petitions the gods in the Exodos.

Electra's prayer to Hermes places Earth, again, in a maternal role—"giving birth and nurturing all things." The chthonic and underworld gods, also known as the gods of Earth, were associated with feminine energies. Electra knows Orestes needs to be the avenger. As the male heir and the rightful owner of the Argos palace, he has more at stake. Her curse—"may they be caught by their own evil"—recalls the frequent Oresteia image of being caught in a net; in this case, a net the guilty wove themselves. Orestes will later tell Clytaemnestra she brought her death upon herself.

The Chorus's version of vengeance involves war weaponry like the sword and the spear. They repeatedly invoke Ares, the god of war. The language of violence pervades this scene and the rest of the play. Grieving itself is a violent act involving the physical body. Electra describes her grief for Orestes as physically attacking her: "a sword ... sliced right through me." Orestes compares the mourners' words at the grave to arrows.

Electra's slow discovery of Orestes creates a recognition scene, a common trope in literature and theater in which a character experiences a revelation of another character's true identity. The Greek term for the recognition scene is anagnorisis. This can refer to a recognition, another critical discovery, or a character's true awareness of their own situation. Electra's anagnorisis creates a strange mixture of joy and pain. "Our closest family is our enemy," Orestes reminds her. They're in danger if Clytaemnestra, Aegisthus, or anyone sympathetic to the royal family finds them. Initially Electra and the Chorus can't believe Orestes would return to Argos because he'd be risking his life. If the gods have sanctioned his return, however, Orestes will survive and triumph. Electra shows her belief in divine protection through a metaphor of the gods deciding a man's fate on a long sea journey. She hopes Orestes's actions will lead to the redemption and growth of her family: "mighty trees can spring from tiny seeds."

Orestes, meanwhile, is living out the familiar story of a hero returning to his homeland after many years of absence. Homer tells a similar story in the Odyssey, which also has a famous anagnorisis, or recognition scene, when Odysseus arrives home. The hero often comes back to complete unfinished business, to be reunited with his family, and to avenge those who have wronged him. Orestes is back for all three reasons.

Electra's reluctance to trust Orestes comes with the return of the net symbol. She accuses him of "weaving a net" to trap her. She's possibly on guard after years of fearing the family curse, which causes family members to turn on one another. He replies their fates are entwined; if he tries to harm her, "I plot against myself." The siblings remain loyal to each other because they see how their fates are interconnected.

The piece of clothing Orestes shows Electra, which she recognizes as her own handiwork, shows weaving as an act of creation (weaving clothing or weaving a net for a trap). It's the first of two garments Orestes uses to tell the story of his family. The second garment will be Agamemnon's bloody robes, which Orestes presents as an appeal to the gods and the Chorus.

As Electra welcomes Orestes home and talks about what he means to her, she makes the play's only reference to their other sister, Iphigeneia, the "cruel sacrifice." Orestes briefly recounts the story of Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia for victory in war. This act, the sacrificial killing of her daughter, is what Clytaemnestra claims drives her to kill Agamemnon in revenge. Yet Iphigeneia's death isn't brought up again in the Oresteia; instead, vengeance for the murdered king comes to the forefront. Aeschylus may have de-emphasized Iphigeneia's sacrifice in The Libation Bearers to keep the plot moving forward. Similarly, Aeschylus gives Electra a more limited role in the saga and Clytaemnestra a much larger role than other playwrights telling the story of the House of Atreus. A sense of the family roles and pecking order may also influence Orestes and Electra here. A wife shouldn't have authority to kill her husband, as Orestes emphasizes. Yet a father, if necessary, has authority over his own children's lives.

The eagle/viper animal comparisons Orestes makes in Episode 1 are also used as metaphors in Agamemnon. The eagle, a conquering bird of prey, is Agamemnon; the stealthy, poisonous viper is Clytaemnestra. Both Clytaemnestra and Orestes are compared to snakes or vipers in this scene; they're both tricksters with malicious intent. Clytaemnestra, who Electra says "profanes the very name of mother," has abandoned her maternal responsibility to nurture and protect her children. In Orestes's metaphor, their father Agamemnon is the protector doing both the father's and the mother's job. The children are more bestial animals; Electra calls herself and her brother wolves with "savage hearts." Without their rightful place in the community the siblings feel less than human.

Both siblings are trapped. Orestes is trapped by fate; Electra is trapped by circumstance. Like most tragic heroes, Orestes has a hamartia, or fatal flaw. In Orestes's case his hamartia is a situation in which it's impossible for him to do the right thing. He feels sure of Apollo's protection during his dangerous mission, but he reveals that Apollo's given him specific instructions under severe threat. Orestes isn't acting purely out of his own desire for revenge; he's carrying out a plan the gods have already designed. He's compelled to save himself. Apollo threatens him with "attacks by vengeful Furies," with "dark bolts" and "night fits" recalling the underworld's darkness and doom. In a twist of situational irony, Orestes fulfills Apollo's command and faces the Furies' attacks anyway. He can't win.

Electra is trapped by her situation. Even if Clytaemnestra doesn't consider her a threat, she denies Electra any control over her own life. She describes herself as "in hiding" and "in a cell," feeling imprisoned in the palace meant to be her home. Electra's isolation is more psychological than physical because she didn't have to hide in exile from her mother. But she expresses a desire to "escape" after Orestes murders Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus, indicating she may have to flee the consequences of the vengeance cycle.

The Chorus's line "O Mighty Fates, bring all this to pass" begins the kommos, or funeral song, in this episode. A kommos in Greek tragedy features a main character and the Chorus mourning a death. The speech in a kommos is lyrical and poetic, describing the physical toll of grief. At first the characters lament Agamemnon's absence, his insultingly incomplete funeral rites, and their own feelings of powerlessness against fate.

The tone changes midway through the episode after the Chorus describes the brutal details of Clytaemnestra hacking off Agamemnon's limbs. (Murderers in ancient Greece cut off the limbs of the dead to hobble the victim's ghost and keep them from pursuing vengeance.) Electra recalls her own mistreatment at Clytaemnestra's hands, the Chorus calls the siblings to action, and the tone shifts from grief, despair, and hopelessness to vengeance, triumph, wrath, and cautious optimism. The lines become shorter, more direct appeals to the gods. Orestes challenges his dead father to use his wounded pride and empower his children with aggression: "These taunts—do they not stir your spirit?"

The episode's passage of stichomythia, or rapidly exchanged dialogue between two or more characters (beginning with Orestes's line "Father, you may not have perished like a king"), is meant to be chanted with increasing speed and heavy syllabic stress. The images of Agamemnon's death repeat the ideas of traps and captivity. Each of the mourners feels captive in a different way, and their passion comes from fear for their own fates. Orestes is willing to die after he kills his mother; the act of preserving his family legacy will give meaning to his life.

The emotion and energy onstage builds until, finally, Orestes reveals his plan of action. He wants to return as the stranger they've made him out to be. He predicts that once Aegisthus recognizes him, he'll be too ashamed to look him in the eye: "his eyes will shift and fall, I promise you." In Orestes's eyes the real impostors are Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus pretending to claim the throne. The Chorus will take on a kind of disguise, too. Their role as house servants puts them in a unique position to hide knowledge they're not supposed to have. Pylades's role as "ally" in the plot foreshadows his crucial role as moral support to Orestes.

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