The Libation Bearers | Study Guide

Aeschylus

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The Libation Bearers | Episode 2 | Summary

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Summary

Orestes, in disguise, knocks on the door of the Argos royal palace with Pylades. After he knocks three times, a servant comes to the door. Orestes asks the servant to bring out the master or the mistress of the house; he has news for them. He'd prefer to speak to the master and talk directly, "man to man."

Clytaemnestra comes out instead with Electra in tow. Clytaemnestra welcomes Orestes and Pylades warmly, thinking they are strangers. She assures them the house lives "under the eyes of Justice." Orestes introduces himself as a traveler from the city of Phocis, coming to Argos for personal business. According to his story, he ran into a stranger on the road named Strophius, also from Phocis. When Strophius found out the traveler was headed to Argos, he asked him to pass on a message to Orestes's parents. Orestes has died in Phocis as an outcast. His parents can have him buried there or have his ashes sent home to Argos. (Telling the story, Orestes adds he's not sure if anyone cares, but he thought the parents should know.)

Clytaemnestra stammers with shock. She blames the family curse, which has now spread outside of the city. The death is especially shocking, she adds, because Orestes had prepared his security and planned for safety. He was the house's only hope of removing the curse. The disguised Orestes wishes he had better news for his host, but Clytaemnestra assures him he's still welcome; she'd have found out about her son's death anyway. She orders Electra to prepare rooms for the two guests. She'll tell Aegisthus the news and ask the couple's many friends for advice.

The characters depart inside the palace, leaving the Chorus onstage. The Chorus Leader asks her fellow slave women when they can openly share their support for Orestes. Together the chorus women pray to the Earth for help and hope justice will be served soon.

Cilissa, Orestes's childhood nurse, enters in tears. The Chorus Leader asks what's wrong, and Cilissa explains she was ordered by Clytaemnestra to find Aegisthus so he can learn firsthand about Orestes's death. Although Clytaemnestra appears to be mourning, Cilissa knows she is secretly thrilled. Aegisthus will be happy, too. Meanwhile, Cilissa feels the full weight of the house's curse and grieves for Orestes's death as the worst blow yet. She worked hard to nurse and tend to Orestes as a baby. He was a moody child, but she tended to his needs while doubting her competence to do so.

The Chorus Leader learns that Clytaemnestra wants Aegisthus to bring his guards. They ask Cilissa to tell Aegisthus to come alone and unarmed, saying, "he won't suspect a thing." Cilissa suspects the Chorus knows something she does not because they seem hopeful; the Chorus tells her the gods will take care of everything. Cilissa says she'll do as they ask and goes to find Aegisthus.

Analysis

The set's staging is significant in Episode 2. The onstage action takes place outside the palace doors, with characters entering and exiting into the skene, or backstage area. Although the audience can't see inside the palace, they know important actions are taking place within. Aeschylus uses the palace doors and the skene to build mystery and suggest violence because Greek playwrights couldn't show murder or physical violence onstage.

Episode 2 makes multiple references to the coming destruction. When Orestes says, "Night's black chariot is speeding overhead," he may be thinking of the doom and darkness to come. His request to speak to the master of the house reveals his intention to kill the more threatening Aegisthus (who is likely to arrive with guards) first, and then he'll deal with Clytaemnestra. But when Clytaemnestra appears instead, his plan changes.

Orestes's false account of his death is a twist on the "messenger speech," a staple of Greek drama. In the messenger speech, or nuntius, a messenger informs the characters about events crucial to the plot but, because of set restrictions, which cannot be performed onstage. Orestes's speech performs this function but differs in several ways. First, in another case of dramatic irony, the audience knows he's lying. The audience also knows his agenda and the importance of Clytaemnestra's believing his account.

Strophius from Phocis, the man Orestes says told him about the death, is Orestes's uncle. When Orestes left Argos, he took shelter with Strophius. Because Clytaemnestra knows who Strophius is, the mention of the name gives Orestes's account credibility. Orestes isn't entirely objective, though. He emphasizes his status as a "stranger, forever outcast." He wants his mother to know the toll his exile took on him. His discussion of burial options may indicate that Orestes wonders how his family would treat his body if he were really dead and what his place in the house would be. Finally, he hints that he's not sure if anyone in the house even cares, and certainly he's curious about Clytaemnestra's next move.

Clytaemnestra acts cleverly with a show of mourning, a diversion of blame ("that curse we can't repress"), and a quick focus on saving face through hospitality. She grieves mostly at the loss of what Orestes represents: a hope for the house. But her actions tell another story. She treats Orestes as a stranger and guest more kindly than she treats her own daughter Electra. Despite her outward composure, Clytaemnestra seems genuinely afraid of the house curse and startled that its impact extends beyond Argos. No one in this family is ever safe.

The Chorus hopes for "Persuasion ... with her deceit" to help Orestes's case. Clytaemnestra used the tactics of Persuasion, or the skillful, deceitful use of words and rhetoric, to talk her husband into his death trap in Agamemnon, the first play of the Oresteia trilogy. The Chorus now wants the skills of Persuasion to take Orestes's side because they believe him to be in the right. They employ deceit themselves by convincing Cilissa to lie to Aegisthus.

As a longtime servant of the House of Atreus, Cilissa knows the truth about the royal family. She feels a maternal attachment to Orestes, implying she, not Clytaemnestra, was the one who nursed him as a child. The balance between the child as an instinctual, bestial creature and the mother as a reasoned, civilized presence is seen as a sacred relationship. When Clytaemnestra and Orestes face off in the next episode, they'll show another version of the mother/child bond to the audience—because they're so close they're uniquely suited to hurt each other.

Cilissa used "a prophet's skill" to determine what the infant Orestes wanted because he couldn't communicate with words. The phrase invokes the idea of prophets, oracles, and the power of those who can see the future. The Chorus Leader hints the gods have already foretold the future when she says only a bad prophet can claim Orestes is gone. The messenger who will "straighten out a crooked message" is Orestes, who will let everyone in the house know the truth. The Chorus Leader's references to Zeus, prophecy, and authority lead Cilissa to trust her advice.

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