The Libation Bearers | Study Guide

Aeschylus

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The Libation Bearers | Episode 3 | Summary

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Summary

Aegisthus enters from inside the palace. He's been told travelers have come with the news of Orestes's death—one more burden the house will have to bear—but he wants to make sure the news isn't just gossip. He asks the Chorus members what they know. The Chorus Leader encourages Aegisthus to get the truth straight from the messenger because secondhand news isn't as powerful. Aegisthus takes their advice; he doesn't want to be deceived by a messenger repeating rumors.

After Aegisthus leaves, the Chorus asks Zeus how to pray. They know two outcomes are possible: either Orestes wins the throne, or the blood curse continues, killing more members of the house.

Aegisthus screams from inside the palace, startling the chorus members. Some members approach the palace doors, but the Chorus Leader tells them to stay back. If they avoid the crime scene they won't be blamed. A weeping servant enters from the palace and announces Aegisthus is dead. He tries to open a locked side door and screams at the Chorus to help him. The servant finally gives up banging on the door. He knows it's too late for Aegisthus, but he's worried about Clytaemnestra.

Clytaemnestra, disturbed by the servant's shouting, enters through the main palace doors. The servant says "The dead are murdering the living!" Then Clytaemnestra understands what's happened—she's been tricked by Orestes. She tells the servant to bring her a weapon.

The palace doors open. Orestes stands beside the dead body of Aegisthus. Clytaemnestra begins to mourn him, and Orestes cuts her off. If she loved Aegisthus so much, he says, she shouldn't mind dying beside him. Clytaemnestra asks Orestes to take pity on the breasts that nursed him. Orestes, conflicted, asks Pylades for advice: How can he kill his mother? Pylades reminds Orestes of his oath to Apollo. Don't make a god your enemy, Pylades warns him. This is all it takes for Orestes to make up his mind. He pulls Clytaemnestra next to Aegisthus's body as Clytaemnestra begs to grow old with her son, telling him to blame and fear the family curse. The same curse will cause her death, Orestes retorts. She kicked him out of the house and sold him at a price "too shameful to declare in public." Clytaemnestra protests she sent him to live with a friend and claims she didn't sell him. Besides, his father, Agamemnon, had plenty of faults. It was hard for her to live alone with her husband at war.

But Orestes doesn't want to hear about his father's failings. Clytaemnestra sat at home, all her needs taken care of, while Agamemnon fought. She's caused her own demise. Realizing her death is inevitable, Clytaemnestra warns Orestes "the vicious hounds which avenge all mothers" will find him. In her last words she calls Orestes "the snake I bore and nourished," recalling her dream. Orestes agrees the dream was prophetic—she made Agamemnon suffer and now she'll suffer. Orestes drags Clytaemnestra inside the palace and Pylades follows.

Analysis

Aegisthus pretends Orestes's death is "unwelcome news." But he knows Orestes will come for him eventually. Because Orestes is a threat to his authority and his life, he wants to make sure Orestes is really dead.

For the second time the Chorus Leader works as Orestes's silent ally and uses Persuasion to trick Aegisthus. When Aegisthus says, "These keen eyes of mine won't be deceived," the line shows dramatic irony, again—Aegisthus has already been deceived, he just doesn't know it. In an attempt to protect himself, he walks unwittingly into the hands of death.

But Aegisthus's fate is not the major concern of the characters or the audience. He needs to die quickly so Orestes can come face to face with Clytaemnestra. The slave women of the chorus have to keep their true motives secret. They can't openly defy Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. But secrecy is its own kind of deception, and the Chorus influences the outcome of the play through their words and actions. The Chorus's refusal to help the servant open the doors may give Orestes the crucial time he needs to defend himself against Clytaemnestra, for she never does get the chance to grab a weapon.

Clytaemnestra may have suspected Orestes's return. She's savvier than Aegisthus; when the servant makes the cryptic statement "The dead are murdering the living!" she instantly knows exactly what has happened. Her revelation marks the play's second instance of recognition, or anagnorisis, where a character makes a critical discovery of another character's true identity. In this case Clytaemnestra doesn't just recognize Orestes; she sees the truth about her own fate. Anagnorisis in Greek drama often precedes the peripeteia, or moment of reversal, when characters' fortunes are reversed. Orestes, the abandoned, powerless son, is about to become a powerful heir.

The dialogue between Clytaemnestra and Orestes is the play's second example of stichomythia, or rapidly exchanged dialogue between two (or more) characters. In this case the characters are enemies, facing each other in the play's climactic scene.

Aristotle wrote in Poetics, his famous text on tragedy, that a drama should inspire pity and fear in the audience. These emotions stem from the dilemma of the tragic hero trapped by hamartia, or "misfortune brought about ... by some error or frailty." Forced to kill his mother, Orestes will suffer the family curse and the revenge of the Furies. The situation he's trapped in becomes his hamartia, or weakness. The intention is for the audience to feel pity and fear for him as the scene escalates.

Another ingredient in tragedies is pathos, or suffering. Both Orestes and Clytaemnestra clearly suffer onstage and both are convinced they've acted out of righteousness. Orestes even wavers for a moment, remembering the strength of the family bond. When he heard the details of Clytaemnestra's dream, he was passionate about becoming the avenging snake, but once he faces the woman herself, he realizes killing the mother who nurtured him is a terrible crime. Clytaemnestra tries to manipulate Orestes with emotion, and she almost succeeds. He turns to Pylades as an adviser who's unaffected by the family curse and can give objective counsel.

Pylades only speaks once in the play, but what he says is significant. He reminds Orestes an oath to the gods is more important than any family sentiment. Orestes's life is determined by the fate the gods set out for him. He doesn't make his own choices. "What Apollo said, what he foretold at Delphi"—the destruction of Orestes if he disobeys—will come to pass.

After Orestes makes his decision, the audience knows he won't be swayed. He isn't simply following the orders of the gods. He takes his mother's betrayal personally. When Clytaemnestra protests she didn't sell him as he claims ("What's the price I charged for you?"), he says the truth—forced exile from his own home so Clytaemnestra could commit adultery—is "too shameful." She took away Orestes's identity as a royal son of the House of Atreus and failed in her duties as queen and wife of a war hero. Agamemnon fought bravely in the Trojan War, Orestes says, and his wife repaid him with murder and betrayal.

The other members of the family are forgotten. Electra doesn't reappear in the play, and her fate remains uncertain to the audience. Iphigeneia, the daughter Agamemnon sacrificed, is only alluded to when Clytaemnestra references "your father's failings." The two central characters battle it out until Clytaemnestra accepts her fate.

She and her son have more in common than they realize. Both Clytaemnestra and Orestes have taken vengeance into their own hands, committing the crime of hubris, or godlike pride. In Greek tragedies hubris doesn't go unpunished. Destructive acts lead to ate, or ruin and downfall. Clytaemnestra reminds Orestes he won't be immune to the family curse just because he's avenged Agamemnon. The audience may wonder if Orestes is fully aware of the consequences he'll have to endure.

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