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The Libation Bearers | Study Guide


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The Libation Bearers | Exodos | Summary



The palace doors open again. Orestes and Pylades stand beside the dead bodies of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. Attendants hold the robes Agamemnon wore when he was killed, still streaked with his blood. Orestes says Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra vowed to kill Agamemnon and then die together, and they've kept their promise. He then addresses the audience and the Chorus: "all those of you who pay attention to this house's troubles." He wants them to notice Agamemnon's robes on display, robes used to trap his father. Orestes asks the attendants to display the robes so the all-seeing "Sun" (a reference to the Sun God, Apollo) will know Orestes killed his mother for a just cause. Orestes has nothing to say about Aegisthus, who died as punishment for his adultery, but he has a lot to say about his mother. He loved her once, but she became evil, plotting against her husband and children.

Looking at Agamemnon's robes again, Orestes decides they were used as a hunting net, like a net a thief would use to trap an unsuspecting stranger. He hopes he'll die or remain childless before marrying a woman like his mother.

The Chorus regrets the horror of Clytaemnestra's death and says Orestes is just beginning to suffer. In response Orestes asks the Chorus to take another look at the robes. The blood is from Aegisthus's blade. Although Orestes has finally avenged his father, he's still grieving for his own actions and for his entire family. Guilt begins to overcome him. The Chorus says trouble never ends for mortals; they trade one problem for another.

Orestes begins to panic. He's not sure what will happen next. His mind is racing, and he senses fear will soon drive him out of control. While he can still think clearly, he declares once more he killed his mother for a just cause and was following Apollo's orders under threat. Pylades hands Orestes an olive branch, the object suppliants bring to make a request at Apollo's temple. Orestes plans to go straight to Apollo's shrine and ask for protection. He asks the men of Argos to remember him and tell his story to Menelaus when Menelaus returns home.

The Chorus wonders why Orestes is so frightened. He's murdered the tyrants and freed the city, but Orestes starts to see the avengers Clytaemnestra warned him about—the Furies—coming for him, women "draped in black" with snakes on their heads. Terrified, he points out the Furies to the Chorus members, who can't see them. They reassure Orestes his father and Apollo will protect him. They think Orestes is still upset from the trauma of having blood on his hands. Meanwhile, Orestes grows increasingly agitated as "hordes" of Furies gain on him. He runs offstage with Pylades.

The Chorus Leader wishes Orestes good luck. The Chorus says the house of Atreus faces its "third storm." First, Thyestes ate his own children, and the curse was set in motion. Then Agamemnon died. Now Orestes is in peril, and the Chorus is unsure if Orestes is "our saviour or our doom." They wonder when the murder will stop.


Greek tragedies include a moment of peripeteia, or reversal of fortune for the main character or characters. Usually this reversal occurs as the play reaches its climax. Orestes's peripeteia occurs after he has slaughtered his mother. He has taken her place as the ruler of the house, a ruler who came to the throne through murder. Meanwhile, Clytaemnestra has taken Agamemnon's place as the spirit who can't rest in the afterlife and whose blood cries out for revenge. Orestes still can't move back into the palace as king; first, he has to answer to the gods for matricide.

His father's bloodied robe connects Orestes to his father and his heritage. Orestes promises to live more wisely than his father did, avoiding treacherous women like his mother and letting the gods hold him accountable—"before that, let the gods destroy me." He doesn't want to bring a child, who will suffer the way he did, into the House of Atreus. Here Orestes faces the complex burden of his inheritance. His actions will affect "the entire race," the future generations of his family, and even the city of Argos.

Orestes takes on the role of the suppliant asking for help from divine forces. He appeals to those who are watching him: the gods, the "men of Argos," the Chorus, and the audience. He wants his legacy to be one of heroism. His uncle Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother, has not yet returned from the Trojan War. Orestes, forced back into exile, wants Menelaus to hear the truth when he returns to Argos.

He continues the play's language of captivity to demonstrate the cruelty of Agamemnon's death. The robe was worse than a snare for the hunted or a corpse for the dead. It was a net of planned betrayal, the weapon of a thief who tricks a vulnerable stranger the way Clytaemnestra tricked her husband.

Because he wants to bring the truth to light, Orestes is no longer appealing to Hermes in the underworld. He's appealing to the Olympian gods in heaven, who are associated with light. Apollo is known as the "Sun God," and Orestes will rely on Apollo to acquit him of any crime.

The Chorus acknowledges both Clytaemnestra's evil and the agony of her death. The House of Atreus can become free only through tragic means. The suffering Orestes and Clytaemnestra both endure in Clytaemnestra's death scene lingers until the end of the play, continuing to arouse pity and fear in the audience.

The play so far has led to Orestes's return as the triumphant hero. But the dramatic arc changes as the audience realizes he's not getting the hero's victory the Chorus anticipated. Instead he's forced back into exile. He escaped offending Apollo only to unleash the much more vicious underworld goddesses, the Furies. As a tragic hero, Orestes is meant to suffer more than he deserves, and the audience sees the impossible situation he's been put in by the gods.

Although Orestes isn't trapped in a literal net, he feels trapped psychologically as his options narrow. In the Exodos he knows more than the Chorus; their roles are reversed. Even before he spots the Furies, Orestes senses he's in trouble: "I don't know how this will end." When the Chorus compared him to a chariot racer, they hoped he'd reach his goal. Here Orestes describes himself as a racer who's veered off course. After all the prayers for his victory and hopes for the house's salvation, Orestes recognizes himself for what he is: "an exile who murdered his own blood." Now he's the one to suffer the consequences of murdering a family member.

Pylades, his silent and supportive friend, guides him again toward the action that will appease the gods. The olive branch Pylades hands Orestes is a peace offering to the god Apollo. Orestes needs Apollo to deliver on his promise of protection.

The audience doesn't see the Furies, nor do the other characters onstage. Orestes's actions and descriptions are the only indications the audience gets of the terror to come. The invisible Furies are even more frightening in the audience's imagination. The audience isn't sure whether or not to believe Orestes, who's hinted he might be losing his grip on reality. Are the Furies really attacking him? Will he survive? And if he does, can he ever return to Argos? His fate is the cliffhanger leading the audience to the Oresteia's final play, Eumenides.

In their final stanza, the Chorus leaves the future of the House of Atreus uncertain. At first they saw an end to the grip of murder and blood vengeance on the family. But Aeschylus has denied the audience a neat and tidy resolution. Instead, as the Chorus promises, "One trouble comes today, yet another comes tomorrow." The play demonstrates that the blood-for-blood cycle of vengeance may deliver justice to criminals, but vengeance comes at a real human cost.

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