The Libation Bearers | Study Guide


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The Libation Bearers | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The play takes place in Argos, Greece, several years after the murder of Argive king Agamemnon by his wife, Clytaemnestra. Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, returns to his hometown, Argos, after years in exile during the Trojan War. Orestes and his companion, Pylades, visit Agamemnon's grave. As a token of grief, Orestes cuts off two locks of his hair and places them on the grave.

Electra, Orestes's sister, enters with the Chorus of captive women from Troy. Orestes recognizes them and hides; the women don't see him. The Chorus announces they've come to bring libations for Agamemnon. Electra asks for the Chorus's help in offering a verbal tribute and prays for herself and Orestes (whom she thinks is still in exile) as she pours libations over the tomb.

Electra notices a lock of hair on the grave. She's confused; the hair looks like hers. She also notices footprints resembling her own and hopes her brother has returned. Orestes comes out to greet her, and she slowly realizes who he is. The siblings are overjoyed to see each other. They both feel like outcasts from their home, the palace in Argos.

Orestes says an oracle, or prophet, told him to avenge his father's death or he will pay with his own life. The Chorus and Electra agree whoever murdered Agamemnon must die. Electra and Orestes grieve their father's death and ask for his protection. They ask Zeus and the gods of the underworld to help in their quest for revenge and curse their "cruel and reckless mother," who killed their father.

Orestes wonders why Clytaemnestra poured out libations after murdering her husband. The Chorus says Clytaemnestra had nightmares of giving birth to a snake and wanted to clear her conscience. Orestes thinks the dream is an omen foretelling his revenge.

He plans to deceive his mother the way she deceived Agamemnon. Electra and the Chorus will enter the Argos palace first. Then Orestes will enter disguised as a stranger and tell Clytaemnestra her son is dead. The rules of hospitality dictate Clytaemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus (who helped murder Agamemnon), must let a guest in. Once he's inside the palace, Orestes will murder them both. After Orestes, Pylades, and Electra leave the grave, the chorus sings an ominous ode about the treachery of women.

Orestes (in disguise) and Pylades knock on the palace doors. Clytaemnestra, with newly returned Electra behind her, greets them warmly. The disguised Orestes tells Clytaemnestra he's a stranger traveling to Argos. He heard from another traveler about the death of Clytaemnestra's son, Orestes, and came to tell her the bad news. Clytaemnestra is shocked and blames the death on her family's curse. She sends Electra to find rooms for the two guests and leaves to find Aegisthus. The Chorus wonders how to show their support for Orestes.

Orestes's childhood nurse, Cilissa, enters in tears. She's heartbroken over the death of Orestes, but she knows Aegisthus will be happy when she breaks the news to him. The Chorus leader instructs Cilissa to tell Aegisthus to come without armed guards, hinting Zeus might "[turn] evil into good." Cilissa is confused but follows the advice. The Chorus asks the gods to give Orestes strength and power.

Aegisthus enters. He's heard about Orestes's death but wants to know if the news is trustworthy. The Chorus tells him to ask the messenger himself. After Aegisthus exits into the palace, Orestes kills him offstage. Standing in front of the palace doors, the Chorus listens in bewilderment. The palace servant panics, thinking his master's been killed. He tries to open the palace doors and screams at the Chorus to help. Clytaemnestra hears the commotion and enters, requesting a "man-killing ax" to defend herself.

The palace doors open to reveal Orestes and Pylades standing over the dead body of Aegisthus. Orestes, whose true identity is now clear to everyone, warns Clytaemnestra she's next. Clytaemnestra begs him to take pity on the mother who nursed him. Orestes knows killing his mother is "a dreadful act," and Pylades reminds him he swore an oath to the oracle.

Orestes drags Clytaemnestra toward the dead body of her lover. Pleading for her life, Clytaemnestra says the family's curse is to blame for her murderous acts, and Orestes should fear it too. She thinks Agamemnon abandoned her, but Orestes reminds his mother she threw him out of the house herself. He says Clytaemnestra's own actions have led to her death and pushes her inside the palace.

The Chorus sings triumphantly—justice has prevailed. When the palace doors open again, Clytaemnestra lies dead beside Aegisthus. Orestes holds Agamemnon's bloodstained robes while he describes the trauma of his father's death. He says he'll be acquitted because he killed his mother for a "just cause." Still, as he laments his own suffering, the Chorus warns him worse is yet to come.

Orestes starts to feel doubt and panics. He's not sure what will happen next so he decides to go to Apollo's temple in Delphi. Apollo's priest promised him he'd go free, but he's frightened by a vision of women in black pursuing him—the Furies—who avenge crimes within the family. The Chorus leader tries to calm Orestes, saying Apollo will protect him, but Orestes is the only one who can see the gruesome Furies. He runs offstage in fear, and the Chorus asks when the murders will stop.

The Libation Bearers Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Orestes returns to Argos.

Rising Action

2 Electra pours libations over her father's grave.

3 Electra and Orestes are reunited.

4 Orestes states his plan for revenge.

5 Orestes and Pylades enter the palace.

6 The chorus tricks Aegisthus into meeting Orestes unarmed.


7 Orestes murders Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra.

Falling Action

8 Orestes defends himself to the gods.


9 The Furies begin to pursue Orestes.

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