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The Libation Bearers | Study Guide


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The Libation Bearers | Prologos | Summary



The play begins several years after Agamemnon's murder and the end of the Trojan War. Agamemnon is buried in Argos. As the first scene opens, Agamemnon's son, Orestes, arrives in Argos after years of living in exile. He's brought his companion Pylades with him. At his father's tomb Orestes prays to Hermes, "messenger of the dead," for help. He cuts off two locks of his hair and places them on the grave. One lock is an offering to honor his homeland; the other is an expression of his grief because he couldn't be there when his father was buried. Orestes notices the Chorus dressed in black arriving with his sister Electra. At first he doesn't recognize them and worries another tragedy has happened he hasn't heard about, but he quickly realizes the Chorus is there to honor Agamemnon by pouring libations over his grave. He also recognizes his grieving sister. Orestes is determined to avenge his father. He and Pylades hide so they can find out the women's purpose.


Although the play doesn't specify how many years have passed between Agamemnon's death and the events in The Libation Bearers, enough time has elapsed for the Chorus's mourning to represent lasting grief. Orestes wonders in a later episode what made his mother, after so much time, suddenly want to send libations to Agamemnon's grave. He suspects her motives are more self-serving than pure. He has been exiled for years, enough time to grow from a boy into a man. The first lock of hair he leaves is a tribute to the river and an acknowledgment of his maturity. As a man he's now key to his family's survival.

The Chorus has also been marking time. The choruses in each Oresteia play are made up of a group of people central to the play's setting and historical background. The Libation Bearers' chorus members are enslaved Trojan women. After their city was conquered in the Trojan War, they were taken from their home and forced to serve the war's victors. Their presence shows the enduring legacy of the Trojan War while their role in the house illustrates the feeling of captivity that haunts many other characters, particularly Electra.

Orestes was a young boy when he was sent away from Argos during the Trojan War either to ensure his safety or his ruin. (Orestes and Clytaemnestra have different interpretations of his exile.) Now he's coming back at risk to his own safety. Anyone in the Argive royal palace who finds Orestes may report him to Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus, who would see his return as a direct threat to their power. This fear is the reason he doesn't reveal himself to Electra and the Chorus immediately. The Chorus works for Clytaemnestra, and he isn't sure whose side they're on. Although he hopes he can trust his sister, he may not be sure about her either. So he leaves signs of his presence without directly revealing himself—enough clues for her to follow, if she's willing to help him.

When Orestes prays to Hermes, he's making the first of many appeals to the Greek gods: both the younger Olympian gods and the older gods of the underworld. Hermes, often known as the winged or "messenger" god, guided travelers on their journeys, including guiding the dead from the human world to the underworld. He'd deliver a message from a living family member to a dead one. Hermes is an Olympian god, but Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus members will also appeal to the Earth and to the gods down below—the underworld or chthonic gods of darkness, who govern the dead.

The play's plot moves forward through secrecy and deception. The withholding of information by several characters leads to several plot-turning instances of dramatic irony when the audience knows important information before a character onstage does. In this case the audience knows Orestes has returned, but Electra and the Chorus don't know, at least at first. This creates tension as the audience waits to find out if and when the women learn the truth.

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