The Libation Bearers | Study Guide


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The Libation Bearers | Themes


Vengeance for Crimes

Each play in the Oresteia cycle holds up justice as an ideal, especially where criminal acts are concerned. Under the rule of the Greek gods, murderers never get away with it. Apollo orders Orestes specifically to punish Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus in a way fitting their crime: "to murder them the way they murdered [Agamemnon]."

Since its ultimate purpose is righting wrongs, vengeance is murder in the name of good rather than evil. Those characters who commit revenge killings are convinced they're on the side of righteousness. Electra names Power and Justice as allies in her revenge quest with Orestes, showing her conviction that killing Clytaemnestra is a just act.

Most of the choral odes in The Libation Bearers express a longing for vengeance to free the House of Atreus. The Chorus instructs Electra in Episode 1 to make a clear request in her libation prayer for "Someone who'll pay back life by taking life." But the Chorus and the characters also recognize the pain in a constant cycle of vengeance, where bloodshed leads only to more bloodshed.

Homeland, Exile, and Family Responsibility

Orestes describes himself and Electra as banished outcasts and orphans. They're estranged from the family unit and exiled from their city in a culture in which relational and civic identity means everything. As a result the siblings struggle to define their individual identities. Their inheritance involves not just rights but responsibilities; Orestes and Electra see vengeance as their responsibility to their father and to future generations.

Electra can't name any allies or friends at her father's grave. Without a place in her family as a daughter, sister, or wife, she feels lost and imprisoned in her own home: "worth nothing, set apart, inside a cell." In return for his protection, Electra promises to pour libations to Agamemnon at her marriage feast "from the full store of what I inherit in my father's house." She recognizes what she owes as a family member and what she's owed in return from her father.

Orestes emphasizes the shame of his exile by returning home disguised as a stranger. His return after several years shows that family members carry the burden of responsibility wherever they go. To claim his rightful place on the throne, Orestes has to risk his life. He feels a civic duty to the men of Argos, "my countrymen ... whose courageous spirit brought down Troy." To save them from Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus's leadership, Orestes has to take action. His father's honor is also at stake. Orestes asks Agamemnon at his tomb to "save yourself" by protecting his children.

Deception, Treachery, and Secrecy

Many characters deceive another or are deceived themselves. Apollo plans for Orestes to bait his mother with "well-intentioned stealthy trickery." Orestes conceals his identity to send his mother into a death trap, just as she concealed her true motives from Agamemnon.

Secrecy is another weapon characters use to harm, to help, and to survive. If they want to honor their father, Orestes and Electra have to hide their true grief from the illegitimate rulers of Argos. Orestes hides his return from Electra, waiting for her to find him on her own. As the mourners enter the palace, Orestes instructs Electra and the Chorus to keep his plan a secret. The Chorus then keeps the secret of Orestes's return from Cilissa so they can use her to aid in the revenge plot.

Characters also adopt false identities. Orestes's disguise is the clearest example. Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus are posing as rulers of Argos when Agamemnon (according to Orestes and the Chorus) is the one true king of the city. Electra does not intentionally disguise herself, but she is forced to assume the position of a servant rather than assume her rightful place in the royal family.

Honoring the Dead

Ancient Greeks believed in the existence of the soul after death. Their mourning rituals honored the dead person's importance to the family and ensured a smooth passage to the afterlife. If the rituals were incomplete or insincere, the dead person's soul wouldn't be at rest. And if the deceased were a victim of murder, his or her soul would be restless for vengeance.

The Libation Bearers shows Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus attempting to honor a dead family member, Agamemnon, through rituals and revenge. The libations of the title are a Greek mourning ritual meant to honor the gods of the underworld, known as chthonic gods. In her prayer over her father's tomb, Electra summons the gods beneath the earth "who guard my father's house."

In Episode 1 the Chorus, Electra, and Orestes sing an extended kommos, or funeral song, for Agamemnon. They honor his life by recalling the power he held when he was alive.

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