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The Libation Bearers

Aeschylus

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Plot Overview

Aeschylus was born in 525 BCE. He is called the "father of tragedy", as he invented the dramatic form that defined Athens's glorious heyday. Along with Sophocles and Euripides, the two other chief Athenian tragedians, Aeschylus stands as one of the most important literary figures in the western tradition. He transformed a traditional religious festival, that of the lament over the sufferings of Dionysus, into a literary form with social and political consequences that pervaded Greek culture. Throughout history, he has been a major influence on literature. Writers from Ovid to Shakespeare to Shelly and Goethe have drawn directly from his ideas and models.

Like all other male Athenian citizens, Aeschylus was a soldier in addition to being a producer of plays. His military experience included fighting in the battle of Marathon against the Persians in 490 BCE and again against the Persians at Salamis and Platea in 480 BCE. Athens, at that time, was part of a federation of small Greek states allied against the enormous forces of the Persian army, which was led by king Xerxes.

We learn from reading Herodotus's Histories that all the odds were stacked against the Greeks, as they were far outnumbered and out-financed. However, they had something the Persians did not, namely, democracy and a commitment to individual freedoms. This allowed them to fight far more fiercely than their opponents, who were all slaves of Xerxes and who had no personal reasons for fighting the Greeks. As the translator and editor of the Oresteia Robert Fagles maintains, the Greek victory over the Persians in 479 BCE was celebrated as "the triumph of right over might, courage over fear, freedom over servitude, moderation over arrogance."

The cultural flowering that followed celebrated these values and established them as the principles upon which Athens stood. There was an era of optimism, in which Athenians felt that a new religious, political and personal harmony could arise out of the primitive savagery of past wars. It is in this context that Aeschylus, at the age of sixty-seven and after producing at least eighty plays, wrote his masterpiece, the Oresteia.

Having spearheaded the defense of Greece against the Persians, Athens took a strong leadership position amongst its neighbors and quickly began redefining itself as an empire. In celebration of its new status, Athens set about redefining itself and its history. In this context, we can view the Oresteia as representing the new charter myth of Athens. From a very broad perspective, it chronicles the transition of the rule of law from the old tradition of personal vengeance, which was bound to a cycle of bloody violence, to the new system of law courts, wherein the state assumed responsibility for dealing out just punishments.

The Libation Bearers itself stands at the crux of this transition, telling the story of Orestes's quest to avenge his father's murder by murdering his mother and her lover. Although Orestes's cause is just, the Furies treat him in the end just like any other murderer, goading him into madness after he kills Clytamnestra. The chorus hopes all along that the cycle of bloodshed might end with Orestes, but concedes at the end that blood can only bring more blood. However, there is hope in the form of Apollo, the god who has promised Orestes that he will not suffer for his crimes.

In the Eumenides, Athena convenes a trial for Orestes, in which Apollo and the Furies argue against each other as to whether Orestes should pay for his crimes with death. Such a resolution of a bloody conflict was unprecedented, and heralds a new phase of civilized approaches to crime and punishment. Apollo represents the new order of light and civilization against the primitive Furies, who scream only for blood and more blood. Athena's acquittal of Orestes at the end of the play is a symbol of Athens's progression into a new era of civilization. Moreover, Orestes's journey from boyhood to maturity is a metaphor for the transformation of Athenian society itself.

Note: In order to understand the sequence of events that takes place in The Libation Bearers, it is crucial to know something about the plot of the Agamemnon, the first play in the trilogy of the Oresteia. The most famous telling of this myth takes place in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Aeschylus preserves most of the traditional aspects of this ancient myth, although he reformulates others to suit his times.

King Agamemnon was the brother of Menaleus, whose wife Helen (Clytamnestra's sister) was abducted by Paris and brought to Troy, thus giving the premise for the Trojan War. Angered over the slaughter that was fated to take place at Troy, Artemis punished the Greek fleet by stranding it on an island until a proper sacrifice should be offered. After consulting the oracles, Agamemnon learned that only by sacrificing his own daughter Iphigineia could he convince Artemis to allow the expedition to continue. He did so, and the fleet proceeded to Troy, where it was victorious after ten years of fighting.

Clytamnestra, Agamemnon's wife, was furious over the murder of her child, and swore to seek vengeance. When Agamemnon returned home to Argos, bringing with him the Trojan princess Cassandra as a concubine, Clytamnestra was waiting with a cunning plot to kill him. She did not work alone however, but in conjunction with Aigisthos, the lover whom she had taken in Agamemnon's absence. Aigisthos had his own reasons for hating Agamemnon, as Agamemnon's father Atreus killed both of his brothers. Clytamnestra lured Agamemnon into his bath, where Aigisthos stabbed him to death.

At the end of the Agamemnon, Clytamnestra is relieved that the deed is done, and hopes that her house can now rest in peace. There are signs, however, that more bloodshed is to follow. This sets the stage for The Libation Bearers, where Orestes will return to avenge his father's death.

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