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The Libation Bearers

Aeschylus

Lines 838–934

Lines 719–837

Lines 935–1076

Summary

Aigisthos enters the stage, saying that he comes at the summons of a messenger. He has heard the news of Orestes's death, and calls it far from welcome. The house is still festering from the wounds of the last bloody murder, and this new burden might bring the place down. He asks the chorus how he can know that the news is true, and not some rumor spread by women that will soon die away.

The chorus says that it has heard a little, but that he should learn the rest from the stranger directly. For, a messenger's report can never be so trustworthy as direct inquiry. Aigisthos announces that he will see the stranger himself and put them to the test. For, no one would be able to deceive Aigisthos, whose mind is quick of sight.

The chorus chants in anxious anticipation, wondering what the outcome of the battle will be. Either everything is ruined, or Orestes will emerge as the golden champion. A servant staggers out of the palace, crying that Aigisthos is dead. He struggles with the door to the women's quarters, wondering whether his cries fall on deaf ears. Where has Clytamnestra gone, he shouts.

Clytamnestra enters, asking what's the matter. The servant replies that the dead are killing the living. She understands the riddle, and recognizes the deceit that has been put upon her. Calling for the servant to bring her an axe, she prepares to fight.

Before the servant can return, the main door opens and we see Orestes standing over the body of Aigisthos. Disgusted over Clytamnestra's sorrow for Aigisthos, Orestes drags her over to his body and prepares to kill her. She stops him by asking whether he has no respect for the breast that fed him as a baby. Orestes hesitates, asking Pylades what he should do. How can he kill his own mother?

Pylades reminds him of Apollo's commands, saying that one should make all men enemies before one offends the gods. Convinced, Orestes turns back to Clytamnestra. He speaks contemptuously to her, saying that she will die next to the man whom she favored over Agamemnon.

Clytamnestra pleads once more, saying that she gave him life, and that he should let her grow old with him. Orestes balks, recalling the murder of his father. She claims that destiny was responsible for his death. Orestes counters by saying that destiny also has a hand in her death.

Clytamnestra warns him that he should fear a mother's curse. Orestes cries that she bore him and then abandoned him, selling him off for a price. Clytamnestra challenges him to name the price, and to name his father's failings. Orestes reproaches her, saying that she can never judge a man who was fighting for her while she sat at home.

Clytamnestra shrieks, seeing murder in her son's eyes. She warns him of her curse, and then recognizes him as the snake from her dream. Orestes pronounces that she has killed in an outrageous manner, and now she will suffer the same outrage now. He pulls her over the threshold and they disappear behind the palace door.

Analysis

This scene is the climax of the play. Aigisthos, secondary to the action throughout the Oresteia, is quickly taken care of so that we may concentrate on the murder of Clytamnestra. It is only at this dreadful moment that Orestes finally faces the awful nature of his duty: matricide. Although the lines fly back and forth and the action proceeds quickly, the scene is still full of pathos and suffering. We see that Orestes has fully accepted his charge, as he counters every pitiful argument from Clytamnestra with a fiercely logical response. The time for discussion and planning is finally over.

Before going into a detailed discussion of Clytamnestra's death scene, we must note one interesting aspect of Aigisthos's speech as he goes unknowingly to his death. He says that no man can deceive him, for his mind is literally "full of eyes." While under normal circumstances this would ensure his protection, as he would see Orestes coming and be able to defend against him, there are more powerful forces at work here. We remember that in the previous scene, the chorus called on Hermes to aid Orestes in his quest. Hermes is the mythological guide, the one who lights the way. But, he is also the trickster, able to make dark and hidden what should be clear before men's eyes. Thus, neither Aigisthos nor Clytamnestra realizes with whom they are dealing until it is too late.

Clytamnestra shows herself far more aware than her unfortunate mate when she immediately interprets the servants cryptic words, "The dead are killing the living," to mean that some agent of Agamemnon has returned to exact vengeance on the house. Realizing that some treachery is afoot, she says, "By cunning we die, precisely as we killed." The servant's line is fascinating in its ambiguity. We can take it to mean either that Agamemnon is killing Aigisthos, or that Orestes is killing him, as Clytamnestra and Aigisthos had thought Orestes to be dead. It is unclear, however, whether Clytamnestra realizes that her son is in fact alive and out for blood until he bursts out of the palace and confronts her face to face.

In desperation, Clytamnestra bares her breast to Orestes and asks whether or not he has respect for that which gave him life as an infant. This visual, emotional gesture stops Orestes in his tracks. While he is well prepared to counter any logical argument, he is rendered powerless by this visceral sign of motherhood. He falters, and calls to Pylades for help. Pylades then speaks his only lines of the play, reminding him of Apollo's commands. Apollo is the god of light and civilization, whom we could call the representation of patriarchal society. Pylades's words break the spell of the primitive maternal bond, and free Orestes to follow through on his action.

After this critical moment of doubt, Orestes proceeds wholeheartedly towards his goal. Clytamnestra tries to persuade him by appealing to the filial bond, justifying her murder of Agamemnon, her treatment of Orestes as a child, and her adultery. But, while Agamemnon proved easy prey to her arguments and fell into a death trap, Orestes is immune to their manipulative powers.

One of his fiercest statements is that Clytamnestra has no right to judge Agamemnon, for she sat at home while he went to war. Here we see that all justice is not equal, for women are in no position to hold men accountable for their acts. Women do not contribute to society, and should sit in grateful silence rather than criticizing their husbands for murdering their children.

One could argue that Orestes kills her as much for violating what the Greeks considered to be the natural order of things as he does out in vengeance for his father. In ancient Greece, women were not even considered citizens. They were considered to be flaky, hysterical and untrustworthy. Naturally, Clytamnestra was in no position to judge her regal husband.

Finally, we must note that Orestes pays no attention to Clytamnestra's warnings that her curse will hunt him down after her death. Either he is resigned to his fate, does not recognize the full meaning of her words, or trusts that he will evade this punishment somehow. Or, perhaps he is too caught up in the passion of the moment to delay over small matters like curses. Whatever the reason for his lack of reaction to Clytamnestra's warnings, Orestes will soon pay the price for his bloody act.

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