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The Libation Bearers

Aeschylus

Lines 935–1076

Lines 838–934

Important Quotes Explained

Summary

The chorus celebrates Orestes's victory, calling him the double lion. The house is now free of grief, free of those who stained it with murder. Orestes came home with a lust for secret combat, but dike (Greek for Justice) steered his arm in open combat. Apollo willed it so, and descended to earth in order to heal the house's wounds. The light is breaking now, and the house can rise up again, having lain shattered for too long.

The palace gates open, and we see Orestes standing over the bodies of Clytamnestra and Aigisthos. Orestes addresses the chorus, telling them to behold the former tyrants. Together they conspired to kill his father, and now together they lie dead. He unwraps a shroud from around the bodies, and lays it out in front of the chorus, telling them to have a look at the master-plot that brought down his father. It was this shroud that bound his hands and feet, rendering him defenseless in his bath and prone to murder.

Orestes need not say anything about Aigisthos, as he has suffered the normal fate of an adulterer. Then pointing to Clytamnestra, Orestes asks what the chorus thinks of her now, she who murdered her own husband. If she had been born a viper, she would have rotted another with her touch, not by her bite, but by shamelessness and wickedness alone.

Orestes takes up the bloody robe again, and muses upon what name he should give it. A trap for a wild animal? A covering for a corpse in his grave? A bath curtain? Or, rather, a hunting net, the sort that a highway robber might use to entrap strangers and slay them.

The chorus cries out woefully, calling Clytamnestra's death wretched. They also see new suffering blossoming for Orestes.

Orestes points to the robe as witness to the murder. It is still stained with the blood from Aigisthos's sword, even years later. Now at last he can lament his father's death, addressing the robe. While he rejoices in his victory, he sees that it is polluted. Orestes feels like he is driving a chariot that is wildly out of control, and feels his wits leaving him. Before succumbing to this madness, he proclaims to the world that he has justly killed his own mother. He appeals to Apollo, saying that the god promised him that he would be free of guilt if he accomplished this deed, whereas if he avoided it, the penalties would have been horrific.

The chorus perks up at this, assuring Orestes that he has done the right thing, and pleading with him not to speak evil things. Orestes cannot hear them now, however, as he is possessed by a vision of the Furies. The chorus sees nothing, but Orestes assures them that for him, the Furies are real. The chorus claims that the blood on his hands is making him see visions, nothing more. Orestes cries out to Apollo, begging for release from the bloody troops of vengeful spirits.

Orestes rushes from the stage, leaving the chorus to sum up the woes of the house. They close the play with a question. When will this murderous hate of the Furies come to an end?

Analysis

The chorus opens this scene by lamenting the fates of Clytamnestra and Aigisthos, but saying also that Justice necessitated their murder. Orestes has saved the house, and all should rejoice. Apollo himself willed it to be so, thus ensuring that there is no moral ambiguity surrounding the murder. They cry out that the light is breaking through the gloom now, and that the house is finally free of its sorrows.

The chorus clearly hopes that by saying all is well, they can make it so. However, we quickly learn that here are dire consequences for Orestes's actions. Now that he has fulfilled his mission, he is vulnerable to his mother's curse, which is indeed powerful. While Orestes at first stands triumphant over the bodies of his victims, he soon falls prey to chaotic madness and must flee from the stage. The cycle of misery is doomed to repeat itself, or so it seems.

The onset of Orestes's madness begins with his examination of the robes in which his father died, which are now wrapped around the bodies of Clytamnestra and Aigisthos. No explanation is given for why these bloody robes were preserved for many years, or how Orestes retrieved them in order to wrap his new victims. We must suspend our disbelief here and instead focus on the importance of the robes as symbols.

Agamemnon's robes function both as a physical link to his spirit, and as a metaphor made manifest. In the former sense, they provide a focal point upon which Orestes can focus his laments for his dead father. Orestes points to them as witness to the justice of his acts, calling upon the chorus and Zeus to observe the evidence of his mother's crimes.

In addition to serving as a foil for Agamemnon, the robes are connected to the "net" metaphor that has pervaded the play. Orestes wonders aloud what he should name these garments; should he call them a trap for an animal? A sheath for a corpse's feet? A curtain for the bath? A hunting net? The robes were literally the means by which Agamemnon was caught, as he was wrapped in them and unable to escape the murderer's blows. However, they are also "the master-plot" that bound Agamemnon. Throughout the Oresteia, we find instances of persuasive words described as "nets". These robes are the manifestation of Clytamnestra's deceit, and thus serve as further evidence against her.

Having finally paid tribute to Agamemnon's memory, and having served poetic justice by wrapping Clytamnestra and Aigisthos in the very robes in which they caught Agamemnon, Orestes has fulfilled his duties. As soon as his work is done, he begins to slip into madness. It is as though the dam that was holding back all of the dark forces of nature until Orestes could finish his work has finally burst. Before losing himself completely to terror at the approaching Furies, Orestes cries out that his crime was justified, and that Apollo promised him protection. After putting on the robes of a supplicant, he flees the stage in the direction of Delphi, where he will seek refuge from the bloody Furies who now pursue him due to Clytamnestra's curse.

The play ends with an unresolved question: when will the blood cease to flow through these palace walls? It is this issue which the Eumenides, the third play in the trilogy of the Oresteia, will address and bring to a happy conclusion. While The Libation Bearers stands on its own as a complete play that addresses many important issues concerning Greek society, it also functions as the link between the story of Agamemnon, which centers on the ancient law of vengeance, and the Eumenides, which establishes the law courts of Athens as the proper venue for addressing crimes of murder.

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