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The Libation Bearers

Aeschylus

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

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Study Questions

Compare and contrast Clytamnestra and Electra

Clytamnestra is the antithesis of the Greek feminine ideal, whereas Electra is everything that a Greek woman should be. Clytamnestra is cunning and ruthless. She took it upon herself to punish Agamemnon for murdering her daughter, and dared to think that she could put the state back in order after his death. She is extremely apt with words, having used them to trap Agamemnon and lure him to his death. She also dared to take a lover, violating her marriage vows to Agamemnon. She is a strong and powerful woman, a dangerous renegade in Greek myth.

Electra, on the other hand, is loyal and pure of heart. She refuses to repeat Clytamnestra's prayers at her father's grave, as she will not lie to his spirit. She recognizes the authority of the chorus and asks them to teach her how to speak. She is obedient to Orestes, the legitimate male figure of her house. After the first half of the play, she disappears into the house never to reappear, obeying Orestes's command to "stay silent." Whereas Clytamnestra thwarts the natural order by taking on male qualities, Electra accepts her role as a woman and works to reinforce Greek ideals.

Does Orestes have moral qualms about killing his mother?

Orestes avoids confronting the fact that he must kill his mother in order to avenge his father for most of the play, up until he meets her face to face. When he outlines his plot to Electra and the chorus (lines 554 ff.), he describes only how he will kill Aigisthos, and makes no mention of Clytamnestra at all. However, while we may infer from this that he is uncomfortable with the idea of killing his mother, we cannot say that he has moral qualms about his deed. While he may dread the action ahead of him, he is fully convinced of the justice of his acts.

Some may argue that his hesitation after Clytamnestra bares her breast to him (line 899) indicates that he does not think it is right to kill his own mother. However, Orestes says only that he "dreads" to kill his mother, not that he thinks it morally wrong. Having come this far, he is afraid to take the final step. However, once Pylades reminds him of Apollo's awful punishments, he swiftly and easily strikes down Clytamnestra's pitiful arguments in self- defense and stabs her without remorse.

Even if they accept that Orestes acted without remorse, others might argue that the Furies represent Orestes's sadness over what he has just done. This would only be the case if we thought of the Furies of manifestations of Orestes's own conscience. However, there is no support for this in the text. Deities in Aeschylus are real entities, rather than creations of man. They are external forces over which humans have no control. Thus, we cannot construe the appearance of the Furies to mean that Orestes doubts the moral goodness of his actions.

Who is the tragic hero of The Libation Bearers?

At first glance, we might think that Orestes is the tragic hero of The Libation Bearers. He is clearly the main character, and the play is in part a coming of age story about him. However, we must remember that the Greek tragic hero is defined as a key actor in a tragedy who oversteps the bounds of human nature, experiences a tragic recognition, and suffers for his or her actions. Other tragic heroes extant in Greek myth include Creon, Oedipus, and Pentheus. All three of these characters are confident in their actions for most of the story, only to realize at the end that they have made a horrible mistake.

With this in mind, we can argue that Clytamnestra is, in fact, the tragic hero of this play. She has overstepped the bounds of womanhood by killing her husband. At the climax of the play, she finally recognizes that Orestes is the snake from her dream. After this horrible recognition, Orestes drags her into the palace and stabs her to death, punishing her for her crimes.

In order to call Clytamnestra a tragic hero, we must understand her murder of Agamemnon not as a sin, but as a misunderstanding of the laws governing the universe. As Clytamnestra thought she was acting justly by killing Agamemnon, in retribution for his initial bloody act, it is possible to construe her as the tragic hero. This is not the only way to interpret her killing of Agamemnon, however.

Suggested Essay Topics

Discuss Aeschylus's use of metaphor in The Libation Bearers.

Discuss the role of the chorus in The Libation Bearers. Do they function more as actors or observers?

Cilissa and Pylades both play very small roles in The Libation Bearers. However, they have a significant effect upon the outcome of the play. Discuss these effects.

What is the chorus's conception of Justice, and how does it affect their actions?

Some have looked at The Libation Bearers as a mere linking play that stands between the much longer and more complex Agamemnon and Eumenides. Others have said that it presents important issues in its own right and that its importance should not be overlooked. Support one of these claims with arguments from the play and/or the Oresteia as a whole.

Describe the chorus's position on women in myth and society and discuss what this says about Greek society in the fifth century BCE.

Although we never actually see any divinities on stage in The Libation Bearers, they play a large role in determining the action. Discuss how the characters perceive themselves in relation to divine influences and describe how it affects their actions.

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