The Libation Bearers

July 25, 2010

The Libation Bearers, the second tragedy in Aeschylus’s trilogy The Oresteia, focuses on a matricide performed by Orestes, the recently returned son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Orestes has returned to Argos on the order of Apollo, who enjoined that Orestes kill his mother and her husband, the new king Aegisthus. Orestes visits his father’s grave and leaves a lock of his hair as a momento. Electra, Orestes’s sister, also visits her father’s grave on that day on request of her mother, Clytemnestra, who is plagued by disturbing dreams of a snake that she cradles as a child and lets suck both milk and blood from her breast (a portentous dream presaging the return of Orestes). While at the grave, Electra sees a strand of hair and a pair of footprints that look shockingly similar to her own. She then encounters Orestes, her long since departed brother, and with him denigrates their mother, lauds their deceased father, and plots the murder of both Clytemnestra and her tyrannous husband, Aegisthus.

Orestes and his traveling companion Pylades disguise themselves as foreigners and approach the castle where the rest of the house of Atreus dwells. When Clytemnestra answers Orestes at the entrance, and Orestes pretends to be a message bearer sent to inform the household that Orestes has died. Clytemnestra is saddened by the news, and Cilissa, Orestes’s childhood nurse, is equally distraught. Orestes asks for Aegisthus, who is told by Cilissa to come alone. Orestes murders Aegisthus. Committing matricide, however, proves more difficult for Orestes, as his filial bonds to his mother are strong. After being reminded by Pylades that a failure to complete the act will result in a plagued existence, Orestes completes the action and then wraps the bodies in the same robe used by them to kill Agamemnon. Orestes begins to experience insanity and flees the stage, terminating the play.

My most persistent observation throughout the course of the play regards the hypocrisy that I perceive among the thoughts and actions of Electra, Orestes, and the chorus. All of them fervidly detest Clytemnestra and yet lionize Agamemnon. Clytemnestra is despised for having killed her husband, yet the fact that Agamemnon killed his innocent daughter, the sister of Electra and Orestes, is completely overlooked. I can find no rationale for this, other than a gendered understanding that would make a woman culpable for something from which a man may be expiated.

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