Beginning of play to the end of the Chorus's prayer to the Destinies. (Lines 1-314):
We are in Argos, at the tomb of Agamemnon. Enter Orestes and his friend, Pylades. Orestes pays respects to the memory of his father. He has returned to have his revenge on Agamemnon's killers, Clytaemestra and Aegisthus. Orestes speaks of his regret that he was not present for Agamemnon's death or for his funeral, and he puts a lock of his hair on the grave. A group of mourning women enter, veiled in black and carrying urns to pour libations for the dead. Orestes thinks he sees his sister Electra among the women, but he decides that he and Pylades will hide and try to learn the women's intentions. The Chorus of women and their cries create an atmosphere of incredible dread and anxiety. Omens have indicated that the dead are not satisfied and bear great hatred for the living, and Clytaemestra has sent the women out to pour offerings on Agamemnon's grave. The women allude to the house's bloody history; so much violence and murder has plagued the house that the bloodshed has become self-renewing, impossible to clean away. The women also speak of their own status as slaves; they are captive women, won in various campaigns, but they still feel sorrow for the unjust end met by Agamemnon.
Full of bitterness, Electra asks the women how she should make the offering. She feels she cannot honorably pour libations on behalf of her mother, who was Agamemnon's murderer. The Chorus, speaking subtly, implies that Electra should pray for herself and the slave women. She should also pray for Orestes, who is in exile far away. The Chorus also tells Electra to pray that Agamemnon's killers be killed themselves for the life they took. Electra prays as instructed, complaining to her father's spirit about the fate that has befallen Electra and her brother. Orestes is an exile, and Electra lives in her own house as little better than a slave. The Chorus repeats Electra's prayer for an avenger. Electa suddenly sees something that makes her weak: a lock of hair, cut off and laid on Agamemnon's grave. The hair is unique to Agamemnon's children; the hair must belong to Orestes. Electra is torn between hope and the fear of having that hope disappointed. She searches for other signs of her brother, and finds two sets of footprints.
Orestes emerges from his hiding place, still dressed as a traveler. Electra does not yet recognize him, in part because he has been gone for so long. She is so wary of being disappointed that she dare not say anything with certainty; she is not satisfied until she hears the truth from Orestes' own mouth. Orestes finally proclaims his identity, and Electra is overjoyed. Orestes alone, she says, can bring her honor. She asks that Force, Right, and Zeus come to his side. Orestes, in turn, calls on Zeus to aid him in restoring his house to grandeur, with the implied meaning of restoring Agamemnon's rightful heirs. The Chorus asks Electra and Orestes to keep quiet, for fear that their enemies might overhear them. Orestes responds that Apollo himself has commanded Orestes to avenge his father's death, and he trusts Apollo not to forsake him. Even without the command of the god, Orestes has ample reason to kill Clytaemestra: she murdered his father, she has disinherited her children, and the people of Argos suffer under the rule of women. ("Women" pluralized because Aegisthus, Orestes says, has the heart of a woman.) The Chorus prays to the Destinies that past violence may now be repaid with new violence.
Tragedy, as Aristotle points out in his Poetics, involves people performing atrocities against those that they love or should love. "Hate-in-love" is one of the central themes of the trilogy (Lattimore 10). Orestes and Electra are preparing to perform the appalling act of matricide, and the hatred that spurs them on has a great deal to do with their mother's rejection of them. Both Electra and Orestes say that their mother has "sold" them, getting in their place a new lover. Their anger is not only because of their father's death, but because Clytaemestra abandoned them. Electra and Orestes have been robbed of their place in the line of succession. Their mother has turned her back to them, exiling her own son and reducing her daughter to servitude in her own house.
The two siblings largely ignored the faults of their father. Remember the kind of man that Agamemnon was: fiercely proud and ambitious, he sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia so that he could proceed in a morally dubious war. For his brother's beautiful wife, he sacrificed many of the young men of Greece. Even Agamemnon's Chorus of loyal elders disapproves of his actions, telling him that because of his decisions many have suffered. Years later, his humiliating death has transformed him into a martyr, and that transformation is psychologically strategic on the parts of Electra and Orestes. It gives them further justification for their hatred of Clytaemestra.
Aeschylus here lays the groundwork for the fascinating psychological portraits of Electra found later in the works of Sophocles and Euripides. She is unmarried and therefore "has love to lavish" (Lattimore 27). Without husband or father, and with one sibling dead and the other in exile, for a long time her mother has been the only family member in her life. Being reduced to servitude in her own house by her own mother has been emotionally destructive. When Orestes returns, she clings to him almost as fiercely as she clings to her hatred for Clytaemestra. Listen to her words to her returned brother:
O bright beloved presence, you bring back four lives to me. To call you father is constraint of fact, and all the love I could have borne my mother turns your way, while she is loathed as she deserves; my love for a pitilessly slaughtered sister turns to you. (ll. 238-42)
Lonely and bitter, Electra clings to her brother because he is all that she has left. Vulnerable because she is a Greek unmarried woman, she needs a protector. Her father is dead and her mother is her enemy; she lacks even the sisterly support of the slaughtered Iphigeneia. (Note that although Electra mentions Iphigeneia, she conveniently neglects to mention that Agamemnon was the girl's murderer. Agamemnon's sacrifice of the girl was one of the primary motivations for Clytemaestra's decision to kill him.) Finally, in Orestes, Electra has her protector. The love that for most people is spread out among many is lavished on one man.
The position of women is an important theme for both Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers. This theme is integrally connected to the theme of male power versus female power. In the first part of the trilogy, Clytaemestra's status as a woman provides grounds for both justification and condemnation of her actions. Her husband's long absence made Clytaemestra lonely and politically vulnerable. Think of Penelope in the Odyssey, and the precariousness of her position during Odysseus' long absence. Clytaemestra faced a similar situation in Argos. She also had time to nurse her understandable outrage for her daughter's murder. But although Aeschylus shows sympathy and awareness of the vulnerable position of Greek women, he does not shy away from condemning Clytaemestra. She has committed one of the great sins for a Greek woman: she has shown that she enjoys sex, and she is in part motivated by sexual desire. This motivation is the one on which Electra and Orestes fixate, dwelling on their mother's sex life with a perverse intensity that Sophocles and Euripides deepened and emphasized in their own portrayals of the siblings. Clytaemestra also earns condemnation because her ambition is "unwomanly." In a social system where stability is built on the silence and passivity of women, who are traded between families for the purposes of procreation and the building of inter-family alliances, a woman with a sex drive or ambition is a threat to order. Clytaemestra on top, so to speak, is the world gone awry. The restoration of social order will require putting the rightful male heir back on the throne.
The audience sees the vulnerability of women in the portrayals of Electra and the Chorus. As an unmarried virgin, Electra is without a secure place. The slave women have lost their families and husbands, and yet they remain loyal to the king who made them slaves. In order to survive, women must submit. Their happiness is often dependent on the benevolence of male masters; to try and rectify this situation is to risk becoming a "viper" like Clytaemestra. Although Aeschylus shows an awareness of the difficulties inherent in this situation for women, he is no revolutionary. The triumph of the trilogy is harmony and restoration of order, reconciliation of the old with the new. It was for the playwright Euripides, later on, to dwell obsessively on the status of woman and the contradictions of her social position.
Orestes' prayer to Zeus introduces one of the important and recurring symbols of The Libation Bearers. He describes his father as having been destroyed by a viper. The viper's indiscriminate malevolence is a metaphor for familial strife: the creature will attack and kill even members of its own brood. Here, the snake is a symbol for Clytaemestra; significantly, in Clytaemestra's dreams a snake symbolizes Orestes. The serpent's poison also symbolizes the poison that flows in the veins of the House of Atreus, sickening each new generation with more internal violence and murder; Aegisthus speaks of the serpent's poison later in the play (ll. 841-3). The serpent also symbolizes deviousness. Orestes likens his father to a mighty eagle snared by a snake's coils. In all the murders in the house of Atreus, bloodshed comes about not on the battlefield but by deceptions and plots.