Libation Bearers

Libation Bearers Summary and Analysis of Lines 931-1076

Choral ode ("I have sorrow even for this pair") to the end of the play. (Lines 931-1076):


The Chorus sings of the harshness of justice. There is sympathy for those who suffer, but satisfaction that justice runs its course. They praise Orestes for his role as the agent of divine justice and hope the House of Atreus will rise again, purged of the curse that has brought suffering on the house for so long. The Chorus also shows faith in the idea that time brings all things to pass.

The doors of the house open, revealing Orestes with the bodies of Clytaemestra and Aegisthus. Attendants hold the robe in which Clytaemestra ensnared Agamemnon as he bathed. Orestes declares that he has rid the land of two tyrants; he also says with irony that they are lovers still, together even in death. He shows off the robe, instrument of his father's murder, as evidence of Clytaemestra's evil and justification for his murder of his own mother. As for Aegisthus, the man has received normal punishment fit for the seducer of another man's wife. Orestes continues to denounce his mother. The Chorus expresses sorrow for the work that Orestes had to do, but he repeats that his mother was guilty. He continues to speak of the robe, a beautiful object made vile by its role in Agamemnon's murder. Both the Chorus and Orestes are unsure of what will come next, and they feel some trepidation about what will follow the matricide. Orestes justifies his action once again, speaking of his mother's guilt and the orders of Apollo. He is to return now to the shrine of Apollo, and await further instructions there.

Suddenly, Orestes is fearful. He sees gorgon-like monsters, women with hair of snakes, robed in black. They are the Eumenides, the Furies, and they have been summoned by Clytaemestra's curse. Their eyes drip blood. Only Orestes can see them; the Chorus tells him that he must take sanctuary with Apollo. If Apollo touches him, perhaps he will be free of the Furies. Orestes flees, pursued by the Furies. The Chorus bids him good luck, and then recounts the bloody history of the House of Atreus. Orestes is fleeing for his life, punished for the murder of his mother. When, the slave women wonder, will the Curse end?


The parallels between Orestes and his mother continue. She, too, appeared in public proudly displaying the body of her victim. She, too, declared that the murder was in the name of justice, and that finally the cycle of violence was over. She, too, displayed the robe that ensnared her husband. Orestes does all of these things as well. Although he confidently proclaims that he has done what needed to be done, both he and the Chorus rightfully feel trepidation about what might come in the future. Unlike Clytaemestra, there is no long wait for the violent deed to be punished; Orestes has only had time to display the bodies and make a few speeches when the Furies come to exact Clytaemestra's revenge.

The Greeks acutely understood that different moral systems or obligations often come into conflict. This is a powerful theme in many Greek plays. As Orestes himself says, his reasons for killing his mother are strong. She murdered his father. She has disinherited Orestes and his sister, and the god Apollo has commanded Orestes to kill her, threatening punishment if Orestes does not follow through with the act. But duty is not easy or clean in this case. Orestes is still committing a morally repulsive act; he is caught between two courses of action, neither of which is morally perfect. He will not escape punishment. The Furies are the embodiment of an ancient and simple justice: the murderer must be punished. He has committed matricide, one of the most repulsive acts possible for a human being, and now he must pay. This turn of events continues with the theme of violence's power to perpetuate itself. The Curse has not yet been appeased.

The Furies are also the manifestations and symbols of Orestes guilty conscience. Although Orestes defends his actions again and again, this need to constantly justify his deeds actually indicates deep fears and anxieties about what he has had to do. Aeschylus wants us to know that the Furies are real; in the next play of the trilogy, we see them onstage. But at the end of The Libation Bearers, only Orestes can see the Furies. Aeschlyus also wants us to feel that the Furies are most real for Orestes, because they represent his guilty conscience.

We are left in suspense at the end of the play. The Chorus reminds us that the torment of Orestes is part of a long series of calamities, all part of the Curse that began after the murder of Thyestes' children. The cycle of violence is also connected to other events in the past: the Trojan War looms in the background, an incredible event that has irrevocably changed the House of Atreus. Aeschylus has a great sense of history. The tremendous world of the past has come together to influence the fortunes of the House of Atreus. This part of the trilogy has given us more psychological characterization and plot than parts one or three. It has also, in a sense, been the most focused. The Trojan War dominates Agamemnon, while the creation of a new world order dominates The Eumenides. In The Libation Bearers the spotlight has been most intently on this house and its characters, but the scope will soon broaden. Part three of the trilogy will bring us a broader understanding of how the House of Atreus has played a role in the designs of fate and the civilizing of man and god.