The Libation Bearers
is an ancient Greek tragedy, written in the middle of the fifth century BCE by the Athenian playwright Aeschylus. The play depicts the murder of Clytemnestra, Queen of Mycenae, by her son Orestes, who is duty-bound to revenge Clytemnestra’s murder of his father, Agamemnon. Exploring themes of justice and duty, The Libation Bearers
is one of the most important surviving examples of ancient Greek tragedy and one of the most significant and influential works of Western literature.
The play opens at the burial mound of Agamemnon, former king of Mycenae. His son Orestes has arrived at the tomb, having secretly returned to the kingdom. He cuts off a lock of his hair as an offering to his father’s spirit and, talking to his companion Pylades, he reveals that he has returned to Mycenae to avenge Agamemnon’s murder.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, Orestes and Pylades hide. Orestes’ sister Electra arrives, followed by the Chorus, a group of slave women who are carrying offerings for Agamemnon.
Electra mourns her father and then begins to curse her mother, Clytemnestra. She prays that her brother will return to avenge her father. Noticing Orestes’ hair on the tomb, she is amazed by its similarity to her own. Spotting footprints, she follows them behind the tomb and finds Orestes.
After a joyful reunion, Electra explains that she and the Chorus have been sent to the tomb by Clytemnestra. The Chorus encourages Orestes and Electra to compare their love for their father and their hatred for their mother. Eventually, brother and sister pray together to their father’s spirit, asking for Clytemnestra’s destruction.
Orestes reveals that the god Apollo has sent him to avenge Agamemnon, threatening him with leprosy if he does not comply. Then he asks why Clytemnestra is making offerings to the husband she murdered. The Chorus explains that the queen has had an ominous dream, in which she gave birth to a snake, which then killed her. She hopes that these offerings to Agamemnon’s spirit will appease him. Speculating that he is the serpent, Orestes reveals his plan: he and Pylades will disguise themselves and arrive at the palace as guests. Once inside, they will murder the queen and her new husband, Aegisthus. Having heard Orestes’ plan, Electra and the Chorus withdraw.
In an interlude, the women of the Chorus discuss womankind’s potential for treachery. They mention various historical and mythical examples of female treachery before turning to Clytemnestra. They pronounce that the gods, Justice and Fate will soon punish the queen for her betrayal of her husband.
In disguise, Orestes and Pylades arrive at the palace gates. They are met by Clytemnestra. Orestes gives a false name and explains that he has come with sad news: her son Orestes is dead. Clytemnestra grieves insincerely, and sends her servant Cilissa, Orestes’ former nurse, to fetch Aegisthus.
The women of the Chorus intercept Cilissa and tell her to make sure Aegisthus comes alone, without his bodyguard. Cilissa agrees. Left alone on stage, the Chorus prays once more for vengeance.
Aegisthus enters, wondering aloud whether the news of Orestes’ death can really be true, and resolving to put the messenger to the question. He exits, and screaming is heard off stage.
A wounded servant warns Clytemnestra, who calls for an ax. However, Orestes arrives before she can arm herself. Clytemnestra warns him that she will place him under a mother’s curse, but he is unswayed. The queen bears her breast and reminds Orestes of his filial duty; he hesitates for a moment, before dragging his mother into the palace and murdering her atop Aegisthus’s body.
Orestes’s speech becomes erratic as he winds the two corpses in Agamemnon’s shroud (an elaborate garment in which Clytemnestra trapped her husband so that he could not defend himself against Aegisthus). Still grieving his father, and speaking increasingly incoherently, Orestes announces that he must exile himself for the crime of murdering his mother. The Chorus tries to reassure him that he has only done the just thing, but Orestes has a vision of the Furies, the goddesses who punish crimes by children against their mothers. Terrified almost to madness, Orestes flees, hoping to find refuge at Apollo’s shrine. The Chorus worries that the cycle of bloodshed is not yet over.The Libation Bearers
is the second part of a trilogy of plays known as the Oresteia
, which also includes Agamemnon
(depicting Agamemnon’s murder) and Eumenides
(which concerns Orestes’ reconciliation with Furies). The Oresteia
, which won first prize at the ancient Athenian festival of sacred drama, the Dionysia
, in 458 BC, is the only surviving example of a complete trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies.