Libation Bearers: Essay Q&A
1. Electra disappears from the play before the actual action begins, and she neither takes nor is told to take any action. Can we see her as playing an important role in any way?
The fact that Electra does nothing points directly to her most important function in the play: to serve as a contrast to Clytemnestra. As Clytemnestra has had years to brood on the death of Iphigeneia in the Agamemnon, so Electra has had years to brood on her mother’s unfaithfulness to her father with Aegisthus, on the death of her father, and on her own relegation to the level of a slave. Clearly she is bitter, and cherishes her hatred of her mother and of Aegisthus. Nevertheless, she has been so far from plotting how to kill them that she hesitates to utter a prayer for an avenger who will take life for life. She asks whether it would not be impious to ask the gods for such a thing. When the Chorus Leader assures her that such a prayer is appropriate, she still asks first to be different from her mother, and she even describes her prayer that the killers may pay with their lives as a prayer for evil. Even though vengeance is the only way to get justice, she cannot see vengeance as good, whereas Clytemnestra expresses no doubt that what she has done is good. Electra’s diffidence also contrasts with Clytemnestra’s overweening self-confidence when she addresses the slave-women of the Chorus with respect and asks for their advice.
Beyond the contrast with Clytemnestra, Electra has the function of allowing the audience to feel the joy of Orestes’ homecoming fully. He is her only hope, and her suspense when she sees the signs that he has been at the tomb shows how strongly she feels, as does her reluctance to believe that the stranger can really be her brother and her explanation of how much she loves him, with the love that can no longer flow to any other member of her family. Finally, because of her, it is obvious from the beginning that Orestes is not simply thinking of himself; his sympathy for her suffering bursts out in his first prayer to Zeus after he comes back on stage.
2. Make the best case you can for playing Orestes as tortured by the idea of killing his mother from the beginning, and describe the way the part should be played to bring that out in the first half of the play.
In the opening scenes of the play, Orestes does not explicitly name his mother; his whole focus is on his grief for his father, his desire to avenge his father’s death, but he only names Aegisthus. It is as though he can’t bear to put into words what he must do. He should be played as under almost unbearable pressure, and going over and over why he must take vengeance, as though he were trying to convince himself, but unable to bring himself to speak of his mother. Thus in his second long speech to Electra, he dwells at great length on the horrors Apollo has said he must undergo from his father’s Furies if he does not take vengeance. He does not say anything about the threat of undergoing the same kind of horrors if he does take vengeance by killing his mother, but since part of the speech is in general terms, about what “kindred fallen” can bring about, it is obvious that his mother’s Furies can cause similar agony, and he knows it, and the audience knows it.
In the long choral ode in which the Chorus, Electra, and Orestes in turn lament Agamemnon and call upon his spirit to help them, Electra and the Chorus both speak of killing Clytemnestra before Orestes does; only when the ode is close to its end does he finally come to the point of mentioning killing her, and that is in the line, “Then may I perish, once I have slain her!” (438) It seems unlikely that this is really a wish to die—the expression being a common one to utter about something one wants intensely—but it still has an impact, especially since it is the first time he has spoken explicitly of killing her. He has brought himself to speak the unspeakable, and it is with that kind of intensity that the line should be delivered.
Finally, it seems only right that Orestes should accept the omen of Clytemnestra’s dream with at least deep ambivalence—can one predict that one will turn into a snake and kill one’s mother without some horror mixed in with the determination? It is not surprising that when he lays out his plan for the killing in his next speech, he mentions only the killing of Aegisthus—a good actor could make us feel the difference between the horror at the two mentions of killing his mother and the relish with which he speaks, easily and fully, of giving Aegisthus what he deserves.
3. Describe the Chorus and its role in the play.
The Chorus is made up of women who have become slaves because their city was conquered in war. They see their fate as one that the gods have laid on them, and the only hard aspect of it they mention is that they must seem to approve the injustice of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra and can only grieve over it in secret. If Electra’s way of addressing them may be taken as evidence, they have been treated with some respect and have been given real responsibility: she first addresses them as slave-women “who set the house in order” (84), and she asks them for advice repeatedly. Certainly they appear to have become completely identified with the fortunes of the royal family, and they long for the coming of Orestes almost as much as Electra does. Their loyalty to Agamemnon again confirms his status as rightful king, and their horror at Clytemestra’s unnatural killing of her husband strengthens the sense that men and women alike, if they are right-minded, see the natural order of things as threatened when women turn on those they should love.
The Chorus also speak wholeheartedly for the need for carrying out justice by taking vengeance. They have no doubts at all, which makes it all the more striking that Electra does have doubts. She wonders whether it can be right to ask the gods that someone may come who will take life for life, and they assure her that there can be no problem with asking the gods to pay back an enemy with evil. They have no qualms in urging Orestes to think only of his father and to kill his mother, and they want instant action, when Orestes wants time to get things clear. It is all the more striking when they change their tone from seeing his deed as wholly good, one that allows hope for new light, to a chant of mourning. The shift comes after the first speech Orestes makes when he comes back on stage after killing his mother and has the robe displayed in which Agamemnon was trapped. If Orestes is played as tormented during this speech, as protesting so strongly that what he did was entirely right that we know he is trying to convince himself, as already showing such signs of strain that the coming madness is foreshadowed, then the grief of the Chorus makes perfect sense. Whether Orestes is played that way or not, their grief has major impact: even those who speak most strongly for the old kind of justice are horrified when they see fully what it means.
4. How would you play the role of Clytemnestra?
When Clytemnestra first enters, she is welcoming strangers to her home with the hospitality that was expected at the time. Her words have a double meaning from the audience’s point of view, since we have fresh in our minds the way she welcomed Agamemnon with a hot bath, but there is no reason to think she has any such thing in mind. She is playing the role of the gracious hostess as any woman might play it. The point at which an actress should suggest real hypocrisy is in her words about serious business being for men. Perhaps, now happily married to Aegisthus, she would like to believe she believes that, but it contradicts everything we know of her character.
The real question is, how to play her reaction to the news of Orestes’ death. In choosing to turn to Aegisthus while Agamemnon was away, and to plot Agamemnon’s death with him, she was choosing to disinherit her son. The motive behind the hideous feeding of his other children to Thyestes, Aegisthus’ father, was Atreus’ desire to make it impossible for Thyestes to challenge him for the kingship of Argos by making him permanently “unclean.” Aeschylus does not speak of that motive, but it is clear that Electra and Orestes both believe their mother has chosen Aegisthus over them, and certainly Aegisthus took over the rule of Argos, ignoring the existence of a legitimate heir. Yet it seems completely plausible that Clytemnestra would feel some real grief at Orestes’ death. He had been sent away for safe keeping, as she mentions, and it is reasonable to play her as having hoped that she would never have to choose between the life of her son and the life of Aegisthus. Yet she goes too far in saying that she hoped he would end the curse—that line must be played as utterly false.
Her last scene should be played at first with utter honesty. She understands the riddle spoken by the slave instantly—the news of Orestes’ death was a trick, he is here, he is going to kill them. She calls for an ax to kill a man. She, who was embittered by the killing of her daughter, has no hesitation about trying to kill her son, if that’s what it takes to save Aegisthus’ life and her own. And yet she sees the horror of it, speaks of herself as having come to this, as having sunk so low. That line seems to me to support the reading above, that sees her as feeling at least some real grief at Orestes’ death. Certainly she cries out in real grief for Aegisthus, in words that suggest her love of him. But as soon as Orestes offers to see to it that they are never parted by killing her and burying her with Aegisthus, she pulls herself together and without hesitation takes on the role of loving mother horrified that her child would think of killing her. Her full strength should come out here, as it does in the Agamemnon when she lies boldly in order to deceive her husband. Even when she sees death coming, she should be played with courage, lamenting, but with dignity. A terrifying person, but never a contemptible one.
5. Make the best case you can for seeing the line “You do not see them, but I see them,” spoken by Orestes of the Furies just before he flies, as not only the most famous line in the play but one of the most significant.
What Aeschylus intended, no one, especially no modern reader, can know for sure, but that line points to what gives The Libation Bearers continuing meaning, even for a modern audience that utterly rejects Aeschylus’ concept of an ordered universe, in which all violations of the natural order are punished. Depth psychology still tells us that those who refuse to face the darkness within themselves are doomed to be taken over by that darkness. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra never stop justifying themselves for what they have done long enough to open up to the full horror of it. They never seek cleansing. Only the man who sees the Furies knows that he must seek cleansing, that he cannot simply go on ruling, as Agamemnon did, or take over the kingdom as Aegisthus and Clytemnestra did. He must leave the kingdom as an exile and seek the help of Apollo.
At the same time, this line suggests that the cleansing will not be a simple matter. The line is spoken in answer to the Chorus Leader’s too easy assumption that Apollo will cleanse Orestes of his pollution and so of the presence of the Furies, simply “by his touch” (1059). In that context, the line seems to say that the Furies are far more horrible than the Chorus Leader can imagine. Thus this line prepares us for a far more complex third play than any simple notion of Apollo making everything work out right would do, as well as doing justice to the depth of the darkness that Orestes is facing.