Libation Bearers: Metaphor Analysis
Whereas the imagery of the Agamemnon, the first play in the trilogy, is all of a piece throughout, and it deepens and strengthens the heavy sense of hopelessness that pervades the play, in The Libation Bearers, the imagery is never quite as negative. More importantly, it shifts in a way that gives hope of change.
One of the most striking examples of animal imagery in the early part of the play occurs when Agamemnon is compared to a “father eagle” who has “perished in the coils and meshes / of a dread viper,” and Orestes and Electra to the orphaned nestlings—the image suggests that the two are innocent victims of the animal-like behavior of others. But Orestes almost never compares himself to an animal wanting to kill or speaks of his plan to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus as laying a trap for an animal. The one exception is when he interprets the dream Clytemnestra had of giving birth to a snake as pointing to him: “It is I that turn into a snake / and slay her.” Yet when Clytemnestra refers to the dream, Orestes seems to be saying that the snake she bore was her own deed, and that it is her murder that is causing her death now.
Once the action of the play really begins, a strong shift in the imagery signals new hope. The image of Orestes as an “orphaned colt” (line 794) suggests far more power than an orphaned nestling, and the comparison of his actions to a race give a sense of the possibility of something really new happening. And light imagery begins to play a strong role in the same choral ode, again suggesting hope. When the image of a net, so frequent in the Agamemnon, is used, it is because Orestes has brought out in the open the robe that Clytemnestra used to entangle Agamemnon before she killed him. He has brought it into the open, and he calls the Sun to look upon it. In the same speech he again refers to his mother as a viper (994), and the Chorus Leader speaks of the killings as the cutting off of “the heads of two serpents” (line 1047), but there is no further suggestion that Orestes might have become a snake—rather he sees the snakes on the heads of the Furies that hound him. He, having obeyed Apollo, is going to seek the purification Apollo has promised him. We have not escaped from the world of snakes, but escape seems possible.