Libation Bearers: Lines 306-509
Chanting, the Chorus call on the Fates to accomplish justice, to make the committer of crime suffer, the murderer be murdered. Then, singing and moving in a solemn dance, Orestes calls on his father, praying that his lament will reach him. The Chorus, also singing and moving in a solemn dance, assure him that the lament for a dead father can pursue the guilty slayer. Electra joins in, lamenting in her turn. The Chorus utters a brief chant of hope. Orestes sings again, wishing his father could have died before Troy, a glorious death that would have left his children honored. The Chorus sing of the honored place Agamemnon would then have held in the underworld, and Electra sings her wish that those who killed her father had died before Troy. The Chorus chants encouragement—their singing is winning them a champion under the earth, their enemies have unclean hands, they must act! Orestes sings of the power with which he feels that charge, and calls on Zeus, who sees to it that the debts owed parents will be paid. The Chorus pray that they may sing in triumph when Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are killed, and Electra asks when that will come about, demands such justice. The Chorus chants the law—blood must pay for blood. Murder brings the Furies into action. Orestes sings his lament for the dishonor visited on Agamemnon; the Chorus sing of their alternation between hopelessness and hope, and Electra asks how they can arouse the wrath of Agamemnon—then sings that it is already aroused, and Clytemnestra cannot quiet it.
The Chorus sing of their mourning, beating their breasts and their heads as they sing the dirge, Electra sings of the dishonorable burial her mother gave her father, and Orestes sings of his resolve to make his mother pay, and wishes to die, once he has killed her. The Chorus sing of how Clytemnestra mutilated his corpse; Electra sings of how she was kept imprisoned, and urges her father to remember her suffering. The Chorus urge Agamemnon to join the struggle against his killers with inflexible anger. In each of the two climactic stanzas of this choral ode, Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus each sing briefly, in the first calling on Agamemnon; in the second, Orestes foretells a clash of Justice against Justice; Electra prays to the gods for Justice, and the Chorus seconds her prayer. Finally the Chorus sing two stanzas of lament for the sorrows of the house of Atreus, yet asking that the children of the house may bring a remedy, though it be through “cruel, bloody strife” (474).
The singing and dancing over, Orestes and Electra speak to their father, urging him to help them. They remind him of the way he was murdered in the bath, caught in a shameful net. Finally they exhort him to save them and so keep his own fame alive—then he will not be completely dead.
Some scholars insist that this lengthy choral ode and the continued conjuration of Agamemnon that follows it are nothing more than that—just an attempt to get the power of the spirit of Agamemnon on the side of the conspirators. Others see it as an attempt by Electra and Orestes to work themselves up into such a rage of self-pity that they can bring themselves to plan the murder of their mother. Others focus on Orestes, seeing him as deeply reluctant to kill his mother, yet forced to realize that justice demands it. In the eyes of those who see it in this last way, his wish to die, once he has killed her, shows how deeply conflicted he is. This argument is refuted by the argument that that way of expressing oneself simply meant something like, I want to do this so much that it will be the culmination of my life, after which I don’t mind dying. Those who see it this way argue that Orestes was clear about what he had to do from the beginning—and of course they have a point. But in the Agamemnon, we never see Clytemnestra having to go through any kind of preparation, ritual or otherwise, for killing her husband.
Another way of looking at it is that Aeschylus wanted the audience to feel how much Orestes and even Electra needed to feel the support of their father in order to undertake this deed. The sheer horror of children plotting the death of their mother is crucial to making us feel the horror of justice that works through vengeance, of the code of the vendetta. When those children have to go to these lengths to be ready to carry out the deed, we know that a world in which they seem to have no other choice if justice is to be done at all is a world desperately in need of transformation. When Orestes speaks of Justice clashing with Justice, he is recognizing that his mother and even Aegisthus did have Justice on their side. And the utterances of the old truth that murder must be paid for with murder suggest that the murder that is about to happen will rouse the Furies as much as Orestes’ refusal to avenge his father would have done. It is an unbearable situation, but it must play itself out. If, however, Orestes and Electra had found it easy to move straight into planning their mother’s murder, there would really have been no hope. At this point in the play, the audience cannot imagine what hope there could be, but the seed of something new is there. Even the Chorus, who encourage the deed, describe what is about to happen as “cruel, bloody strife” (474).