Libation Bearers: Lines 653-837
Orestes and Pylades approach the door and Orestes knocks. He calls out to the “boy” [slave] who is the gatekeeper, asking to be heard and let in. The slave who answers his calling and knocking asks him where he’s from. He orders the slave to announce him to those who rule the house—he has brought them news. Tell the woman who runs the house to come, or better yet the man—it’s easier to speak openly man to man.
Clytemnestra enters, asking if he needs anything; this house has everything guests ought to expect—hot baths, soft bedding, honest people. If he has business that needs action, that’s men’s work, and she’ll tell them about it. Orestes describes himself as from a city in Phocis; as he journeyed to Argos, he met a stranger who turned out to be the man to whom Clytemnestra had sent Orestes years ago. The stranger asked him to tell Orestes’ parents that he is dead and to bring back word whether they should send the ashes of Orestes to Argos to be buried or bury the urn in Phocis.
Clytemnestra laments, speaking to the curse on the house of Atreus: You have killed even the one I loved who was sent away to avoid destruction, and now the hope that he might end your effects is destroyed. In answer, Orestes wishes he could have brought such wealthy hosts good news, but he had to tell the truth. Clytemnestra assures him that he will be an honored guest-friend of the house nonetheless. She orders her attendants to take him and his friend to the guestrooms and “let them have the treatment that befits this house” (714). She will tell the master of the house what has happened.
All leave, except for the Chorus of slave-women, who have been there in the background during the scene. They chant their longing to use their voices to help Orestes, asking earth and the tomb of Agamemnon to help them. The Chorus Leader speaks, seeing Orestes’ nurse, Cilissa, coming in weeping. The Leader asks her where she’s going and notes that grief is going with her. Cilissa explains that Clytemnestra has told her to bring Aegisthus to hear the strangers’ tidings. Clytemnestra pretended to grieve, but she was really rejoicing at how well things have worked out for her—but how badly for this house! Aegisthus will be happy. But I (sings the Leader), who have suffered for all the woes of this house, have never had such suffering as now, for Orestes. I took care of him from the time he was born, spending my life on him, walking the floor at night. When he was an infant, I had to guess what he wanted, whether to eat or drink or pee, and often I guessed wrong and had to wash his clothes. And now they tell me that he’s dead, and that I have to bring the man who has been the ruin of the house, and won’t he be glad to hear the news!
The Chorus Leader asks whether Clytemnestra has told him to bring his bodyguard, and Cilissa says she has. The Chorus Leader tells her to tell Aegisthus to come quickly and alone to hear the good news, and to say it cheerfully. Cilissa asks how she can be cheerful, with Orestes, the only hope of the house, gone. He’s not gone yet, says the Chorus Leader, but refuses to answer Cilissa’s bewildered questions. Cilissa agrees to do what the Leader says, praying that somehow things will turn out well.
The Chorus sing and dance a solemn ode, praying first that Zeus may restore justice and help Orestes. They tell Zeus
that the orphaned colt of a sire dear to you,
is harnessed in the chariot
of calamity; do you regulate
his running, and give it
the rhythm of those that come home safely,
so that over this course we see straining forward
a gallop that reaches the goal! (794-99)
They pray to the household gods that this act of justice may end the curse on the house, and they pray to Apollo and Hermes to bring light in darkness. Then they will sing like those who have successfully called up a favoring wind. Finally they adjure Orestes to be strong; when his mother calls him her child, he should name his father’s name and kill blamelessly. For the sake of those he loves both on earth and in the underworld, he must put love aside and destroy the guilty.
Orestes was hoping for Aegisthus, but he gets Clytemnestra, and he has to keep up his charade, knowing that the man must be killed first. Almost every word his mother speaks has a double meaning, recalling the murder of Agamemnon. Imagine being promised a hot bath by Clytemnestra! Some believe that Clytemnestra’s grief at the news that Orestes is dead should be played as at least partly real, others that the nurse’s conclusion that the grief is completely an act should dictate how to play the role. Certainly the tragic irony continues—she speaks as though she wanted Orestes to end the curse, as though only he could do it.
The scene with Orestes’ nurse, Cilissa, is perhaps a surprise, in the midst of so grim a play. She chatters on like a talkative old woman, talking about the homely details of tending a baby. It’s almost a bit of comic relief, yet it has an important function. Not only is the contrast with the falseness of Clytemnestra obvious, the suggestion is that it was not his mother who nursed Orestes, that Cilissa was the one who really cared for him from birth—another touch that lessens our sympathy for Clytemnestra. The scene also stands out because for the first time someone actually takes an action that makes a difference. It is crucial that the Chorus Leader, following Orestes’ order to speak as needed, should tell Cilissa to tell Aegisthus to come without his bodyguard. This is no longer just the working out of an inevitable doom, this is a human being choosing to act, and the imagery of the choral ode is no longer the imagery of human beings as snakes or Furies, or of murdering by catching in a net. The colt racing for the finish line, the ship sailing with a favorable breeze, the gods who bring light from darkness—the atmosphere of this play was already lighter than that of the first play, but with this change in imagery, the transformation is far more complete.