Libation Bearers: Lines 838-972
Aegisthus enters, saying that he has been told that strangers have come bringing the unwelcome news of Orestes’ death—another bloody burden for this bloodstained house. But is this true, or just the story of some terrified woman? The Chorus Leader answers that the thing to do is to question the strangers. Aegisthus says he plans to do that; he wants to know whether the messenger actually saw the death, or is reporting some vague rumor. With that, Aegisthus leaves.
The Chorus chants briefly, invoking Zeus. Now either complete disaster will come, or freedom and power—that’s the wrestling match, and may Orestes win it!
We hear Aegisthus calling out in death, and a slave enters crying his grief aloud. Aegisthus is dead! Open the women’s rooms! We need someone strong. Where is Clytemnestra? It seems she will be struck down by justice too.
Clytemnestra enters, asking what’s the matter. The slave answers that the dead have slain the living, and Clytemnestra immediately understands—as they killed by trickery, now they will die so. She calls for an ax to kill a man with—this is what she has come to. The slave leaves, and Orestes and Pylades enter. Orestes speaks to his mother, saying that she is next, with Aegisthus dead. Clytemnestra calls out to Aegisthus, lamenting the death of her beloved. Orestes says that if she loves him, she can share a tomb with him. Clytemnestra calls him her child and tells him to respect her breast, which suckled him.
Orestes asks Pylades whether he should respect his mother and spare her, and Pylades answers, asking what will then become of Apollo’s oracles and the oath Orestes swore. Better to have all human beings your enemies rather than the gods, he says. Orestes accepts his words, and tells Clytemnestra to come with him, that he may kill her by Aegisthus’ side, since she loves Aegisthus and hates the man she should love.
Clytemnestra continues to plead for her life, often calling Orestes “my child” or “child.” She raised Orestes, she says, and she wants to grow old with him. He is shocked that the woman who killed his father wants to share his home. She points to the role of Fate in that killing; he answers that her doom comes from Fate too. Has he no fear of a mother’s curse, she asks; no, he answers, you cast me out. But she only sent him to stay with an ally, she argues; he sees himself as sold. She asks what price she got for him, and he says he is ashamed to say [since what she got was Aegisthus]. Take your father’s affairs into account, she urges him, but he says that she who sat at home should not reproach the man who suffered fighting. A woman separated from her husband suffers, she answers, and he responds that the man supports her. She says that she sees he means to kill his mother; he answers that she will be killing herself. She tells him to beware of her angry hounds [the Furies that will be set on him by her curse], and he asks how he can escape his father’s hounds if he doesn’t carry out “this duty” (925). Clytemnestra sees how futile her pleas are, and Orestes says that’s because her death is simply the result of his father’s fate. She laments that, having given birth to this snake, she fed it. Orestes speaks the last words in their exchange: “Indeed, a true prophet was the fear caused by your dream. / You killed what it was not fitting for you to kill, so suffer what is not fitting” (929-930; my own literal translation). Orestes forces Clytemnestra through the door.
The Chorus Leader speaks, saying that she mourns even for these two in their disaster, yet since Orestes, having endured so much, has reached this point, she prefers that the deed should be done and the house saved. The whole Chorus then sing and dance their joy that, as justice was done on Priam and his sons, so justice has been done here. The rule of those who wasted the wealth of the house and ruled badly is ended. Hermes, Justice the daughter of Zeus, and above all Apollo have ended evil, as they always do, and they should be reverenced. Light has returned, and twice they say they can see it; the house is being cleansed, the Furies will be cast out!
Aeschylus brings Aegisthus on stage, it seems, just to allow us to see not only the utter falseness of his grief for Orestes but his weakness. When someone strong is needed, the cry is for Clytemnestra. Whether she should be played as feeling any grief at the news of Orestes’ death or not, it would be absurd to suggest that she feels any joy when she realizes he is still alive—her only thought is to kill him before he kills her. Thus all her talk of wanting to grow old with him is obviously false, as false as her claim that she nursed him and brought him up, given that Cilissa actually took care of him from the moment he was born. Nevertheless, she is his mother. In the sentence that appears in the plot summary presented above, “Clytemnestra … tells him to respect her breast, which suckled him. Orestes asks Pylades whether he should respect his mother and spare her,” the Greek word rendered as “respect” could be translated “reverence” in the first sentence, and a literal translation could make Orestes’ question read, “Pylades, what shall I do? Should I be ashamed to kill a mother?” Are those who see Orestes as conflicted, even from the beginning, reading something into the play that is not there? Are the scholars who see this as his only hesitation, and that a momentary one, truer to the play as Aeschylus wrote it? Perhaps, but what is striking is that the power of the question seems to be reflected in the fact that, in answering, Pylades speaks his only words in the whole play. It is as though Apollo himself spoke through Pylades, as though only the power of a god’s command could overcome the shame at killing one’s mother.
The last words Orestes speaks in the exchange with Clytemnestra point to the clarity of his awareness of how wrong what he is doing is, however demanded by the wrong she has done. Yet perhaps he is no longer seeing himself as becoming a snake to kill her? It can be argued that now he is reading her dream differently, that he is implying that the snake she bore was the deed itself, which is now returning to kill her.
Yet the choral ode the Chorus sing is full of hope, and the image of light returning.