Libation Bearers: Lines 973-1076
The doors open, and Orestes is seen, as well as the bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Servants hold up the robe in which Clytemnestra entangled Agamemnon before she killed him. Some scholars believe that a group of citizens of Argos probably came on stage at this point, summoned to hear Orestes speak.
Orestes calls on all to see the tyrants who killed his father. They sat in majesty on thrones, and now they lie here, still near each other. They swore to kill my father together and die together, he says, “and they have kept their oath” (979).
He then calls on all to look at what they used to bind his father. He orders that the robe be spread out, so that the Sun may see what his mother did and testify for him that he killed his mother justly—Aegisthus’ death was obviously just.
Orestes asks what he should call the thing—a trap for an animal, a covering for a coffin? Rather a net, or a robe meant to trap a man, of the kind some robber might use to trap and kill travelers. What do you think of the woman, he says, who used this to kill her husband, to whom she had borne children? If she had been a snake, her touch would have been enough to poison. Rather than have such a wife, he says, he would ask the gods to let me die without children!
The Chorus chant a brief lament for the horrible death of Clytemnestra and for the suffering that Orestes faces.
Orestes protests: “Did she do the deed or not?” (1010), and calls the robe to witness. Now, he says, he can truly lament his father, yet he grieves for all that has happened and for the whole family, knowing that he bears the pollution of his victory.
Again the Chorus chant briefly, mourning the unhappy fate of mortals, who cannot escape suffering.
Orestes describes himself as “like a man in a chariot driving my team / far from the course; for my wits are hard to govern / and carry me away, losing the battle; and close to my heart / fear is ready to sing, and my heart to dance in anger to its tune” (1022-1025). He is still sane now, and he proclaims solemnly that he killed his mother “not without justice” (1027), that she herself was polluted by her slaying of his father and was hated by the gods. What led him to do the deed was above all the oracle of Apollo, which promised that he would be guiltless if he killed his mother, but that if he didn’t, he would suffer such agony that he can’t describe it. Now, taking the branch and garland of a suppliant, he will go to Delphi, an exile because he has slain his near kin, as Apollo has ordered. Let the men of Argos remember how this evil happened and testify for him when Menelaus returns home.
The Chorus Leader protests that what he did was noble: “You have liberated the whole state of Argos, / lopping the heads of two serpents with dexterous stroke.”
Orestes’ answer is to cry out:
Here are ghastly women, like Gorgons,
with dark raiment and thick-clustered snakes
for tresses! I cannot stay!
The Chorus Leader thinks these creatures are his imagination, and urges him not to be afraid—he has won a great victory. Orestes says imagination has nothing to do with it; he knows these are the angry hounds his mother threatened him with. The Leader sees that it is the fresh blood on his hands that is causing such turmoil in his mind. Orestes utters Apollo’s name as he sees in horror more Furies yet, and the Leader predicts that Apollo will cleanse him. “You do not see them, but I see them!” (1061), says Orestes, and flees.
The Chorus Leader wishes him good fortune, and the Chorus chant as they leave. They rehearse the three horrors that have befallen the house: first Thyestes was tricked into eating his children’s flesh, then the king was murdered in his bath, and now a deliverer has come—or doom. What will be the end of all the destruction?
Has Orestes become a snake in his killing of his mother? Is this just one more in the chain of murders? The way one reads this scene is crucial to determining the answer one gives to these questions. In the first place, Orestes does not gloat as Clytemnestra does in the first play. There are a few lines that express the bitterness he feels at his mother having chosen this man, but then Orestes brings the robe that trapped his father in his bath out into the open, and he asks the Sun to behold it. Again, an antidote to claustrophobia! Moreover, all his labor to justify himself suggests more and more plainly that he is feeling the approach of the Furies—and their approach and ultimate arrival are signs of hope. That may seem a very strange thing to say, but consider. Agamemnon saw no Furies after he sacrificed Iphigeneia; he took on the role of the Furies in destroying Troy. Clytemnestra saw no Furies after she killed Agamemnon; she took on the role of the Furies in killing him. For the first time, the man who has killed the two snakes, as the Chorus put it, has not himself become a snake, or a Fury—rather he sees the snakes on the heads of the Furies. And he knows he needs purification. Again, no one else has expressed any need to be purified. Only those who know they are sick can be healed. And so the play can be seen as creating an experience designed to make us feel the full horror of blood-for-blood vengeance, if it can lead to a man killing his mother, and at the same time suggested hope. Again, only the horror that is fully experienced can be transformed.