“The Libation Bearers” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

If Agamemnon had ended with Klytaimnestra triumphant over the corpses of Agamemnon and Kassandra, I doubt anyone would have complained. Everything had lead up to these killings, and now, the killings done, the drama, one might have thought, had reached its destined end. Had Aeschylus chosen to wrap up here, we could all have gone home – if not happy, at least satisfied with the dramatic trajectory of the piece But Aeschylus doesn’t wrap up here. We have, quite startlingly, a character quite new to the drama, Aigisthos, marching in to stage what is effectively a coup; we see him threaten to kill the chorus of old men; and, right at the very end, Klytaimnestra’s previous confidence suddenly, and perhaps unexpectedly, gives way to a sense of apprehension and of foreboding:

If only we could say ‘Here is an end of all our troubles’;

we have been mangled terribly by the god’s heavy claw.

And it is on this uncertain, fearful note that the play ends, with much unfinished business, and much yet unresolved.

In terms of plot, we have actually been told how the resolution will come. Kassandra, in one of her vatic utterings, has already told us:

… for yet will come another, one who will requite our fates –

An offspring who will kill his mother, to avenge his father’s death.

Nothing remotely cryptic about this: this is, effectively, the plot of the second play of the trilogy. But this doesn’t render the second play superfluous, or lacking in dramatic interest, because, of course, the dramatic interest does not lie principally in the plot. So where does it lie? It’s not, I think, primarily in the characters: both Sophocles and Euripides provide far greater psychological depth in their retellings of this story than does Aeschylus. And neither, I think, is it primarily in the thematic development, important though that is: these works present a drama, not a thesis. But to understand why it works as drama, and how and why the dramatic tension is created, we do, I think, need to focus on the themes – and, in particular, the themes of divine will, of divine and human conceptions of justice, and of human responsibility.

The action starts in front of Agamemnon’s grave. Unless we are to believe that Agamemnon was buried right in front of the palace, we may assume that the scene is removed from there; and, since the palace is very clearly at the back of the stage later in the play, there is, presumably, a scene change somewhere along the line. But that need not concern us too much: a stage that is more or less bare can easily represent more than one space at any given time. Space here can be as fluid as time had been in the previous drama, where the victorious Agamemnon appears only some half hour or so after news of the fall of Troy is received.

First to appear are Orestes and his friend Pylades. Pylades is silent throughout the opening scene: indeed, he speaks only once in the entire play, at a moment that, by the very fact that he speaks at all, marks itself as the crux of the drama. Orestes, however, is given a long speech here: he had been – as he tells us – exiled before his father had been buried, and had not, till now, had the opportunity to formally lament his father’s death at his graveside. But Orestes has not come merely to mourn:

Zeus, grant that I avenge my father’s death;

become my ally of your own free will.

Right from the start, the theme of Zeus’ will is broached. Orestes has, we soon find out, been told by Apollo himself to avenge his father’s murder: as son, that is only right and proper. But even so, he cannot take for granted that Zeus will take his side.

It is only now that the chorus appears (the entrance of the chorus is delayed in all three plays of this trilogy). This time, the chorus consists of slave women, captives from the destruction of Troy. In their first chorus, they tell us that they have been sent by “that godless woman” Klytaimnestra, who has been terrified by a dream, to offer libations on her behalf to the unquiet spirit of the dead Agamemnon. But, they ask:

How can the house be purified, once blood’s been shed?

They know that this attempt to placate the angry ghost is pointless. What they do not yet know is that the placating of Agamemnon’s ghost, by very different means, is already close at hand.

This chorus of women, once free, now enslaved, put their fate down to the will of the gods:

We must approve of everything they do,

just and unjust; we are compelled

to overcome our bitter hatred.

The will of the gods is not necessarily just – at least, as far as humans understand the nature of justice; but just or unjust, we must submit to it.

To officiate the pouring of libations on Agamemnon’s grave, Klytaimnestra has sent Elektra, Agamemnon’s daughter, and also her own. Elektra, as she later tells us, leads “the life of a slave” in the royal palace, and here, charged with a dubious duty, is uncertain how to proceed: can she placate the ghost of her murdered father on behalf of her murderer mother? The chorus persuades her to pour the libations on her own behalf, and to pray to the gods that her father’s killers should themselves be killed. Elektra hesitates. “Would the gods see this as a pious prayer?” she asks. And we see here the pattern from the previous play repeating itself. The justice of the gods demands that crime must be requited, and humans are the instruments of their will; but will this requital itself be acceptable to the gods? Can what the gods see as pious what they themselves demand? In the previous play, this is was the trap Klytaimnestra had been caught in: in killing Agamemnon, she was carrying out justice but, as she herself says:

… If only we could say ‘Here is an end of all our troubles’

Kassandra had foretold it wouldn’t be the end, and that the pattern will repeat itself. But if so, why should this same pattern not repeat itself again upon the second generation of avengers? What is to prevent it carrying on for ever? The human concept of justice has nothing to do with it: as the chorus had said, we must approve of everything the gods do – just and unjust.

And so Elektra pours upon her father’s grave the libations, but not, as her mother had demanded, to ask the perturbed spirit to rest, but with promises of retribution – a retribution the gods themselves demand, but for which the humans acting as the gods’ instruments must bear responsibility.

It is at this point that Elektra sees two locks of hair on the grave, so similar to her own; and footprints on the ground, similar again to her own. It is a scene famously parodied by Euripides in his own version of the story, but one only parodies that which is already famous, that which has made a mark. At this relatively early stage in the play, brother and sister are united, and there is no doubt why Orestes has come: he is to kill his own mother. Apollo himself has demanded it:

Apollo’s great and mighty oracle will not forsake me.

He ordered me to pass through all these dangers,

shrieking out his prophecies; he told

of vile and frosty torments that would chill my heart

if I did not pursue those who contrived my father’s death…

He goes on to tell of the torments he will suffer, both in this life and the next from the Furies springing from his father’s blood, should he allow his father’s death to go unavenged. And Apollo had told him too of the terrible diseases that would pursue him:

… creatures who invade the flesh with vicious teeth,

cankers which eat at healthy skin,

and leprosy, whose ulcers blossom with white hair!

Orestes is not given a choice. This is divine will, the will of Apollo. He is but an instrument of this divine will.

There now follows what, in opera, we would describe as an ensemble – an almost epic set piece, lasting some three hundred or so lines, and taking us to roughly the mid-way point of the play. Here, the voices of Elektra and of Orestes mingle with those of the chorus, lamenting and supplicating the dead father, and praying to the gods, steeling themselves for the mighty task that the gods themselves have commanded them to perform.

This passage, consisting as it does mainly of prayers and of supplication, is largely static, in that, although it intensifies the drama, it doesn’t move it forward. But two points emerge that are new – both revelations from the chorus: the first is the horrible detail that Klytaimnestra had mutilated Agamemnon’s body before burial (the nature of the mutilation is left to us to picture); and the second is the dream Klytaimnestra had had that had terrified her so. She had dreamt that she had given birth to a live snake; that this snake had “nestled in its swaddling-clothes, like a human child”; and that she had given suck to this serpent, whereupon “a clot of blood poured out into the milk”.

There hardly needs a Kalchas to interpret this dream, especially given what the audience knows of the current situation. But while it may be seen as a prophetic message from the gods, it also, I think, stands up to more modern interpretations of dreams, that is, as expressions of our mental states: Klytaimnestra fears, and with good reason, that the son to whom she had given birth will return, seeking revenge for the killing of his father. It is the same fear Klytaimnestra had expressedin more general terms towards the end of the previous play – the fear that her act of revenge is not in itself an end, but merely a fresh crime that, in its own turn, will call out for requital, for retribution. This fear has stayed with her for all those years between the end of the earlier play, and the start of this. For all those years, we may infer, she has brooded upon her doom.

By the end of this ensemble, we are at the half-way point of the play, and, very suddenly, the nature of the play changes. And it changes very abruptly, in all sorts of ways. Firstly, there is a change of scene, which is not very common in Greek drama: while the first half is set at Agamemnon’s tomb, presumably at some distance from the palace, the second half is very clearly situated at the palace gates, with no further mention of the tomb (which, as far as the drama is concerned, has served its purpose). Secondly, the pacing changes: while the first half had been largely static, the latter flows at a surprisingly fast tempo, eschewing long choruses, and containing some of the shortest scenes in all Greek drama. And thirdly, and perhaps most intriguingly, Elektra, who had appeared in the first half as one of the two principal protagonists, disappears altogether from the dramatic action.

We do not have the stage directions to the Greek plays, and neither, for that matter, do we have indications as to which characters speak which lines: these matters are at the discretion of the translator (or the director), and, in most cases, aren’t hard to conjecture. But what are we to make of the complete silence on Elektra’s part in the latter part of the play? Ewans, in his stage directions, introduces her as a “silent face”, but I am not entirely sure what purpose that serves: even if we do see her on stage, the total silence of this “silent face”, of a character who had been till that point quite loquacious, would hardly seem any less odd than her not appearing at all.

It seems to me that the Aeschylus had intended this oddness – that he had intended the changes from the first half of the play to the second to be decisive, radical, and abrupt. And if this jolts the viewer, he had intended that too. The setting is different; the pacingis different; and, more importantly perhaps, the focus is different. In the first half, the focus had been on brother and sister, who meet and recognise each other, and then steel each other for what is to come. But in the second half, the focus shifts to mother and son, to a mother who has to face her greatest fear – that her son has returned to kill her. A modern dramatist would be more inclined, I imagine, to shift the focus more gradually, but Aeschylus clearly wanted the change to be sudden and abrupt: why, I’m honestly not too sure. Orestes is the character who is in both halves, but for the shift in focus to be as abrupt as Aeschylus clearly wanted it to be, Elektra has to be as absent from the second half as Klytaimnestra is from the first. It is no longer Orestes the Brother Aeschylus is interested in here, but Orestes the Son.

Now, the plot speeds forward. Orestes knocks on the palace doors, and he has to knock thrice to get a response: the watchman at the very opening scene of Agamemnon had spoken of the household being badly run, and it appears not to have improved. Klytaimnestra herself soon appears, and, as a good host should, offers the stranger hospitality:

… for here we have

all that you would expect in a house such as this –

warm baths, soft beds to charm away

your aches and pains, and people round you who will do no harm.

Not recognising who this stranger is, Klytaimnestra is obviously not aware of the irony of offering the son of Agamemnon “warm baths”, and people around him “who will do no harm”.

The stranger now imparts the false news: Orestes is dead. Klytaimnestra is now given two speeches of about ten lines each, separated by a few lines from Orestes himself; and these two speeches of hers are quite startlingly different. In the first of these speeches, she gives expression to her grief, seeing it as further evidence of the “curse upon this house”. And, almost immediately after, in her second speech, she seems calm and collected, and welcomes Orestes in. “The news would have come anyway,” she says philosophically, “it’s all the same”.

This very abrupt change of tone has puzzled many a reader. Some scholars have suggested that when the palace doors open, Elektra should accompany Klytaimnestra, and that the first speech of grief should be hers, while her mother remains calm and collected throughout. But that seems to me dramatically weak. Elektra knows, of course, that the stranger is Orestes herself, and her grieving speech would, therefore, merely be feigning, in an attempt to throw her other off the scent; but if that is the sole dramatic purpose of her speech, it could have been achieved in just a line or two, and it seems to me unlikely that Aeschylus would extend it, especially at this point when he is accelerating the tempo. But if these lines are indeed Klytaimnestra’s what purpose could she have in speaking them? Of course, she could be feigning herself, but if she is, she is a very bad actor given how quickly she changes her tone for her second speech. Also, she has no reason to feign before the stranger: she is queen, after all, and commands power. The nurse, who appears soon afterwards, tells us:

… her eyes were full of grief; but it was all a sham

to hide her joy …

But the nurse is devoted to Orestes, whom she had tended in his childhood, and has no great love for the mother who had exiled him, especially now when she s heartbroken at the news of his death: there is no reason to take her judgement at face value.

I think what makes most sense dramatically, and what, indeed, enhances the depth of the drama, is to take both Klytaimnestra’s speeches at face value: she is a complex character, and is capable of feeling both grief and relief at the same time.

The nurse now enters: she has orders from Klytaimnestra to fetch Aigithos, so he can hear the news himself. The plot is now moving swiftly: the chorus persuades the nurse to change her message, and tell Aigisthos that Klytaimnestra had asked him to come without bodyguards. It is often said that Aeschylus here breaks the rules of Athenian drama by giving the chorus an active role in determining the action, but frankly, given that the vast majority of Athenian tragedies are now lost, it seems to me foolhardy to derive rules from the few that have survived. However that may be, the focus now is firmly on the plot: Aeschylus has ruminated on the various themes for some time now, and, given this new tempo, there is no room for further ruminations on these points.

Aigisthos soon enters, and the chorus lead him into what they know will be his death. And within minutes, we hear his death cries from off-stage. There’s barely time to draw breath. And now, Aeschylus gives us the crucial scene of the drama: a confrontation between mother and son, at the very point where the son is poised to kill her. Neither Sophocles nor Euripides had given us this scene in their retellings of this story, but here, it is the crux.

Klytaimnestra now recognises the stranger to be her son, her serpent-son, Orestes. She shows him her breast, where she had suckled him, and Orestes, who had been so confident before about his god-ordained mission, here, for the first time, wavers. And Pylades, who has been quiet throughout the play, breaks his silence to deliver his thunder-like lines, coming, it almost seems, from the gods themselves:

Would you destroy the standing of Apollo’s oracles

for all the rest of time, and of his solemn oath?

Count all men hateful to you rather than the gods.

There is no choice, no escape. What the gods will, just or unjust, we are compelled to accept.

There follows a tense dialogue between mother and son. No point trying to separate out here the action from the thematic development: the thematic development is the action. When charged with killing her husband, Klytaimnestra says:

Fate had a certain share in that, my son.

But Orestes’ reply follows the same logic:

Well then, it’s Fate that brings death to you now.

Kassandra’s prophecy is now on the point of being fulfilled, but there is one point that Kassandra hadn’t mentioned, and which, hinted at at various points earlier in the play, now comes out into the open:

KLYTAIMNESTRA: Watch out! Beware your mother’s angry, hounding Furies.

ORESTES: But how should I escape my father’s Furies, if I do not do this deed?

If Orestes in killing Klytaimnestra follows the same logic as Klytamnestra had followed in killing Agamemnon, would he not be subject to the same fate as his mother had been? The logic is inescapable. This had been outside the scope of Kassandra’s utterances, but here, at the climactic point of the play, it is made explicit. Humans are trapped in this remorseless logic: past crimes must be requited, for such is the will of the gods, but the fresh crimes committed in the requital also call out for vengeance. And so it continues, in a never-ending cycle of grief, of pain, and of terror.

Soon, Orestes appears triumphant over the corpses of the lovers Klytaimnestra and Aigisthos, just as, at a similar point in the earlier play, Klytaimnestra had appeared triumphant over the bodies of the lovers Kassandra and Agamemnon. The symmetry is, of course, deliberate, and in neither case does the triumph last for long. We never expected it to, really: the pattern of triumph followed by apprehension has been present in this trilogy from the very opening scene of Agamemnon, but here, it is more than mere apprehension, for, as Klytaimnestra had prophesied, her “angry, hounding Furies” now rise from her spilt blood to torment her killer. Apollo had told Orestes of what he would have to suffer if he didn’t carry out the gods’ will: he hadn’t told him what he’d have to suffer if he did.

And on this note, utterly devoid of hope, the play ends. If The Oresteia is indeed a journey from dark to light, it is not a steady journey made in gradual steps of enlightenment: The Libation Bearers, as a play, is no purgatory leading from the darkness of inferno to prepare us for the light of paradise: we are, in this play, in greater darkness than ever. It is hard to think of a single play, either in the Athenian tradition or in any other, that presents so a grim view of the human condition. And whatever light we may find in the closing play of the trilogy, it does not, I think, banish the darkness we encounter here.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on The Libation Bearers]

One response to this post.

  1. I’m getting used to the splits you identify, often occurring right in the middle of the plays. Ajax does it; Alcestis does, that one admittedly a screwy example. Anyway, “unity of action” my eye!

    utterly devoid of hope – it is perhaps bleaker than Agamemnon. The gods are betrayers.


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