38 pages 1 hour read


The Libation Bearers

Fiction | Play | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Libation Bearers is an ancient Greek tragedy by the Athenian playwright Aeschylus, first produced in 458 BCE at the City Dionysia in Athens. Libation Bearers is the second part of the Oresteia, a trilogy exploring the themes of justice, retribution, and the cyclical pattern of bloodshed within the family of the mythical king Agamemnon. Following the events of Agamemnon, the first tragedy of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the play depicts the murder of Clytaemestra, the queen of Argos, by her son Orestes, who is duty-bound to avenge Clytaemestra’s murder of his father, Agamemnon. Exploring the themes of The Moral Implications of Retribution, Divine Commands Versus Personal Conscience, and The Dynamics of Power and Familial Loyalty, Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers is one of the most important surviving examples of ancient Greek tragedy and continues to exert a significant influence on Western literature.

This study uses Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the play from the third edition of the University of Chicago Press series The Complete Greek Tragedies (2013).

Content Warning: The source material of this study guide features violence, murder, and revenge, including intrafamilial violence.

Plot Summary

The play begins before the burial mound of Agamemnon, the former king of Argos who was murdered some years previously by his wife, Clytaemestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Agamemnon’s son Orestes arrives at the tomb, having secretly returned to the kingdom after being forced into exile by Clytaemestra and Aegisthus. He cuts off a lock of his hair as an offering to his father’s spirit and, talking to his companion Pylades, he reveals that he plans to avenge Agamemnon’s murder.

At the sound of approaching footsteps, Orestes and Pylades hide. Orestes’s sister Electra arrives, followed by the Chorus, a group of enslaved women who are carrying offerings for Agamemnon. As they enter, Electra and the Chorus sing the parodos, the first choral song. Electra mourns her father and prays that her brother will soon return to avenge her father. She notices Orestes’s lock of hair and his footprints at the tomb and is amazed by how similar they are to her own. Orestes reveals himself and he and his sister are joyfully reunited. He tells Electra that the god Apollo has commanded him to avenge Agamemnon.

Orestes and Electra begin plotting their revenge, praying to their father’s spirit to ask for its help. When Orestes asks why Electra and the Chorus have come to the tomb, they explain that the queen has had an ominous dream in which she gave birth to a snake, which then bit her. She hopes that these offerings to Agamemnon’s spirit will appease him. Speculating that he is the serpent, Orestes reveals his plan: He and Pylades will disguise themselves and arrive at the palace as guests. Once inside, they will murder the queen and her new husband, Aegisthus.

The Chorus sing the first stasimon, in which they describe womankind’s potential for treachery. They mention various mythical examples of female treachery before turning to Clytaemestra. They declare that the gods will soon punish the queen for her betrayal of her husband.

In disguise, Orestes and Pylades arrive at the palace gates. They are met by Clytaemestra. Orestes gives a false name and claims that he has come to deliver sad news: Orestes is dead. Clytaemestra grieves insincerely, and sends her servant Cilissa, Orestes’s former nurse, to fetch Aegisthus.

The women of the Chorus intercept Cilissa and tell her to make sure Aegisthus comes alone, without his bodyguard. Cilissa agrees. Left alone on stage, the Chorus prays once more for vengeance.

Aegisthus enters, wondering aloud whether the news of Orestes’s death can be true, and resolving to put the messenger to the question. He exits, and screaming is heard off stage.

A wounded servant warns Clytaemestra, who calls for an axe. Orestes, however, arrives before she can arm herself. The queen bares her breast and reminds Orestes of his filial duty. He hesitates for a moment, but finally drags her into the palace and murders her over Aegisthus’s body.

Orestes’s speech becomes erratic as he winds the two corpses in Agamemnon’s shroud (an elaborate garment in which Clytaemestra trapped her husband so that he could not defend himself against Aegisthus). Still grieving his father and speaking increasingly incoherently, Orestes announces that he must exile himself for the crime of murdering his mother. The Chorus tries to reassure him that he has done the right thing, but Orestes has a vision of the Furies, the goddesses who punish murderers. Terrified almost to madness, Orestes flees, hoping to find refuge at Apollo’s shrine. The Chorus worries that the cycle of bloodshed is not yet over.