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Orestes arrives home in Argos, accompanied by his friend Pylades. He prays to the god Hermes to help him out in what he is about to do.
He goes up to the tomb of his dead father, Agamemnon, the former king of Argos. Orestes laments the fact that his father was murdered by his own wife – and Orestes's own mother.
Although Orestes doesn't say his mother's name, the play's original Greek audience would have known it already: Clytemnestra.
Orestes cuts off two braids from his hair. He says that the first one is an offering to Inachus, a river in the land of Argos. The second one, he says, is an offering to his father, Agamemnon. He puts both of them on his father's tomb.
Then, Orestes catches sight of a group of women coming toward the tomb, all dressed in black. He realizes that there are bearing libations (Title Alert!) for his father. The women bearing libations are the Chorus.
Orestes also recognizes his sister, Electra. Just to make sure, though, he and Pylades withdraw to a hiding place, so they can spy on the women and see what happens.
After Pylades and Orestes have taken up their positions, the Chorus of serving women begin dancing and singing.
The Chorus starts by talking about their grief for Agamemnon; then they reveal why they have come to the tomb at this particular moment.
Aeschylus leaves the details a little unclear at this point, so we'll follow his lead and not give too much away. This we can say, however: someone in the palace had a horrible dream; the dream-interpreters said that certain spirits under the earth were unhappy at their killers. As a result, a "godless woman" (46) sent the Chorus to make offerings at Agamemnon's tomb.
Then the Chorus express fear for the future of the household. Why? Because Justice is coming. (Insert ominous music here.) Bad things happen to bad people, they say. (If this doesn't make sense yet, don't worry: it will all become clear soon enough.)
The Chorus round off their speech by remarking how they are slaves; they were taken prisoner in war.
Now Electra, Agamemnon's daughter comes forward.
She asks the Chorus for advice on what to say as she makes her libation to her father. She feels trapped because all the ordinary customs don't apply.
How can Electra say she brings the offerings from a loving wife when Clytemnestra, the one who sent them, is the same person who killed Agamemnon? How can she ask Agamemnon's spirit to repay those who have sent the offering with what they deserve – since this would basically mean asking for Clytemnestra to be killed? Should she just keep her mouth shut? Electra asks the Chorus for an honest answer to her problems.
The Chorus tells her that she should pray for those with good intentions; they then explain that by this they mean Electra herself, and anyone who hates Aegisthus. (Aegisthus is the new king in Argos; he got this position by marrying Clytemnestra, after the two of them conspired to murder Agamemnon. More details about this can be found in the previous play in the Oresteia, Agamemnon, and in our Shmoop guide to it.)
Electra says, "Cool. Then I'll pray for myself and for you guys, too."
The Chorus is glad that Electra has caught the hint. Then they tell her she should also pray for Orestes, even if he is in exile. Electra thinks this is a good idea.
But the Chorus isn't finished yet. Now they say that she should pray for something bad to happen to those who killed Agamemnon. Electra asks if it can be pious to pray for such a thing. The Chorus says, "Sure, why not?"
At this point, Electra begins praying. She starts by invoking "Hermes of the Underworld," just like Orestes did at the very beginning of the play. (Devotion to Hermes seems to run in the family.) She asks him to make sure that her message reaches the appropriate people down below.
Then she prays to the spirit of her father, Agamemnon to make Orestes to come back and set things right – i.e., avenge Agamemnon's murder.
The Chorus makes a prayer of their own, along similar lines.
Then, all of a sudden, Electra sees something startling (dare we say, "Electrafying"?). She notices the two locks of hair that Orestes left on the tomb of their father. Of course, Electra doesn't know that they belong to Orestes.
At first, Electra and the Chorus are mystified: all the people who you would expect to give a lock of hair to Agamemnon (like Clytemnestra, for example) are his enemies.
That said, it doesn't take them long to figure out that it might belong to Orestes – especially since it closely resembles Electra's own hair. Still, they figure that Orestes must have sent the hair; they don't imagine that he might be there himself.
Electra is both excited and afraid to think that the hair might belong to Orestes. She prays to the gods that it might be his.
Then, she notices some footprints around the tomb – two pairs of footprints. One of the sets of footprints matches her own, just like the color of the hair matched her hair-color.
At this point, Orestes steps forward. At first, Electra doesn't believe it's him, but eventually he convinces her by holding the lock of hair up to her own hair, as well as by showing her a piece of weaving, now in his possession, which she made herself, years before.
Electra is overjoyed, and tells Orestes he has to play four roles for her. He has to be her father because she has none, he has to be her mother because her mother has turned against her, he has to be her sister because her sister was sacrificed, and he has to be her brother because… he's her brother. Right.
That sounds like a tall order. Orestes seems to recognize this when he immediately prays to Zeus for help in recovering his rightful position as the head of the family. Still, he also calls Zeus out, basically telling him that no one will ever pray to him again if he doesn't help Orestes do this – it's just so obviously the right thing to do.
After the Chorus wishes him and Electra well, Orestes continues with his speech.
Now he reveals that an oracle of Apollo has ordered him to kill those responsible for killing his father. The oracle told him that, if he didn't go after them, he would be destroyed. It also told them, if he does kill them, he will suffer horrible diseases, go crazy, and be outcast from mankind. Great.
Orestes says that he isn't sure if he believes the oracle, but he still has to get revenge – and liberate Argos from the tyranny of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.
Now, Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus take up positions beside Agamemnon's tomb and start a complicated chant in which they take turns singing the lead part.
The Chorus starts off, asking Fate to help them out, and also pointing out that Justice demands that those who commit crimes suffer the same thing in return.
Then Orestes starts chanting, asking if his father can hear him, even though he's dead. He finally decides that, even if you can never be sure about this, it is still good to make a lament.
The Chorus tells him not to worry: Agamemnon's spirit will see to it that justice is done.
Next Electra begins chanting, saying that she and Orestes are exiles; their only home is Agamemnon's tomb, she says. Then she points out that they are between a rock and a hard place, because there doesn't seem any course of action open to them that doesn't lead to something evil. (What do you think she might be referring to here?)
The Chorus reassures her that the gods can make things turn out all right. They tell her to hope for the best.
Then both Orestes and the Chorus take turns saying essentially the same thing: how they wish that Agamemnon had died in battle at Troy, instead of being murdered by his wife upon his return home.
The Chorus say that, that way, Agamemnon could have gotten a cushy job helping out the king of the underworld (though it isn't clear why this would depend on when, where, and how he got killed).
But then Electra says, "Uh-uh. It would have been much better if the people who killed our dad had been killed at Troy."
The Chorus say, "Oh yeah. Good thinking. Anyway, destruction is coming for those who killed Agamemnon."
Then Orestes, the Chorus, and Electra take turns hoping that destruction will come to Agamemnon's enemies. The Chorus point out again that violence comes to those who inflict violence.
Then the Chorus and Electra start talking about how horrified they are at what has happened and what is about to happen. Electra reflects on how horrible her mother is, and how Clytemnestra deceived Agamemnon and dishonored him by giving him a chintzy funeral. This just sets off Orestes all the more: he says he can't wait to kill his mother and die soon afterward.
Sensing how they are egging Orestes on, Electra and the Chorus emphasize the dishonor done to Agamemnon, and tell Orestes to "write" these things in his mind so he won't forget.
Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus conclude their chant by calling on Agamemnon's spirit to help them out. Electra and Orestes continue this theme by offering some special prayers to their father's spirit which emphasize their close family bond.
They also try to get Agamemnon's spirit to kick into gear on their behalf by reminding him of the horrible way in which he was killed. This is basically the same strategy as schoolyard taunting: "Come on, daddy, aren't you going to do something about it? Aren't you? Aren't you?"
Finally, the Chorus tells Orestes that he should stop dilly-dallying and get on with his revenge.
Orestes says that the Chorus has a point, but he still wants to know why Clytemnestra sent the libations to Agamemnon's tomb – why now, after so many years?
The Chorus says that it was a dream that inspired Clytemnestra to send the offerings. She dreamed that she gave birth to a snake. When she put the snake to her breast, it sucked out blood as well as milk.
Orestes is pleased; he says that the dream will turn out to be true. At the risk of stating the obvious, he then goes on to interpret the dream as meaning that Clytemnestra will be killed by what she has given birth to – i.e., Orestes.
The Chorus thinks that is a pretty nifty bit of dream-interpretation; they say to Orestes, "Good call. We're going to keep our fingers crossed that you're right."
Now Orestes takes charge. He tells Electra to go inside the palace. Then he tells the women of the Chorus to keep quiet: his revenge against Aegisthus and Clytemnestra will require stealth techniques.
Orestes says that he and Pylades will pretend to be ordinary travelers from Parnassus. To help the trick work, they'll pretend to speak with a Parnassian accent. (This is a joke because Mt. Parnassus stands above Delphi, the site of the oracle of Apollo. This is where Orestes and Pylades came from right before the beginning of the play – but they aren't from there originally.)
In this disguise, they will wait at the door of the palace until somebody takes them in. Then Orestes adds that, if he sees Aegisthus sitting on his dad's throne, or if Aegisthus gives him any back talk, he will drop his disguise and kill him on the spot.
Orestes ends his speech by praying for help to the god Apollo; in doing so, he points to the statue of Apollo placed above the door of the palace. (This same statue is referenced by Cassandra in Agamemnon, Part 1 of Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy.)
Then Electra goes inside the palace (i.e., offstage), Orestes and Pylades shuffle over to the side of the palace gate (i.e., to the side of the stage), and the Chorus begin dancing and singing another song.
The Chorus talks about how there are lots of horrible things in the world, but there are two things that are especially horrible: men who are too bold, and women who are too clever.
They apparently take the part about bold men pretty much for granted, because they spend the most time talking about the dangers of clever women. (This is ironic, because the Chorus members themselves are women, remember.)
After citing various examples of misbehaving women from mythology, and comparing them with what Clytemnestra has done to Agamemnon, the Chorus say not to worry: Justice is on its way.
When the Chorus finishes their song, Orestes and Pylades start to put Orestes's plan into action.
Orestes knocks on the door. It clearly takes a while for anyone to answer, because when a slave finally comes out, Orestes complains at having to wait so long. He tells the slave to go get somebody in charge. He says he'd prefer to speak to a man, because (according to him) it's easier to speak plainly between men.
The, Clytemnestra comes out of the palace. She says that the strangers are welcome. She also says that, if Orestes needs to enter into any serious deliberation, she'll fetch one of the men.
Orestes tells Clytemnestra that he comes from the land of Phocis. He says that on his way, he ran into a man called Strophius, who asked him, "Since you're going to Argos anyway, would you pass along the message that Orestes is dead?" (In Agamemnon, Part 1 of Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy, we learned that Clytemnestra had sent Orestes away from Argos to be raised by Strophius the Phocian.)
When Clytemnestra hears this, she acts as if it's the worst news she's ever heard. Orestes (in disguise) says he's sorry to be the bringer of bad news. Clytemnestra says, "Don't worry about it; we won't shoot the messenger."
A servant leads Orestes and Pylades inside the palace (offstage).
This leaves the Chorus onstage. They decide to help out Orestes through the art of persuasion (we'll see in a minute what they mean by this). They also invoke Hermes to help them. (Try to bear in mind that, among other things, Hermes is the god of trickery.)
Just then, they see Orestes's old Nurse walking in front of the palace.
The Chorus members call out, "Hey, Nurse! What's up? Where are you hurrying off to?"
The Nurse says that Clytemnestra sent her to go get Aegisthus. She says that Clytemnestra seemed sad but was actually happy to learn of her son's death.
Then the Nurse reflects about how she used to take care of Orestes when he was a baby. She says that Orestes peed himself a lot, and so she had to wash his clothes all the time (seriously). We're glad Orestes isn't onstage right now, because he'd probably be blushing so much he'd give up his disguise.
The Nurse says that she is horribly upset to learn of Orestes's death.
The Chorus asks her whether Clytemnestra told Aegisthus to come with bodyguards or not. The Nurse says that she told him to come with bodyguards. The Chorus members say, "Then just change your message a tiny bit. Tell him to come alone."
The Nurse is shocked to hear the Chorus tell her that she should change her message, but the Chorus tells her she'll be helping to set the household back on its feet again. The Nurse says, "How's that possible? We're screwed now that Orestes is dead."
The Chorus members say, "Don't bank on it."
The Nurse says, "Do you know something I don't?"
The Chorus members reply, "Just pass on the message like we told you and trust in the gods. Everything will be cool."
The Nurse goes off to deliver her new message. In the meantime, the Chorus begins singing. They call on Zeus and Hermes to help Orestes on his mission.
They also express the wish that, when Orestes comes to kill his mother, he not get distracted by their family connection. When Clytemnestra says, "My son," the Chorus say, Orestes should reply, "No, my father!"
When the Chorus finish singing, who should walk out onstage but… Aegisthus!
Aegisthus says, "Hey, I'm here. Who paged me? I heard Orestes is dead or something. Bummer."
The Chorus tells him, "Don't ask us. Go inside and ask those strangers."
Aegisthus heads inside the palace, offstage. Then the Chorus sings a prayer to Zeus, pointing out that Orestes is about to get revenge… or not.
Then, a blood curdling cry is heard from offstage.
A House-Slave runs out onstage and announces that Aegisthus has been killed.
Then Clytemnestra comes onstage from out of the palace. She says, "What the heck is all this commotion about? What's going on?"
The House-Slave says, "The dead are killing the living."
Clytemnestra understands what this means, and says, "OK. Get me an axe, right away!"
Before her request can be carried out, however, Orestes and Pylades come out of the palace. Inside the door of the palace, we see the dead body of Aegisthus.
After a brief exchange about whether Clytemnestra loves Aegisthus or not, she points to her breast and says: "How can you kill me? Remember how I nursed you!" (Think back to the rest of the play. Is there any reason to think Clytemnestra might be playing tricks here?)
Orestes doesn't know what to do and turns to Pylades for advice.
Pylades (who has not spoken in the play up to this moment), says "What? Are you going to make a laughingstock of Apollo's oracle? You should consider any human your enemy before you start making enemies of the gods!"
Orestes thinks that Pylades has given good advice. He tells Clytemnestra to follow him inside to be killed.
Once again, Clytemnestra tells Orestes how she nurtured him when he was an infant, and how she wants to grow old with him.
Orestes says, "How could I live with you? You killed my dad!"
Clytemnestra says, "Fate made me do it."
Orestes says, "Well, Fate makes me do this!"
Then Clytemnestra accuses Orestes of having no respect. Orestes says, "Me have no respect! You're the one who sold me off into exile!"
When Clytemnestra asks what price she got for him, Orestes says he's too embarrassed to say. (He means that, with her son out of the way, Clytemnestra was able to carry on her affair with Aegisthus; this was her "payment.")
Then Clytemnestra says, "Well, your father had his little extra-curricular activities too, if you know what I mean."
Orestes says, "So what? He was off fighting wars for your benefit."
When it starts to look like nothing will stop him, Clytemnestra tells Orestes that the Furies (spirits of vengeance) will pursue him if he kills her.
Orestes says that he accepts that. He also blames Clytemnestra for her own fate, saying that she is only getting what was coming to her for murdering Agamemnon.
Then Orestes takes Clytemnestra into the palace, offstage.
Now the Chorus starts singing a song about how Justice has finally come to the house of Agamemnon. They see Orestes as the instrument of this Justice.
Just then, the door of the palace opens, revealing Orestes, standing over the dead bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. (This parallels the end of Agamemnon, in which Clytemnestra is shown in the doorway standing over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra.)
Orestes announces that what he has done was justified. Then he tells some slaves to stretch out a robe; Orestes explains that Agamemnon's killers, before stabbing him, first trapped him by throwing this robe over him while he was in his bath.
Next, Orestes talks about how horrified he is to have had Clytemnestra as a mom. He says that he hopes he never has children.
Then the Chorus start lamenting, pointing out that these new deaths are a sorrowful occasion, no matter which way you slice it.
Now Orestes starts doubting himself, asking (in Collard's translation), "Did she do it, or not do it?" Then he looks at the bloody robe and says that it was Aegisthus's sword that pierced it. (Does this mean that he thinks Aegisthus did it and NOT his mother, or could he just mean that his mother used Aegisthus's sword?)
Orestes says that he laments for his entire family. Now he points out that, by killing his own mother, he has become unclean. The Greek word for this is miasma, which can be translated as "pollution." (In Greek society, if you committed a serious crime, you were seen as polluted until you could perform some kind of purification ritual.)
The Chorus keeps lamenting, observing that nobody is able to live completely free from suffering.
At this point, something changes in Orestes. He says that he is becoming confused, as if he is losing his senses. Once again, he says that he was justified in killing his mother, and says that it was the oracle of Apollo that made him do it, by threatening horrible consequences if he left his father unavenged.
Orestes says that he is going to the shrine of Apollo at Delphi to try to purify himself of the murder he has just committed. He tells the citizens of Argos to explain what he did to Agamemnon's brother Menelaus, if he ever shows up.
The Chorus tries to calm him down, telling him that he did the right thing. Just then, however, Orestes has a horrible vision of the Furies – horrible female divinities with snakes for hair who punish wrongdoing. Orestes thinks they're coming to get him!
The Chorus tries to calm him down, but Orestes is being driven mad. When they realize how serious his situation is, the Chorus members tell him to go to Apollo's shrine as quickly as possible to be cured.
Orestes cries out that, even though nobody else can see the Furies, they're all too real and frightening to him. He runs offstage, headed for Delphi.
The Chorus reflect on the cycle of killings so far: Atreus killed the children of his brother Thyestes; then Atreus's son Agamemnon was killed by Clytemnestra acting together with Thyestes's remaining son Aegisthus; now Clytemnestra and Aegisthus have been killed by Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's son Orestes. (For more information on this backstory check out our guide to Agamemnon, Part 1 of Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy.)
The Chorus ends the play by hoping that things will turn out for the best.