Study Guide

Libation Bearers Gender

By Aeschylus

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(Electra): "That Orestes may come here through some fortune is my prayer to you; and you must hear me, father! Grant me also to be much more chaste than my mother, and my hands to have greater piety." (129-131, 138-141)

As you may remember from Agamemnon (if you've read it, that is), Clytemnestra gets roundly blamed for not conforming to traditional gender roles. Part of this stems from the fact that she is not faithful to her husband while he is off fighting at Troy. (Now, you might just say that it's bad for anybody to cheat on their spouse, but the thing is that Agamemnon also sleeps around, but nobody seems to have a problem with that.) In contrast, Electra wishes to be virtuous, which for her means adhering to stricter norms of female conduct.

(Orestes): "Many desires are falling together into one; there are the gods' commands, and my great grief for my father; besides, it oppresses me to be deprived of my property, so that our citizens, who have the finest glory among men, and honour for their heart in sacking Troy, should not be subjects like this of a pair of women. Why, the man is effeminate at heart; and if he is not, he shall soon find out!" (299-305)

These lines by Orestes also bring back echoes of Agamemnon, the first play in the Oresteia. There, Aegisthus was often derided for being unmanly because he stayed home while others fought at Troy, and, eventually, because he used deception (and relied on Clytemnestra) in his plot against Agamemnon instead of fighting face-to-face as a man was expected to. In Agamemnon, the idea got floated that Clytemnestra was somewhat manly because of her mental power and ability to take charge. Orestes doesn't use that idea here. He instead expresses his horror at the idea that Argos should be ruled by two women – Aegisthus and his mother Clytemnestra. This is not the only time in the play when Orestes expresses what could be regarded as misogynistic sentiments. Can you think of others?

(Chorus): "Now take your friends through the rest, ordering action for some, and for others to do nothing."
(Orestes): "It's simply said: Electra here is to go inside [a line missing]." (552-554)

It seems oddly appropriate that a line is missing in the manuscript at this point. That's because there doesn't really seem to be much for Electra to do. Whereas Orestes takes charge and plays an active role, he orders his sister simply to keep quiet and wait things out. In fact, once she heads inside shortly after these lines, she disappears for the rest of the play. In the contrast between the roles of Orestes and Electra, who are otherwise so similar in their feelings (and even in their physiques – they have the same shoe size, remember), we see traditional Greek gender roles in action.

(Chorus): "But a man too bold in spirit –
who is to tell of him? –
or women's reckless mind,
bold all round in those passions
which are partner in men's ruin?
Passion rules the female,
selfishly subverting the bond which unites
in shared dwellings brute creatures and mankind alike." (594-601)

Even though the Chorus is made up of slave women, they nonetheless express traditional stereotypes about men and women. Women, in their view, are highly emotional and susceptible to irrational passions; these make them "partner[s] in men's ruin." The irony, of course, is that the Chorus themselves are highly intelligent and rational women, who use their cunning to become partners in Orestes's success. Does this mean that Aeschylus might have disagreed with the simplistic sentiment expressed in these lines?

(Chorus): "Since I made mention of pitiless wrongdoing,
not inapposite too
are a union hateful and deprecated by the house,
and the planned designs of a woman's mind
against a husband who bore arms,
a man who enjoyed his enemies' respect.
I honour a hearth unheated by passion,
its women not emboldened to assume command." (623-630)

Here we see, once again, that the Chorus of slave-women has rather traditional views about the role of women in the household. They think that women should be subservient to men because their emotions are uncontrollable. Does the play as a whole support this assessment?

(Chorus): "In evils from myth the Lemnian ranks supreme;
but ours is lamented
as unique in abomination; yet people compare
its horror anew to the Lemnian crime.
In an outrage hateful to god,
a race of men perishes in dishonour;
no one has respect for heaven's displeasure.
I collect these examples; is any unjust?" (631-638)

What's the "Lemnian crime"? So glad you asked. According to mythology, the women of Lemnos (an island in the Aegean Sea) once murdered their husbands because they had taken mistresses while off on a military campaign. The Chorus is saying that people compare what Clytemnestra did to Agamemnon as parallel to the actions of the Lemnian women. (The people who say this probably assume that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon because he brought Cassandra home as his mistress; actually, Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia arguably played a big role in motivating her.) Of course, the women of Lemnos were acting out of anger at a double-standard based on gender, according to which it was perfectly fine for men to take mistresses while on campaign.

(Orestes): "Have someone with authority in the house come out, the lady in charge – but a man is more seemly: the constraints of conversation blur one's words; a man speaks to another man with confidence and reveals his meaning with clarity." (663-667)

These lines come from when Orestes is knocking at the door of the palace, disguised as a traveler from Parnassus. Basically, Orestes is saying that he'd prefer to speak to a man because he can be more frank that way. He seems to think that conventions of conversation between men and women make it more difficult to speak openly. Because he is in disguise, we can't necessarily take these words as reflecting his true feelings. Of course, they still could be his true feelings. Do you think Orestes means this? If so, why would he say it at this point?

(Clytemnestra): "Strangers, please say if there is anything you need; all the kinds of thing proper to this house are near to hand, hot baths as well as bedding to soothe weariness, and the presence of honest faces. If there's need to do anything requiring more deliberation, it's work for men, and we'll communicate it to them." (668-673)

Now we see Clytemnestra taking the same line that Orestes just took, or at least a similar one. She says that if any serious thinking has to be done, that should be left to the men, since it's no business of women. Of course, we all know that Clytemnestra is one of the craftiest thinkers around, surely one of the best in "anything requiring more deliberation." Why do you think she is putting on this façade of emphasizing traditional gender roles?

(Chorus): "[You must be brave], and in your heart
keep up the courage of Perseus;
for your friends below the earth
and those above, perform this duty and grace.
Make bloody ruin
of the noxious Gorgon inside the house,
a death which Apollo frees of guilt." (831-837)

The Gorgon is a traditional image of a demonic woman who must be slain by a male hero. (The most famous Gorgon was slain by Perseus, who gets a shout-out here from the Chorus.) By likening Clytemnestra to a Gorgon, the Chorus demonizes a female enemy as essentially subhuman, or bestial. Is any parallel abuse directed at Aegisthus, or does Clytemnestra, as a woman, receive especially bad treatment?

(Orestes): "It was an outrage: to be sold away, when I was a free man's son."
(Clytemnestra): "Then where was the price I got in exchange?"
(Orestes): "I feel shame at putting that reproach to you plainly."
(Clytemnestra): "Don't, unless you speak equally of your father's follies too."
(Orestes): "Don't find fault with the worker while you sit about indoors."
(Clytemnestra): "It is painful for wives to be kept from a husband, my child."
(Orestes): "But it is a husband's toil which maintains them while they sit indoors." (915-921)

Here, once again, we get the sexual double-standard. Orestes calls his mom a skank for (in his view) sending him away so she could carry on with Aegisthus. Clytemnestra defends herself by saying that Agamemnon had affairs too, and anyway life's tough for women who have to sit at home while their husbands are off fighting battles. In his response, however, Orestes shows that he thinks men have special rights: because men's fighting provides their wives with a livelihood, women should just put up with their affairs. Who do you think we are meant to feel more sympathy for in this exchange?

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