Study Guide

Libation Bearers Memory and the Past

By Aeschylus

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Memory and the Past

(Orestes): "If only there under Troy
some Lycian with his spear, father,
had cut you down and stripped you!
You would have bequeathed fame in your house,
founded a life for your children making eyes turn in the streets,
and in a land overseas
had your tomb heaped high,
and easy thing for your house to bear." (345-353)

Here Orestes shows that he has a romanticized view of the past. He thinks things would have been much better for Agamemnon if only he had died gloriously in battle at Troy. But does what he's saying really make any sense? If she wanted to, Clytemnestra could have still shacked up with Aegisthus if Agamemnon died in battle; in fact, it would have saved her the trouble of killing him. In this way, Orestes's nostalgia for the Trojan War (which he was certainly too young to experience) might show how out conceptions of the past can be misleading.

(Chorus): "Comrade conspicuous below earth
among comrades who died bravely at Troy,
an honoured and majestic lord,
and minister serving the kings
who are great there under the earth –
for he was a sovereign while he lived,
his hands holding fate's appointment
and a sceptre which all men obeyed." (354-362)

These lines from the Chorus come right after the words of Orestes in the previous quotation. They continue the same thought: everything would have been fine and dandy if only Agamemnon had died at Troy instead of being killed by his wife upon his return. Does this idea make any more sense the second time around? We're not convinced.

(Chorus): "Mutilated too, he was, you must know,
and the deed was hers who buried him like that,
seeking to make his death
unbearable for your own life.
You hear your father's torment and dishonour!" (439-443)

Here we see how the past can be used to influence the present. The Chorus plays up the horrible details of Agamemnon's death in order to make Orestes more enraged and get him all fired up for revenge. Can you think of any examples from history or current affairs in which the memory of past wrongs is used to enflame passions in the present?

(Electra): "You tell of my father's dying; but they kept me away
in dishonour, worth no regard,
fenced off inside like a dangerous dog,
tears rising readier than laughter,
so many poured out in my hidden lament.
Such things, now you hear [them, you must write] in your mind." (444-450)

Electra continues taking the same tack as the Chorus in the previous quotation. She emphasizes to Orestes the way she herself was mistreated by Clytemnestra. Once again, the point is to make Orestes fixated on revenge. The metaphor Electra uses when she tells Orestes to "write" these things in his mind is a forceful reminder of the role that the writing of history can play in inspiring action – for good or ill.

(Chorus): "Yes, write them! Help the story
pierce through his ears, to his mind's quiet depth.
All that is as it is; the rest
he is eager to learn for himself.
The fight needs unbending resolve!" (451-455)

Now it's the Chorus's turn. They continue to emphasize the importance of Orestes writing down the things he's being told in his mind. By writing them down, the horrors of the past will remain forever present to him, goading him on until he carries out his revenge.

(Nurse): "My other troubles wrung me dry though I was steadfast; but my dear Orestes, who wore away my being, whom I nurtured once I received him from his mother, and [a line missing] his shrill commands which had me wandering in the night, frequent and wearisome, without benefit to myself – I put up with them. A thing which cannot reason must be nurtured just like an animal, of course with due attention; a child still in its swaddling cannot say at all whether hunger or thirst or its bladder affects it; and children's young stomachs are a law to themselves. Although I tried to divine these things in advance, as laundress of the child's swaddling, I was I think frequently mistaken; so launderer and nurse had to do one duty. Those were my hands' two occupations in bringing up Orestes for his father; now he is dead, and I have the misery of learning it!" (752-763)

The Nurse's descriptions of Orestes as a baby make him sound like a little hell-raiser, don't they? But she's still heartbroken to hear that he has died. In fact, it's almost as if her memory of hardship has now changed to nostalgia.

(Clytemnestra): "Stop, my son! Hold back, from respect for this breast! You often drowsed at it while your gums drew out its rich milk." (896-898)

Here is another attempt to use the past as a way of changing the present. In this case, however, it is more like a manipulation of the past. Did Clytemnestra really breastfeed Orestes? Well, we just heard a long speech from Orestes's Nurse, which suggests that she was the one who did it. Whose word do you accept? We think that Clytemnestra is probably exploiting the fact that Orestes has no memory of his earliest days (he was a baby then, after all), in a last-ditch bid for sympathy.

(Chorus): "There came justice at last to Priam's children,
heavy and just in punishment;
there came to Agamemnon's house
a double lion, double warfare;
there drove absolutely forward
the exile, as Pythia
enjoined, well sped by warnings of the gods." (935-941)

Here, we see the Chorus using their experience of the past as a basis for predicting the future. Does Aeschylus's trilogy suggest that this is a reasonable basis for predicting the future? If so, does this really say anything about the nature of justice, or is it simply the case that revenge breeds revenge? Couldn't you almost say that the curse of cycles of revenge is that it makes people always either live in the past, or replicate the past in the present by repeating old acts of violence?

(Orestes): "Did she do it, or not do it? This robe is my witness that Aegisthus' sword dyed it; the ooze of blood contributes over time to spoiling the many dyes in the embroidery. I praise my father now, I lament him now, while I am here and addressing this woven thing which killed him. I grieve for the deeds and the suffering and the whole family; and there can be no envy for the pollution my victory here brings to me." (1010-1017)

Just after killing his mother, Orestes is confronted with a fundamental problem about the past: uncertainty. He wasn't around when Agamemnon was killed, so how does he know that Clytemnestra, his mother, really did it? Of course, he has already been given instructions by the oracle of Apollo (before the beginning of the play), and has heard reports from other characters like Electra and the Chorus. (But do Electra and the Chorus have direct knowledge of what happened?) Here, though, he is left to contemplate physical evidence – the bloody robe that was thrown over Agamemnon before he was stabbed to death. But this evidence requires interpretation. To paraphrase the poet W. H. Auden (who remarked that "The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living" (source), you could say that the events of the past are modified in the minds in the present.

(Chorus): "In the royal palace this is the third family-storm in turn
to have blown itself out and come to fulfillment.
Children devoured began the first,
misery hard and cruel;
second were a husband's sufferings, a king's,
and slaughter in a bath was his death for the Achaeans' leader in war;
now in turn a third has come from somewhere to bring safety – or should I say, death?
Where indeed will fulfillment be, where will lulling asleep stop the energy of Ruin?" (1065-1076)

These are the final words of the play. They summarize the problem of revenge, which is always backward looking, and tends to replicate the past in the present. What hope does this leave for the future? Will there really be no end of the cycle of violence? In this way, the theme of Memory and the Past dovetails clearly with the play's main themes of Revenge and Justice. This paves the way for Part 3 of the trilogy, Eumenides, but we won't spoil your fun in learning about (and reading) it now.

Libation Bearers Memory and the Past Study Group

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