Study Guide

Libation Bearers Revenge

By Aeschylus

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(Orestes): "O Zeus! Grant me vengeance for my father's death! Be my ally if you will!" (18-19)

The king of the gods, Zeus was also in charge of dealing out Justice. Thus, when Orestes asks Zeus to let him take vengeance, he basically means that he wants Zeus to ensure that his act of vengeance is just.

(Chorus): "The bloodshed drunk up by Earth its nurse –
the vengeful blood is set hard, and it will not dissolve." (66-67)

These words are spoken by the Chorus of slave women at the tomb of Agamemnon. What do you think they mean here by the "vengeful blood" that won't dissolve? Remember the dramatic situation of the play, which begins with Agamemnon long-dead, murdered, and unavenged. Could they be saying that the crime of his murder (metaphorically represented by the blood) won't go away until he is avenged? You also might want to consider the metaphorical meaning of "blood" in terms of family relations. Could that have anything to do with the situation here, in which Agamemnon's son, Orestes, is in charge of avenging him?

(Electra): "How am I to speak sensibly to my father, how am I to pray to him? Am I to say that I bring [these mourning-libations] to a dear husband from a dear wife, from my mother? I have no words for that, no words I should say as I pour this offering on my father's tomb. Or am I to follow men's custom and make my speech this, that he should well repay those who send these offerings, and with a gift which their goodness deserves?" (88-93)

Nothing about revenge here, is there? Well, maybe, maybe not. What do you think Electra means when she considers asking that Agamemnon "well repay those who send these offerings, and with a gift which their goodness deserves"? Let's bear in mind that it was Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's murderer, who sent Electra to deliver the offerings. What sort of "gift" would be equivalent to the "goodness" of murder? If you follow through on this line of thinking, you can see that what Electra might really be saying here is that she wants Agamemnon's spirit to bring vengeance upon Clytemnestra.

(Chorus): "And while you remember him, upon those guilty of the murder…"
(Electra): "What am I to say? Explain, and instruct me; I have no experience."
(Chorus): "…pray there comes upon them some god or man…"
(Electra): "A judge, you mean, or a just avenger?"
(Chorus): "…state it simply: someone to kill them in return."
(Electra): "And I may ask this from the gods in proper piety?"
(Chorus): "And why not, to requite an enemy with harm for harm." (117-123)

As you'll see elsewhere in this module, and in our discussion of the other plays of the Oresteia, a big theme of the trilogy is the contrast between the ideas of Revenge and Justice. Here, we see that Electra clearly says that these two ideas are not quite the same, when she asks if the Chorus means a "judge" OR a "just avenger." Still, she seems to think that they can also be combined, as shown in her use of the phrase a "JUST avenger." What do you think about the Chorus's view of Revenge and Justice? Is it less sophisticated than Electra's or more so? Is there any real difference between their opinions?

(Electra): "Those are the prayers I say for ourselves; for our enemies I pray for your avenger to appear, father, and for your killers to die justly in return. In speaking this curse for evil upon them, I am putting it in the open before those whose concern it may be. For ourselves, send up here above the good which we ask, with the help of the gods, and of Earth, and of Justice who brings victory!" (142-148)

In these words of Electra, we can see her attempting, once again, to fuse (and perhaps confuse?) the ideas of Justice and Revenge. She prays for an avenger to come, but she wants that vengeance to happen in accordance with Justice. Is this a reasonable hope?

(Electra): "And I swear it wasn't she, the killer, who cut it off either – yes, my own mother, quite untrue to that name because of the godless thoughts she possesses towards her children. […] Oh! If only it had a voice and intelligence in it, like a messenger, so that I wasn't shaking with uncertainty, and it was quite clear whether to reject this lock of hair, with loathing, it really has been cut from an enemy's head – or as a kinsman's it could share my sorrow, a glory for this tomb and an honour for my father!" (189-191, 195-200)

Here we see Electra wondering who could have sent the lock of hair that she finds at the tomb of her father, Agamemnon. Eventually, of course, she concludes that it belonged to her brother, Orestes. What is interesting here is how Electra refuses to call Clytemnestra her mother – as if the need to take vengeance on her also means that she has to sever the family ties between them.

(Orestes): "Loxias' great and powerful oracle will not betray me, I tell you, which orders me to go through this danger. Loud and often it cried out, proclaiming ruin wintry-cold to strike up into my heart's warmth if I do not pursue those guilty for my father's death in the same way; it says I am to kill them in return. It asserted I should pay for this with my own dear life, and have much unpleasant evil, maddened like a bull in a punishment which will keep me from my property." (269-277)

Here, Orestes reveals how the oracle of Apollo (referred to here by another of his names, "Loxias"), commanded him to avenge the murder of his father. The irony, of course, is that it says Orestes will suffer horrible torments if he DOESN'T avenge the murder ("ruin wintry-cold" would "strike up into [his] heart's warmth"), but that he will also suffer horrible torments if he DOES avenge the murder (he will "pay for this with [his] own dear life, and have much unpleasant evil," and so on). We at Shmoop aren't saying that Orestes didn't get this oracle from the god Apollo. Still, don't you think you could also say that this is kind of a metaphor for the emotions anyone would be feeling if they were caught in Orestes's position, between the rock of wanting to avenge your dad and the hard place of being pitted against your mother? Does this say anything about the nature of revenge in general? If so, what?

(Chorus): "Certainly there is a law that bloodshed
dripping to the ground demands another's blood.
The havoc from those slain before
shouts the Fury on
who brings fresh ruin upon ruin." (400-404)

Here, we see the Chorus voicing the traditional view that whenever a murder happens, revenge must follow. They also say that this is demanded by a "law." What law are they referring to? Do you think the play as a whole suggests that Aeschylus agrees with this law? What are the problems with this law?

(Orestes): "Wholly dishonoured, you say: oh, the hurt!
For my father's dishonour she shall pay, then,
with the aid of the gods
and with the aid of my own hands.
Oh to take her life from her, and then to die!" (434-438)

With these words, Orestes expresses in very strong, emotional terms, his desire to get revenge on his mother for the murder of his father. Maybe the most striking thing about these lines is when he says that he wishes he could die after killing his mother. Is this just a figure of speech, a variation on the phrase we've all heard in Saturday-morning cartoons, in which a character says, "I'm going to get you if it's the last thing I do"? Or is there a deeper idea at work here? Consider the fact that he is planning to kill his own mother: could this be metaphorically be interpreted as meaning that he is killing himself, at the same time? There's a mind-bender.

(Orestes): "You killed the man you ought not; so you must suffer the thing you should not." (930)

These are the last words Orestes speaks to his mother Clytemnestra before driving her into the palace to be killed. (Whether he says any further words to her once inside, of course, we cannot know: the final killing happens offstage.) They also boil down to its essence the BIG PROBLEM of the nature of Revenge versus Justice that is central to the Oresteia, and that we've been talking about so much in this module and in those on the other plays in the series.

On one level, it looks like Orestes is talking about justice, in the sense of getting what you deserve: "You did X, so you must suffer X." But if you take it down a notch from the level of algebra, plugging values into the X's, you end up with a paradox: "You did what you shouldn't do, so you must suffer what you shouldn't suffer." But if Clytemnestra is going to suffer what she shouldn't suffer, how can that be just? These are the sorts of questions the audience (including us readers) is likely to ask in hearing these lines.

Of course, in his own mind, Orestes probably means something much more basic: "You did what you shouldn't do (i.e., a wife shouldn't kill her own husband), so you must suffer what you shouldn't suffer" (i.e., a mother shouldn't be killed by her own son)." Does interpreting these lines in the more basic way that Orestes intends them change anything? If so, what?

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