A summary and analysis of the dramatic trilogy by Aeschylus

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 78-104.

Introduction · Agamemnon · Libation Bearers · Eumenides · Overview

Libation Bearers

In the Choëphoræ, or Libation Bearers, the second of the three tragedies, Orestes avenges his father's murder by putting to death his mother; for his deed, painfully revolting, is enjoined upon him by Apollo. To effect his purpose he is compelled to creep in disguise into the abode of the usurper, and however deserving of her fate his mother might be, the voice of conscience cannot be stilled. As to his guilt a controversy arises among the gods, some of whom approve the deed, while the others persecute him, until divine wisdom, embodied in Athena, balances the claims on either side and puts an end to the long train of crime and vengeance which had desolated the royal house of Atreus.

At the opening of the Choëphoræ, Clytemnestra has slain Agamemnon, and a chorus of captive Trojan women are sent to bear offerings to her victim's grave.

Obedient to my Queen's command,
With pure libations in my hand,
The regal halls I leave:
The shredded robe, the oft-dealt blow,
The bleeding cheek, whose furrows show
The handy-work of frantic woe,
Bear witness how I grieve.
Torn is the linen vest,
That veiled my snowy breast;
And smiles around my lips no longer play;
My heart, with care opprest,
Is fed on agony from day to day.
A cry the calm of midnight broke;
From the dark chambers Terror spoke;
Troubler of sleep!--with ghastly stare,
With breath of wrath, and bristling hair,
And accent shrill that pierced the ear,
Loud raved the dream-inspiring Seer!
Right heavily he sate, I ween,
Above the chambers of the Queen.
The Interpreters, their troth who plight
To spell the visions of the night,
From God an answer gave:
"Sent forth by murdered man," they said
"That form, to haunt the murderer's bed,
Had issued from the grave."
The impious Queen in vain these offerings sends,
To turn aside the ill that boding dream portends.
Earth! her graceless gifts I pour thee!
Earth, my mother! I adore thee:
Yet scarce my tongue thy power may dare
To mock the ineffectual prayer:
Can aught remove the murderer's guilt?
Can aught atone for life-blood spilt?
Halls, o'erwhelmed in ruin rode!
Hearth, where countless sorrows brood!
Round you, now my Lord is slain,
Sunless, hateful shadows reign;
Loyal Faith that once possessed
Every listening subject's breast,
Faith, whose firmness seemed to mock
War and foul sedition's shock,
Hath passed away;--the cravens bow
Their necks beneath usurpers now.
Man to success still court will pay,
Still honor Fortune's fickle sway,
Exalt her to the blest abodes,
A goddess and above the gods.
But Justice holds her equal scales
With ever-waking eye;
O'er some her vengeful might prevails,
When their life's sun is high;
On some her vigorous judgements light,
In that dread pause twixt day and night,
Life's closing twilight hour;
Round some, ere yet they meet their doom,
Is shed the silence of the tomb,
The eternal shadows lower;
But soon as once the genial plain
Has drunk the life-blood of the slain,
Indelible the spots remain,
And aye for vengeance call,
Till racking pangs of piercing pain
Upon the guilty fall.
What balm for him shall potent prove,
Who breaks the ties of wedded love?
And though all streams united gave
The treasures of their limpid wave,
To purify from gore;
The hand, polluted once with blood,
Though washed in every silver flood,
Is foul for evermore!
Hard fate is mine, since that dark day,
Which girt my home with war's array,
And bore me from my father's hall,
To pine afar, a captive thrall;
Hard fate! to yield to Heaven's decree,
And what I am not, seem to be;
Dissemble hatred, and control
The bitter workings of the soul;
E'en to injustice feign consent;
Detest the wrong, but not prevent:
Yet oft I veil my face, to weep
For those who unavengéd sleep;
Oft for my slaughtered lord I mourn,
Chilled by the frost of grief, with secret anguish torn!

Electra consults the chorus whether she shall execute the commission of her mother, or pour out the offering in silence, and by their advice immediately addresses a prayer to Hermes and the soul of her father, for herself and the absent Orestes, that he may appear as the avenger. Presently, discovering the lock of hair, of a color resembling her own, and footsteps round about the tomb, she conjectures that her brother has been there, and while she is beside herself for joy at the thought, he steps forward and discovers himself. Her doubts he completely overcomes by producing a garment woven by her own hand; they give themselves up to joy; he addresses a prayer to Zeus, and tells how Apollo, under the most fearful menaces of persecution by the Furies, has called upon him to destroy those guilty of his death in the same manner, namely, by artifice.

Now follow odes of the chorus and Electra--consisting partly of prayers to the departed and to the infernal deities, partly calling to mind all the motives for the impending deed, especially the murder of Agamemnon. Orestes inquires about the dream which induced Clytemnestra to offer the sacrifice, and is informed that she dreamt her child in the cradle was a dragon, which she laid to her breast, and suckled with her own blood. He resolves that he will be this dragon, and tells how he will steal into the house as a disguised stranger and take by surprise both Ægisthus and herself. With this intention he departs with Pylades.

The subject of the next ode of the chorus is the boundless audacity of mankind in general, and especially of women, in their unlawful passions, which it confirms with fearful examples from mythic story and shows how at last they are overtaken by avenging Justice. Orestes, returning as a stranger with Pylades, craves admission into the palace. Clytemnestra comes forth, and when she is informed by him of the death of Orestes, for which Electra makes a feigned lamentation, she invites him to enter as her guest. After a short prayer of the chorus, the nurse of Orestes enters and makes a lamentation for her nursling. The chorus inspires her with a hope that he yet lives, and advises her to send Ægisthus, for whom Clytemnestra has dispatched her, without his body-guard. At the approach of the moment of danger the chorus prays to Zeus and Hermes that the deed may prosper. Ægisthus comes in conversation with the messenger, cannot yet persuade himself of the truth of the joyful tidings of the death of Orestes, and therefore hastes into the house, whence is heard the cry of the murdered man.

A servant rushes out and gives the alarm before the door of the women's chamber, to warn Clytemnestra. She hears it, steps out, calls for a hatchet to defend herself, but as Orestes without delay assaults her with the bloody sword, her courage fails her, and in the most moving manner she holds out to him the maternal breast. Doubtingly he consults with Pylades, who urges him on my the strongest motives. Then, after some parley, he follows her into the house to slay her beside the corpse of Ægisthus.

The following is from the dreadful scene where Orestes kills his mother:

    ORESTES: 'Tis thee I seek: he there has had enough.
    CLYTEMNESTRA: Ah me! my loved Ægisthus! Art thou dead?
    ORESTES: Lov'st thou the man? Then in the self-same tomb
    Shalt thou now lie, nor in his death desert him.
    CLYTEMNESTRA: (baring her bosom) Hold, boy! Respect this breast of mine, my son,
    Whence thou full oft, asleep, with toothless gums,
    Hast sucked the milk that sweetly fed thy life.
    ORESTES: What shall I do, my Pylades? Shall I
    Through this respect forbear to slay my mother?
    PYLADES: Where, then, are Loxias' other oracles,
    The Pythian counsels, and the fast-sworn vows?
    Have all men hostile rather than the gods.
    ORESTES: My judgement goes with thine; thou speakest well:
    (to Clytemnestra): Follow; I mean to slay thee where he lies,
    For while he lived thou held'st him far above
    My father. Sleep thou with him in thy death,
    Since thou lov'st him, and whom thou should'st love hatest.
    CLYTEMNESTRA: I reared thee, and would fain grow old with thee.
    ORESTES: What! Thou live with me, who did'st slay my father?
    CLYTEMNESTRA: Fate, O my son, must share the blame of that.
    ORESTES: This fatal doom, then, it is Fate that sends.
    CLYTEMNESTRA: Dost thou not fear a parent's curse, my son?
    ORESTES: Thou, though my mother, did'st to ill chance cast me.
    CLYTEMNESTRA: No outcast thou, so sent to house allied.
    ORESTES: I was sold doubly, though of free sire born.
    CLYTEMNESTRA: Where is the price, then, that I got for thee?
    ORESTES: I shrink for shame from pressing that charge home.
    CLYTEMNESTRA: Nay, tell thy father's wantonness as well.
    ORESTES: Blame not the man that toils when thou'rt at ease.
    CLYTEMNESTRA: 'Tis hard, my son, for wives to miss their husband.
    ORESTES: The husband's toil keeps her that sits at home.
    CLYTEMNESTRA: Thou seem'st, my son, about to slay thy mother.
    ORESTES: It is not I that slay thee, but thyself.
    CLYTEMNESTRA: Take heed, beware a mother's vengeful hounds.
    ORESTES: How, slighting this, shall I escape my father's?
    CLYTEMNESTRA: I seem in life to wail as in a tomb.
    ORESTES: My father's fate ordains this doom for thee.
    CLYTEMNESTRA: Ah me! the snake is here I bare and nursed.
    ORESTES: An o'er-true prophet was that dread dream born;
    Thou slewest one thou never should'st have slain,
    Now suffer fate should never have been thine.

After an ode of exultation by the chorus, the gate of the palace opens and Orestes appears, holding over the two corpses the bathing robe in which Agamemnon was entangled.

"Once they sware that they would slay my hapless father and would die together. Well have they kept their oath. Let the sun, who sees all things, behold the robe that fettered Agamemnon, in which they bound him hand and foot, mute witness of a wife's unholy deed. I need no words to justify Ægisthus' death; but whe, who like a viper slew her husband, of whom she took the burden of children, once well loved, what shall we say of her? And yet is matricide so terrible that I myself might doubt the justice of my act, did not this bloody robe bear witness to her guilt. I feel my reason in a whirl of frenzy. But now, before madness overpowers me, I tell my friends here that I slew my mother not without right, that Loxias ordained this deed. To him I fly, a suppliant, with bough and wreath, seeking to escape the guilt of kindred blood."

In vain the chorus tells him that all will approve his act.

"Alas!" he cries, "behold the Erinyes in Gorgon-form, all clothed in grey, their locks entwined with serpents. I can bear no more! No phantoms these; full clearly do I see them, my mother's avenging spirits. O king Apollo! See, they swarm, they swarm! And from their eye is dropping loathsome blood! These forms ye see not, but I see them. They drive me on and I can bear no more!"

Thus seized with madness, he rushes forth, and the chorus cries after him:

Here, then, upon this palace of our kings
A third storm blows again;
The blast that haunts the race has run its course.
First came the wretched meal of children's flesh;
Next what befell our king:
Slain in the bath was he who ruled our host,
Of all the Achæans lord;
And now a third has come we know not whence,
To save--or shall I say
To work a doom of death?
Where will it end? Where will it cease at last,
The mighty Até dread
Lulled into slumber deep?


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