The Libation Bearers

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Themes and Colors
Revenge Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Fate, the Gods, and Piety  Theme Icon
Familial Bonds  Theme Icon
Violence, Death, and the Dead  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Libation Bearers, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gender Roles Theme Icon

The question of gender roles is pivotal to one of the most troubling issues of The Libation Bearers: should Orestes and Electra be loyal to their dead father, or their living mother? For the siblings (and for Ancient Greek audiences of the day), the question was not a difficult one. As the male head of the household, Agamemnon should clearly command his children’s allegiance. Further, the sense that Clytemnestra deserves her fate is heightened in the play by the multiple ways in which she displays masculine traits—behavior that the Greeks would have considered deeply inappropriate and reprehensible. Not only did Clytemnestra kill her husband, Agamemnon, and take a new lover, Aegisthus, but she now dominates the household and runs the country of Argos—assuming a role that women never held in Ancient Greek society. In fact, when she hears that there is trouble in the house, Clytemnestra even calls for a “man-axe,” vividly illustrating her unfeminine attitude. Aegisthus, then, becomes a weak and effeminate figure, completely dominated by a woman and devoid of any qualities that define an honorable Greek man.

The difference between Orestes and Electra, too, illustrates the overriding part that gender roles play in determining characters’ behavior. While her brother has been exiled, the vengeful Electra has been forced to live under the command of her mother and Aegisthus, despising them both yet unable to take action against them. It takes the arrival of a man—Orestes—to bring about the plan of action that will eventually lead to the deaths of both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Despite Electra’s hatred of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, she exhibits proper feminine behavior (unlike Clytemnestra), waiting for her brother to lead the way. Meanwhile, despite his love for his sister, Orestes develops a deep contempt for women—born from his mother’s betrayal of his father. Orestes believes women to be wily and destructive, and vows never to be caught in a female trap as Agamemnon was.

The role of the Chorus further expands upon the interplay of gender roles within The Libation Bearers. On one hand, the Chorus is made up entirely of women, meaning that female voices help tell the story to the audience, and move the narrative along. On the other hand, the Chorus seems largely to agree with Orestes, believing women to be scheming and immoral, and praising Orestes for the actions he takes against his mother. Yet at the end of the play, another force—the Furies—comes in to complicate the idea of gender roles in the play. Strong, female goddesses of vengeance, the Furies arrive to punish Orestes for his killing of his mother—proof that the overriding assumption of the play (that Orestes owes his allegiance to Agamemnon and not to Clytemnestra) is not as simple as it seems. While Orestes must take revenge for his wronged father, he also owes allegiance to his mother for the simple fact that she is his mother, regardless of what she’s done.

Gender Roles ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Gender Roles appears in each section of The Libation Bearers. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Gender Roles Quotes in The Libation Bearers

Below you will find the important quotes in The Libation Bearers related to the theme of Gender Roles.
Lines 1-585 Quotes

What to say when I pour the cup of sorrow?
What kindness, what prayer can touch my father?
Shall I say I bring him love for love, a woman’s
love for her husband? My mother, love from her?
I’ve no taste for that, no words to say
as I run the honeyed oil on father’s tomb.

Related Characters: Electra (speaker), The Chorus, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud
Page Number: 86-91
Explanation and Analysis:

As Electra worships at the tomb of her father along with the libation-bearing slaves, she struggles to find words to express her sorrow. Unlike the hypocritical Clytemnestra, Electra is pious and dutiful. Although her father is dead and gone, she is still loyal to him, and feels conflicted about bringing meaningless offerings from her mother. 

This passage also illustrates the complex gender politics at work within The Libation Bearers. Although a woman, Electra identifies far more strongly with her father than with her mother, and believes that her allegiance lies firmly with him. She scorns the queen for having betrayed "a woman's love for her husband," and believes that Clytemnestra has failed in her duties as both a wife and a mother. 

Lastly, Electra's near-obsession with her father helps readers to understand how present he still is for her, despite his death. To Electra, her father is still a powerful force within her life, and she will do whatever it takes to ensure that his memory is honored and his death avenged. 


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For our enemies I say,
raise up your avenger, into the light, my father—
kill the killers in return, with justice!
So in the midst of prayers for good I place
this curse for them.

Related Characters: Electra (speaker), Orestes, The Chorus, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud
Page Number: 147-151
Explanation and Analysis:

After being unable to pray for peace for her father's spirit, Electra instead, at the prompting of the chorus, begs the gods for vengeance. Her prayer highlights the close bond within The Libation Bearers between piety and vengeance. Although most of Electra's words involve "prayers for good" for herself and her brother, she also includes curses for Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. This mixture of good wishes and bad is not contradictory to Electra or the Chorus—they believe that both vengeance and reverence can exist within a truly pious and reverent person, because part of the holy law is vengeance. 

It is also significant that Electra prays not to the gods, but to her father. To this abandoned daughter, Agamemnon has become like a god; although he is buried, she still considers him powerful enough to avenge his own murder, through the actions of his descendants.

In the midst of this deeply vengeful prayer, it is important to note that Electra has made no attempts to kill her mother herself. This lack of action is illustrative of the role of women within this type of Greek drama. Although Electra may hope for her mother's death, as a pious and proper Greek woman, she would never carry out the deed herself (in contrast to the murderous and bloody Clytemnestra, who overstepped the bounds of her gender in taking action against her husband). 

You light to my eyes, four loves in one!
I have to call you father, it is fate;
and I turn to you the love I gave my mother—
I despise her, she deserves it, yes,
and the love I gave my sister, sacrificed
on the cruel sword, I turn to you.

Related Characters: Electra (speaker), The Chorus (speaker), Orestes, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Iphigenia
Page Number: 240-245
Explanation and Analysis:

After being reunited, Electra and Orestes vow to be loyal to each other, in clear contrast to their treacherous mother. Here Electra tells Orestes that she loves him more than other sisters do their brothers, because he must also serve the roles of father, mother, and sister for her. She is referring to the murder of her father Agamemnon, the sacrifice of her sister Iphigenia (who was murdered by Agamemnon's "cruel sword," presenting a seeming conflict of interest for Electra), and the imminent death of her mother Clytemnestra. 

Once again Aeschylus makes clear that the ties between Electra and Orestes can never be broken. They are wholly committed to each other, exemplifying the purity and strength of true familial bonds. As Electra promises her love for her brother, we also witness traditional Greek gender roles at work. Considered weaker because of her gender, Electra places herself under her brother's protection, giving him not just the love of a sibling, but also the respect of a daughter for her parents. 

If the serpent came from the same place as I,
and slept in the bands that swaddled me, and its jaws
spread wide for the breast that nursed me into life
and clots stained the milk, mother’s milk,
and she cried in fear and agony—so be it.
As she bred this sign, this violent prodigy
so she dies by violence. I turn serpent,
I kill her. So the vision says.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Clytemnestra
Related Symbols: Serpents and Snakes
Page Number: 530-537
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of Orestes' and Electra's plot to murder their mother, the Chorus of slave women reveals that Clytemnestra had a terrible nightmare the evening before, in which she nursed a serpent that then killed her. Orestes then (correctly) interprets the dream, understanding that the serpent symbolizes himself; having nursed at his mother's breast as an infant, he will now murder her as a man.

Most obviously, this dream once again confirms that prophecies and visions tell the truth within Greek myths and drama. On a deeper level, the dream also reveals the fascinating and tangled web of gender roles and familial bonds within the play. Although his mother nurtured and nursed him, it is still pious for Orestes to kill her, due to her disloyalty to his father. Meanwhile it is Clytemnestra's very womanliness—the fact that she nursed and cared for her baby—that will eventually doom Clytemnestra to death.

Above all else, the dream illustrates the violence that hangs over the house of Atreus at all times. Clytemnestra takes her nightmare seriously because she knows how easily one can be betrayed by one's own kin (just as she betrayed her husband). At all times, she is on the lookout for potential signs of vengeance—but despite her prophetic dream, she cannot escape her fate. 

Lines 586-652 Quotes

Oh but a man’s high daring spirit,
who can account for that? Or woman’s
desperate passion daring past all bounds?
She couples with every form of ruin known to mortals.
Woman, frenzied, driven wild with lust,
twists the dark, warm harness
of wedded love—tortures man and beast!

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Clytemnestra
Page Number: 579-585
Explanation and Analysis:

Electra and Orestes leave to carry out the beginning of their vengeance plot; the Chorus, meanwhile, stays behind, taking on their traditional role of commenting on the action (rather than taking part in it). Taking a broader view of the events, they marvel at the differences between a man and a woman. Men, they say, carry out deeds of "daring," while women carry out those of "desperate passion." They then go on to condemn women's passion and lust, accusing women of torturing all those around them with their malicious desires.

This passage clearly illustrates the dark and disturbing view that the ancient Greeks had of womanhood. Although women like Electra are pious, obedient, and pure, women like Clytemnestra—who acted on her desires and seized power for herself—are considered forces of evil and destruction. Although the Chorus never names Clytemnestra, they are clearly referring to her, emphasizing what a negative example the character of Clytemnestra is meant to be for audiences—however justified her actions might seem to be to modern readers.

Lines 653-718 Quotes

Slave, the slave!—
where is he? Hear me pounding the gates?
Is there a man inside the house?
For the third time, come out of the halls!
If Aegisthus has them welcome friendly guests.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Aegisthus, Pylades
Page Number: 633-637
Explanation and Analysis:

In order to enter the palace of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra (and eventually kill them both), Orestes poses as a traveler and knocks on the gates. Aegisthus ignores the guest at his doors, however, causing Orestes to become increasingly enraged. 

The Ancient Greeks firmly believed that hospitality to strangers and guests was one of the most important virtues that a person could display. That Aegisthus does not come out to greet a guest is proof of his unfitness to rule a kingdom, and—even more basically—his failings as a person.

When someone does finally come to greet Orestes, it is not Aegisthus, but Clytemnestra. This act is yet another disgrace for the royal couple. Clytemnestra, a woman, is clearly in charge, and has taken her husband's place as head of the house. Both gender roles and rules of hospitality have been upended, and as a result Clytemnestra and Aegisthus' rule is able to be presented as monstrous and perverse in yet another fundamental way.

Lines 719-1065 Quotes

Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.
By cunning we die, precisely as we killed.
Hand me the man-axe, someone, hurry!

Related Characters: Clytemnestra (speaker)
Related Symbols: Clytemnestra’s Man-Axe
Page Number: 874-876
Explanation and Analysis:

The first part of his plan complete, Orestes kills Aegisthus, half-avenging his father's death. With the halls of her palace in tumult, Clytemnestra emerges and calls for her "man-axe." To the Greeks, Clytemnestra's desire for a weapon would have been a massive violation of her role as a woman. An emasculating and dangerous presence, she is calling for a weapon that does not belong to her gender, proof (to the Greeks) of her evil and ambition. 

Despite all her negative qualities, it is also important to note that Clytemnestra is a deeply intelligent and perceptive character. She knows almost instantly what is happening, and reacts to her fate with calculation and resolve. To the last, she is a violent and active character, exemplifying everything that a woman should not be within the Greek tradition. 

Clytemnestra: Wait, my son—no respect for this, my child?
The breast you held, drowsing away the hours,
soft gums tugging the milk that made you grow?
Orestes: What will I do, Pylades?—I dread to kill my mother!
Pylades: What of the future? What of the Prophet God Apollo,
the Delphic voice, the faith and oaths we swear?
Make all mankind your enemy, not the gods.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Clytemnestra (speaker), Pylades (speaker), Apollo
Page Number: 883-889
Explanation and Analysis:

With his plan nearing completion, Orestes is about to kill his mother; he pauses, however, swayed by her pleas, before being urged on by his slave, Pylades. After building the momentum of the entire play towards this moment of vengeance and matricide, it is deeply significant that Aeschylus creates a moment of hesitation for the character of Orestes. While Orestes, the Chorus, and Electra have all explained how vengeance is holy and divinely sanctioned, the actual act of killing his mother is still dreadful to Orestes. It takes the urging of a previously silent character, Pylades, to persuade him to carry through the deed.

The way that Pylades convinces Orestes to commit matricide is also important: he reminds his master that Apollo has commanded him to kill his mother, and that he must not disobey the god. He goes on, telling Orestes to "[m]ake all mankind your enemy, not the gods," foreshadowing Orestes' troubles and strife in the next play, The Eumenides

Clytemnestra: Watch out—the hounds of a mother’s curse will hunt you down.
Orestes: But how to escape a father’s if I fail?

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Clytemnestra (speaker), Agamemnon, The Furies
Page Number: 911-912
Explanation and Analysis:

As Orestes stands over Clytmenestra, ready to strike, she continues to attempt to persuade him to spare her. These two lines encapsulate their argument: Clytemnestra vows vengeance on him if he kills her, while Orestes worries that if he does not, he will have betrayed his father. 

These lines also illustrate the terrible situation in which Orestes has found himself: to avenge one crime, he must commit another. It also demonstrates the conflict between different types of familial bonds (in this case mother/son v. father/son), and shows how these bonds are ultimately ruled by gender. Whatever terrible punishments Clytemnestra threatens for Orestes, he will always remain loyal to his father. Because Clytemnestra is a woman, she will never have as strong a hold over her son as her dead husband. 

But she who plotted this horror against her husband,
she carried his children, growing in her womb
and she—I loved her once
and now I loathe, I have to loathe—what is she?
Some moray eel, some viper born to rot her mate
with a single touch, no fang to strike him
just the wrong, the reckless fury in her heart!

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Serpents and Snakes
Page Number: 983-989
Explanation and Analysis:

Having killed his mother, Orestes stands over her, also holding the robes that she used to trap and kill his father years ago. He grows increasingly hysterical, horrified both by what he has done and by the extent of his mother's crimes. 

This passage displays Orestes' conflicted emotions about his mother, as well as his frantic emotional state after killing her. Although the play may seem to be on the side of vengeance, it does not flinch from showing murder's terrible after effects.

Orestes' deep hatred of women is significant here as well. He describes his mother as an "eel" or a "viper," recalling how she killed his father with nothing more than "the reckless fury in her heart." In his muddled mental state, Orestes grows increasingly upset and disgusted by women, his loathing based in his simultaneous hatred for his mother, and his guilt over her death. 

Live with such a woman, marry her? Sooner
the gods destroy me—die without an heir!

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Clytemnestra
Page Number: 999-1000
Explanation and Analysis:

After his matricide, Orestes begins to spiral out of control. He transitions from hating his mother to hating all women, believing them all to be treacherous, false, and murderous. Indeed, he comes to loathe women so much that he even wishes to "die without an heir"—a terrible wish for any Greek man, let alone one in a royal line who is supposed to rule his country. 

Orestes' woman-hatred here demonstrates what happens when traditional gender roles go awry. Emasculating and ambitious, Clytemnestra has made her son fear all women, even those without her murderous temperament. In taking his father's life, she may also have ruined his, and destroyed any chance of heirs for the house of Atreus in the future.