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.
Revenge Theme Icon

As is also true of its “prequel” Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers centers on a series of acts of revenge. Having returned home from exile, Orestes (along with his sister Electra) is determined to murder his mother Clytemnestra (and her lover Aegisthus) for her role in the murder of his father Agamemnon—a murder that was itself an act of vengeance for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his and Clytemnestra’s oldest daughter, Iphigenia, in order to gain favorable winds to sail to and make war upon Troy. Of course, the Trojan War itself took its roots in revenge as well—it began when a Trojan prince (Paris) “stole” a Greek princess (Helen of Troy, wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus), and Agamemnon and Menelaus sailed with an army to avenge this slight. This convoluted explanation already illustrates the complexity and inevitability of revenge within the world of the play (and Greek mythology in general). Revenge is a force unto itself, able to control the characters’ actions and to create a sense of inexorable momentum as the play moves towards its bloody climax.

The Libation Bearers illustrates the power of revenge by showing over and over how each of the characters’ arcs is motivated by a desperate need for, or fear of, retaliation. Orestes and Electra are the characters most obviously driven by revenge, seeking to make their mother suffer the same fate that she enacted upon their father. Aegisthus, too, remains motivated by revenge; having killed Agamemnon in part because Agamemnon’s father (Atreus) once tortured and humiliated his own father (Thyestes), Aegisthus now hopes to kill Orestes as well in order to destroy the Atrean line—and to make sure that Orestes will never return to enact vengeance against him, Aegisthus. Clytemnestra, perhaps the most obviously vengeful character within Agamemnon, now has a far more complicated relationship with revenge. When she is eventually threatened with death by an enraged Orestes, she attempts to convince her son that their familial bond is more important than his thirst for her blood—an argument that did not sway her from killing Agamemnon, and ultimately proves unsuccessful here as well.

Perhaps the strongest argument for the complex, double-edged nature of revenge comes at the end of the play. Throughout the plot, Orestes has been urged on by the god Apollo to kill his mother in order to restore honor to his father. That Apollo is the god of foresight has essentially convinced Orestes that murdering Clytemnestra (and thus taking revenge) is inevitable and divinely ordained. After taking his revenge, however, Orestes is confronted by the Furies, goddesses who take vengeance upon children who have dishonored their parents. Despite Orestes’s revenge having been sanctioned by a god, he is now going to be punished for it by different gods. The cycle of vengeance, Aeschylus seems to imply, is at once morally necessary and morally abhorrent, making it both inevitable and self-destructive, with far-reaching consequences for all involved.

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Revenge ThemeTracker

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

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

Dear god, let me avenge my father’s murder—fight beside me now with all your might!

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud
Page Number: 21-22
Explanation and Analysis:

As Orestes prays at the tomb of his father, he prays to the god Hermes to help him murder his mother Clytemnestra in order to avenge his father Agamemnon—a shocking plea to modern readers. To Orestes, however, vengeance is holy work. He believes that in killing his mother, he will be carrying out a divinely sanctioned act. 

Indeed, rather than seeing murder as immoral, Orestes instead sees inaction as immoral. He believes that as long as his mother lives, his father's spirit cannot rest, and that he is in fact forsaking his duty as a son for as long as he does not carry out his goal of matricide. Thus in the Greek world, Orestes can be both pious and murderous. His allegiance lies not with his living mother, but with his dead father, proof of how much influence the ghosts of the dead exert over the lives of the living within this work. 


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The proud dead stir under the earth,

They rage against the ones who took their lives…

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Electra, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud
Page Number: 44-45
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Chorus of libation-bearing women enters, along with Electra, they recall the terrifying events of the night before, remembering how a mysterious voice warned them that the dead were coming to avenge themselves upon the living. In Greek drama, dreams and prophecies often prove true, as is most definitely the case in this moment. 

The quote also explains why the queen, Clytemnestra, has sent them out to tend to the grave of her husband (whom she loathed and murdered). Although Clytemnestra may put on a show of piety, this is clearly because fear rather than actual reverence. She is worried about what the voice in the night might prophecy, rather than actually regretful about murdering her husband.

We also can understand from this quote the influence of the dead within this narrative. Rather than being considered gone and at peace, the dead are a constant presence for all the characters on the stage. Although they may no longer be alive, their power has not waned; through Orestes' matricide, the spirit of Agamemnon is essentially avenging himself from beyond the grave. 

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). 

Apollo will never fail me, no,
his tremendous power, his oracle charges me
to see this trial through.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Apollo
Page Number: 273-275
Explanation and Analysis:

As Orestes resolves to kill his mother and begins to plan the murder, he prays to Apollo, his patron god, to aid him in this bloody act. Orestes has previously been ordered by Apollo's oracle to avenge his father, so his faith in the god makes sense. His belief that his vengeance has been approved by divine command, meanwhile, demonstrates the close link that the Greeks believed to exist between vengeance and piety. Far from being condemned by the gods, murder and vengeance are indeed encouraged, under the right circumstances. 

That Orestes has specifically prayed to Apollo is also significant. The god of prophecy, Apollo can see the future, and predict it through his oracles. Orestes therefore believes that this murder is not simply divinely sanctioned, but actually destined to be. Although he wishes to murder his mother, he also believes that he has no choice in the matter—it is his fate to do so, as ordered by the god of prophecy. 

Justice turns the wheel.
‘Word for word, curse for curse
be born now,’ Justice thunders,
hungry for retribution.
‘stroke for bloody stroke be paid.
The one who acts must suffer.’

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 315-320
Explanation and Analysis:

After Electra and Orestes have resolved to murder their mother, the Chorus approvingly comments upon their actions. Although this quote speaks of "Justice," it could just as easily refer to vengeance—proof of how closely the Greeks related these two concepts. For the characters in the play, the idea of justice is fairly simple—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, "word for word," and "curse for curse." They believe, quite simply, that those who sin must be paid in kind.

It is also important to note how closely aligned the idea of justice is with violent acts. The world in which the characters live is dangerous and bloody. Justice is not measured and restrained, but bloody and murderous. They believe that justice means answering violence with violence, and that only by avenging their father and killing their mother can the siblings "turn the wheel" and right their fortunes. 

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 719-1065 Quotes

Oh god,
the life is hard. The old griefs, the memories
mixing, cups of pain, so much pain in the halls of
the house of Atreus…

Related Characters: Cilissa (speaker), Orestes, Atreus
Page Number: 728-731
Explanation and Analysis:

As part of their deception, Electra and Orestes pretend that Orestes has died, devastating their old nurse, Cilissa. As she grieves, she looks back on all the woes of the house of Atreus, reminding us of the many sorrows that this royal house has faced. 

In Greek drama, a character's fate is often determined simply by which family they belong to. In the case of Atreus' descendants, they are destined to lives of pain, suffering, and loss. Their familial bonds, and nothing else, have doomed them. Although she has not taken part in these dramas, Cilissa has witnessed most of them during her long life, letting audiences and readers know that even though we are not members of the house of Atreus, we can still grieve for the terrible troubles that have befallen them. 

The butcher comes. Wipe out death with death.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Orestes, Aegisthus
Page Number: 823
Explanation and Analysis:

As the murderous plan of Orestes and Electra begins to work, Aegisthus enters, believing Orestes to be dead and exulting in that fact. The Chorus calls him a "butcher," proof of their contempt for him, before urging Orestes to "[w]ipe out death with death."

This quote displays the difference in opinion that the Chorus has of Aegisthus versus Orestes. They think of Aegisthus as nothing more than a butcher, even though in killing Agamemnon, he was in fact avenging the deaths of his own brothers at the hands of Agamemnon's father. Meanwhile the Chorus reveres Orestes, despite the fact that he too means to kill out of revenge. To them, Orestes' act will be holy and purifying, whereas Aegisthus' was a desecration.

The difference between the two men is one of piety. Orestes' act is commanded by the gods; he is carrying out their orders. Aegisthus, meanwhile, helped to murder Agamemnon for selfish reasons, and since then has not acted as a pious or proper Greek or king. 

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. 

I embrace you…you,
My victory, are my guilt, my curse, and still—

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker)
Related Symbols: Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud
Page Number: 1012-1013
Explanation and Analysis:

With his mother dead, Orestes looks at his father's burial shroud and begins to mourn. Although he knows that he may pay for his mother's murder, he resolves that the deed was worth the cost, in order to avenge Agamemnon. Still, his attitude is conflicted. He calls the robe both "my victory" and "my guilt," indicating that even though he believes his matricide to be moral, he still feels guilt for what he has done. 

In reading this quote, it is useful to look back to the beginning of the play, when Electra tries to mourn but is unable to at her father's tomb. In contrast to Electra's stoic and sparse phrases, Orestes here is tortured and nearly hysterical. Since Clytemnestra is dead, her children can at last mourn her husband. Their destiny has been fulfilled, and they have taken their revenge. As such, they can finally mourn—although the consequences for this act may still be severe. 

Aye, trouble is now,
and trouble still to come.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 1016-1017
Explanation and Analysis:

As Orestes mourns his father, the Chorus warns that his struggles are not over. This is a fascinating change in tone for the Chorus: throughout the narrative, they have encouraged Orestes, egging him on and attempting to hasten his matricide. Here, however, they seem far more apprehensive, explaining to Orestes that he will face more trials in the future.

This change in attitude of the Chorus illustrates the double-edged nature of revenge. On one hand, Orestes has fulfilled his destiny; a giant weight off his shoulders. On the other hand, by doing so, Orestes has brought a new series of troubles on himself and his family, despite the fact that he was ordered to do so by the gods. Although exacting vengeance may in fact have been the correct course of action, the Chorus makes both Orestes and the audience understand that doing so may have brought about a terrible cost. 

Where will it end?
Where will it sink to sleep and rest,
this murderous hate,
This Fury?

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Orestes, The Furies
Page Number: 1075-1077
Explanation and Analysis:

As the play comes to an end, Orestes descends into madness and is chased offstage by the Furies, vengeful spirits determined to punish him for killing his mother. While he flees, the Chorus reflects back on the cycle of violence that The Libation Bearers has continued. Although at first the Chorus supported Orestes' mission of vengeance, now they seem to have changed their tune. They see "murderous hate" as a never-ending pattern, and wonder only when it will end. 

The quote also serves as an excellent set-up for The Libation Bearers' sequel, The Eumenides. While the first play extends the cycle of violence, the second play puts a stop to it once and for all, essentially answering the question that the Chorus here plaintively asks.