The Chorus reassembles and wonders when they will be able to help Orestes. They pray to Mother Earth and to Hermes to guide him, before noticing Cilissa, Orestes’ nurse when he was a child, in tears. She recounts how Clytemnestra is looking for Aegisthus so that he can go speak to (the disguised) Orestes, and then relates her own suspicion that Clytemnestra is secretly happy about Orestes’ death. Engulfed in grief, Cilissa says that of all the pain she’s experienced in her life, this news is the worst, and she remembers how she reared Orestes from infancy. She tells the Chorus about the love that she gave the child, and the difficulty of caring for an infant. It is her task now to fetch Aegisthus, whom she calls “the ruination of the house.”
Cilissa exists in direct contrast to Clytemnestra, portraying an example of true motherly love. While Orestes’ own mother barely mourns the news of his death, his nurse is heartbroken, not even wishing to live without Orestes in the world. Her genuine, deep emotion makes Clytemnestra’s short show of grief look insufficient and false, and her report of Clytemnestra’s secret joy only adds to that sense.
Cilissa then reveals that Clytemnestra has told Aegisthus to bring his bodyguards with him when he talks to Orestes, but the leader of the Chorus orders her to lie, and to tell Aegisthus to come alone. Confused, Cilissa asks why the Chorus is acting so pleased about the news of Orestes’ death, but they refuse to reveal the plan to her. Despite her consternation, Cilissa resolves to do what she’s told, and prays to the gods for guidance.
Clytemnestra’s direction that Aegisthus bring his body guards shows how paranoid and mistrustful she is at every turn. The Chorus’s command to Cilissa to lie to Aegisthus, meanwhile, constitutes one of the few moments in the play when the Chorus members actually intervene and participate in the action.
Alone onstage again, the Chorus prays to Zeus, begging him to grant Orestes good fortune, and asserting that they are on the side of justice. Calling Orestes an orphan, they remind Zeus of how much he loved Agamemnon, and they beg him to end the cycle of bloodshed and vengeance that has overtaken the House of Atreus. They next pray to Apollo, praying that he provide light for Orestes’ dark path, and then to Hermes, begging him to help Orestes as well. They then address the absent Orestes, reminding him to be loyal to his father (rather than his mother), and to “go through with the murder.” As they finish their prayers, the “butcher” Aegisthus enters. They pray that Orestes will “[w]ipe out death with death.”
As the play approaches its climax, the Chorus invokes multiple symbols of power—Agamemnon, Apollo, Hermes, and Zeus—in order to emphasize the stakes of the situation, and the danger that Orestes faces. Their prayer also reminds us that human actions are ultimately controlled by the gods, and that the success of Orestes’ endeavor has in fact already been determined by divine will. The sentiment of “wipe out death with death” is an expression of vengeance that sits at the core of the play’s morality.
Aegisthus, having heard that Orestes is dead, worries that this terrible news may destabilize his kingdom even further than it already is. He also wonders whether the story is true, or whether it’s merely “woman’s panic.” For confirmation, he turns to the leader of the Chorus, who urges him to get the news directly from Orestes himself. Aegisthus wonders whether the strangers actually saw Orestes die or whether they’re only reporting hearsay. He last expresses paranoia that Orestes is out to “catch” him, and then exits.
Aegisthus’ worry about his unstable kingdom shows that the realm has essentially been in turmoil since Agamemnon’s death—more proof that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are tyrannical and incompetent rulers. Like Clytemnestra, Aegisthus also exhibits (justifiable) paranoia, proof that he too understands the omnipresent and unstoppable nature of vengeance.
With Aegisthus gone, the Chorus prays to Zeus once more, begging the god for Orestes’ success. They compare him to a “young god” and hope for him to win his father’s throne. As a scream emanates from the palace, they devolve into confusion, wondering who has prevailed.
As is always the case in Greek tragedy, the murder takes place offstage during another Chorus-dominated passage. The prayer itself again emphasizes the divine power of Zeus.
To answer their question, out rushes a wounded servant of Aegisthus, incoherently lamenting his master’s death. He attempts to open the door to the women’s quarters to warn Clytemnestra, but failing at that, he calls out her name until she emerges. As the Chorus ominously warns that Clytemnestra’s doom is next, the queen orders the servant to bring her a “man-axe” in order to defend herself. He dashes out.
The role that the servant plays here is a traditional one—deaths in Greek tragedies always occur offstage, and then are described in great detail by characters who have witnessed them. Clytemnestra’s desire for a “man-axe” to defend herself illustrates her “masculine” nature—the ferocity and ambition that allowed her to avenge her daughter and seize power, but also lead to her downfall here.
The doors of the palace open to reveal Orestes and Pylades with the body of Aegisthus. Giving Clytemnestra no time to mourn, Orestes drags his mother towards her lover’s body. She begins to beg for her life, reminding Orestes that she nursed him as a baby. Momentarily softening, Orestes asks Pylades what to do. His comrade reminds him that Apollo has ordered Clytemnestra’s death.
The reveal of Aegisthus’ body is highly theatrical, and is another common characteristic of Greek tragedy. This scene is also the only instance in which Pylades speaks. That he uses his one line to remind Orestes of Apollo’s command only increases the power and weight of his words.
Turning back to Clytemnestra, Orestes tells her that he will kill her on top of Aegisthus’ body. She continues to beg, telling him that she will bring down a mother’s curse on his head if he kills her. She adds that she killed Agamemnon because she was destined to. Orestes responds with scorn, telling her that it is her destiny to die and that she does not deserve his love or loyalty. She continues to plead, reminding him of Agamemnon’s failings and threatening him once again with curses. Orestes, however, remains resolute, refuting all of her arguments. At last Clytemnestra realizes that Orestes is the serpent she dreamt of—at this, Orestes drags her into the palace, shutting the doors behind him.
Slippery and wily to the end, Clytemnestra uses every rhetorical device at her disposal—from begging to threatening—to try to save her own life. Her pleas and arguments, however, hold little sway over Orestes. Just as Clytemnestra defiled the bond between husband and wife, so now Orestes will violate the connection between mother and child. Clytemnestra’s realization that Orestes is the serpent reminds both her and us of the power of fate—she essentially predicted her own death, and yet was powerless to stop it.
Alone, the Chorus wonders at this mixture of mourning with justice and vengeance. They sing of Orestes’ triumph, and of the cleansing of Agamemnon’s house. Although Orestes’ purpose was one of vengeance and deception, they remind the audience that he acted with the blessing of the gods, and that his cause was righteous. They then go on to praise Apollo for his purity and justice, and imagine the “proud house” of Atreus in the future. Last they turn to time, anticipating a future of prosperity and peace, free of Aegisthus’ and Clytemnestra’s corruption.
The Chorus reminds us that although Orestes’ act seems bloody, it has in fact (supposedly) “cleansed” the household of Clytemnestra’s and Aegisthus’ sins. Even though Orestes has acted as a destructive and deceptive “serpent,” he has done so in order to fulfill the commands of the gods. The optimism that the Chorus then displays is particularly striking, considering the caution and pessimism they display throughout much of the play.
Orestes and Pylades reemerge, standing over the bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Orestes remembers how the two killed his father, adding that it is appropriate that they die together. He then displays the same robes that Clytemnestra used to entangle Agamemnon before murdering him, and recounts the plot that killed his father. He unfolds the robes so that the gods can see Clytemnestra’s sin. Orestes says he cares little about Aegisthus’ death. Orestes remembers briefly how he loved his mother, but then, remembering her betrayal of Agamemnon, he explains that his love has turned to loathing. He calls her an eel and a serpent, and curses the robes that he holds. Deploring the evil of women, Orestes asserts that he would rather “die without an heir” than ever marry a faithless creature like his mother.
Orestes takes this moment to introduce a powerful symbol: the robes in which Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon. This burial shroud is a double-edged emblem, representing both the proud king of Argos, but also the shameful way in which he died. In addition to this emotionally charged prop, the audience also witnesses Orestes’ tortured emotions about what he has just done. The complexity of what he is feeling becomes even more clear after he calls his mother a serpent—the very animal that he believed represented himself. Last, his rant against women proves how deeply his mother’s treachery has traumatized him.
The Chorus ominously states that although Clytemnestra is dead, Orestes’ suffering has only just begun.
In contrast to their previous jubilation, the Chorus now becomes ominous—a sign of bad things to come.
Still obsessed with the shroud, Orestes looks at his father’s dried blood before burying his face in the robes and weeping. He hails the robe as a remnant of his father, conflating his “victory” with “guilt.” The Chorus, meanwhile, adds that Orestes’ trouble is not yet over.
In a frenzy, Orestes describes his manic state of mind, and his terror. He states that he killed Clytemnestra because Apollo ordered him to, and because she killed Agamemnon—his actions, in short, were just. As Orestes speaks, Pylades gives him an olive branch and sacred robes so that he may return to Delphi (the holy shrine of Apollo) as a refugee. He must do so, he explains, in order to escape the mother’s blood that he has shed.
Orestes becomes increasingly panicked in this passage, as if beginning to understand the weight and the consequences of his own actions. Most striking of all is the revelation that he must become an exile once again, wandering until he reaches the shrine of Apollo. Orestes may have returned to his homeland briefly, but he will not be allowed to remain.
Orestes begs the land of Argos to remember why these actions came to pass, but adds that he must leave as an exile because of the murder that he’s committed. The Chorus, meanwhile, tries to reassure him that he’s done the right thing, asserting that he’s freed Argos from “two serpents.”
Orestes loves his land, and yet must leave it to atone for what he’s done. The Chorus’ reassurance, meanwhile, is a complex one, since they once again use the symbol of “serpents”—previously positive—in a negative way.
As the Chorus speaks, Orestes suddenly screams in terror. He sees what the audience and Chorus do not: horrific women with snakes for hair who have begun to pursue him. These are the Furies, the goddesses of vengeance, who have come to punish him for Clytemnestra’s death. Confused, the leader of the Chorus tries to calm Orestes, but is unsuccessful. Orestes calls the Furies “the hounds of mother’s hate,” and he becomes manic once more, crying out for the god Apollo. The leader of the Chorus urges him to seek out the god’s purifying touch. Orestes, horrified, rushes out in order to escape, and Pylades follows him.
The consequences of Orestes’ actions are now revealed: the Furies, whom he believed would hound him for not avenging his father, have now arrived to punish him for killing his mother. This is the tragic and unsolvable dilemma that sits at the heart of The Libation Bearers: although Orestes has done exactly what the gods commanded, he has also committed a terrible sin—matricide—and will be punished for it by other gods. His piety and obedience to Apollo seem to matter little in the face of the unstoppable, unending wrath of the Furies.
The leader of the Chorus bids farewell to Orestes, praying that Apollo will guide and protect him. The Chorus as a whole observes that the curse of the house of Atreus has struck again. They wonder when the cycle of vengeance will ever end, and the play ends with their question.