Although no longer a living character within the play, the ghost of Agamemnon haunts every moment of The Libation Bearers. Once a dominant, powerful king—the leader of the Greeks during the Trojan War—Agamemnon was doomed from the moment he set off to Troy, having slaughtered his own daughter, Iphigenia, in exchange for favorable winds from the gods. This action then incited murderous rage within his wife, Clytemnestra. Despite Agamemnon’s terrible sin, however, his surviving children—Orestes and Electra—believe that their allegiance to their dead father far outweighs their loyalty to their living (but murderous) mother, and over the course of the play, they both (along with the Chorus) lament his death and express a desperate desire to avenge him.
The spectral presence of Agamemnon within the text is physicalized by two vital symbols: his burial mound and his shroud. The play opens with the two siblings separately visiting the mound and mourning for their father, proof of his power over them even long after his demise. The two often reference the mound, using it as a reminder of their father’s power, and of the deep dishonor that their mother showed him (the mound is far less grand of a tomb than a king would normally inhabit in death). Later in the play, the robes in which Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon—his burial shroud, as it were—also make an appearance, as Orestes uses them to wrap the corpses of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus before weeping over the robes, visual evidence of how much more he values these memorials of his dead father than the body of the mother he just killed.
Within the play, Agamemnon and his various remnants symbolize two powerful forces: the power of fathers, and the power of death. Because of the extreme sexism (and even misogyny) within Greek society, Agamemnon’s role in his children’s lives is assumed to be much more valuable than that of Clytemnestra. It makes sense, then, that given the choice between allegiance to their father and their mother, Orestes and Electra would choose the former. Further, the Greeks believed strongly in honoring and remembering the dead. Despite his demise, Agamemnon still dominates his children’s thoughts, lives, and actions, proof of how present the Greeks considered the dead in their everyday lives.
Agamemnon’s Burial Mound and Shroud Quotes in The Libation Bearers
Dear god, let me avenge my father’s murder—fight beside me now with all your might!
The proud dead stir under the earth,
They rage against the ones who took their lives…
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.
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.