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.

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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
Page Number: 86-91
Explanation and Analysis:

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
Page Number: 147-151
Explanation and Analysis:

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:

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:
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:
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:
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:

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:

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:

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:

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: