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
Gender Roles Quotes in The Libation Bearers
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.
By cunning we die, precisely as we killed.
Hand me the man-axe, someone, hurry!
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.
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?
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!