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.
Revenge 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…
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.
Apollo will never fail me, no,
his tremendous power, his oracle charges me
to see this trial through.
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.’
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.
the life is hard. The old griefs, the memories
mixing, cups of pain, so much pain in the halls of
the house of Atreus…
The butcher comes. Wipe out death with death.
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!
I embrace you…you,
My victory, are my guilt, my curse, and still—
Aye, trouble is now,
and trouble still to come.