All of the characters within The Libation Bearers speak a language of violence and death. Whether male or female, they all express sentiments that are incredibly bloody, from Orestes and Electra plotting their mother’s murder, to the Chorus wishing for “the fresh-drawn blood of Justice,” to Aegisthus contemplating Orestes’s (falsely reported) death, to Clytemnestra calling for a “man-axe” to defend her house. Within this world, in which fathers kill children, wives kill husbands, and sons kill mothers, violence is an omnipresent and inescapable force, one that can strike at any time and come from any source.
Considering the constant threat of violence, it is unsurprising that the characters constantly think about and discuss death and the dead. This overriding theme is made obvious from the first moments of the play, when Orestes and Electra visit the burial mound of Agamemnon, a potent symbol of the power that their dead father has on his living descendants. This reverence for and obsession with the dead is characteristic of Ancient Greek culture. The Greeks had specific, set ways in which the living had to show their respect for the dead, and to violate those customs was a grave sin. In fact, Clytemnestra’s lack of reverence for her dead husband (despite the fact that she herself plotted his death) is held up as proof of her sinfulness. To Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus, their allegiance to the dead Agamemnon is in fact more powerful than their ties to their mother—proof of the incredible amount of sway that the dead still have on the living.
At the same time, it is vital to remember the background of violence and death that all the characters share. At this point in Ancient Greek mythology, the Trojan War—a bloody, prolonged conflict that took a decade to end—is still fresh in the characters’ minds. Also important to remember are the bloody deeds that these characters’ ancestors enacted upon each other: Agamemnon’s father Atreus exiled his brother (Aegisthus’ father Thyestes) and then later tricked him into eating two of his three sons (Aegisthus, the third child, escaping unscathed). Ancient Greek audiences would have been familiar with these stories, and would have understood the bloody, violent background that underlies the play.
Of course, the theme of violence, death, and the dead is also closely linked to the theme of revenge. While the Chorus and the characters often equate revenge with justice, the continual references to violence and death serve to remind us of the real and ongoing consequences that vengeance can have. The characters of The Libation Bearers are so caught up in their endless cycle of vengeance as a means of exacting justice that they do not seem to realize that their lives have become saturated in blood and death. In fact, only in this play’s sequel, The Eumenides, will this destructive cycle end, and will constant violence become a thing of the past.
Violence, Death, and the Dead ThemeTracker
Violence, Death, and the Dead 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.
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.
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.
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!
I embrace you…you,
My victory, are my guilt, my curse, and still—
Aye, trouble is now,
and trouble still to come.