The Libation Bearers Line 585-837
As Orestes and Pylades prepare to lash out in revenge against Queen Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus, Electra returns to the royal palace in Argos to await these avengers of her father Agamemnon's murder. The Chorus of foreign serving women has remained behind in front of the tomb of King Agamemnon, speculating about what events will happen next, and stating that the world is filled with so many dangers. These women recall examples of other women in history who have committed acts of treachery, implying that women in general can be very deceitful creatures. Men are said to have "high daring" inside of them, whereas women have "stubborn hearts" which have been known to overthrow the power of many virtuous men, just as what befell King Agamemnon. The Chorus continues, "The female force, the desperate/love crams its resisted way/on marriage and the dark embrace/of brute beasts, of mortal men" Line 599-602. Even though the Chorus is itself composed of women, they still warn that women are dangerous creatures that carry with them "the dark embrace," or danger for the men that they may encounter during their lives.
First the Chorus tells the story of a woman named Althaea who committed great acts of evil against her own son by first maiming his body and then killing him entirely later on when he was a grown man. It tells the tale of the young girl Scylla, who killed her own father Nisus by cutting off a lock of his hair, betraying her entire city to the enemy that was camped outside of its walls. This Chorus of women repeats what lowly creatures women are, declaring aloud that "the guile, treacheries of the woman's heart/against a lord armored in/power, a lord his enemies revered,/I prize the hearth not inflamed within the house,/the woman's right pushed not into daring" Line 624-630. Although every woman perhaps has the potential to deceive, the Chorus of women says that it is jealous of any family that does not have a wicked wife in it, unhappy that such misfortune has befallen the house of Atreus.
They recall that the most wicked tale of all is that of the wives in Lemnos, who became jealous that their husbands chose to have sex with captive women instead of them and as a result, slew their husbands in an angry fit of jealousy. This incident is worse than the deed of Clytaemnestra, for in Lemnos it was many wives who killed all of their husbands. Indeed the very word "Lemnian" is now used to refer to a terrible, wicked crime, for the women -- although they acted out of anger that their husbands forsook them -- are all utter traitors to their husbands. While considering all of these past events, the Chorus adds that the gods have turned their backs on Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus, and now they will both pay for their crimes at Orestes' hands. It is the avenging Furies who direct this action as well as the powerful force known as fate itself that drives him to murder both his mother and her lover Aegisthus. This man has returned home, they say, "to wipe out the stain of blood shed long ago," and to get revenge for the brutal murder of his father King Agamemnon. There is no mercy for Clytaemnestra, who is perceived as a cruel, wicked woman.
Suddenly, the scene changes as the Chorus moves on to the royal palace at Argos, where a disguised Orestes and his companion Pylades appear, knocking at the palace gates. Just as Clytaemnestra had slain Agamemnon by deception, so too does Orestes now play the same game, declaring that he has come to pay homage to King Aegisthus. A Servant answers the door, asking to know who is there. Orestes replies that he and Pylades are foreigners who come bearing important news for the rulers of Argos. He asks that the servant send Clytaemnestra or Aegisthus to the door so that he may reveal this important news. At this very moment, Clytaemnestra herself appears, inviting him and Pylades inside of her palace and offering him to make himself at home and extending the right to rest in one of the beds that is there. However, she states that if they come bearing any important message, then they must wait to relate it to Aegisthus, for that is "the men's concern," implying that she does not involve herself in wielding the kingship over Argos. She yields to her lord, the King Aegisthus.
Orestes replies that he is a stranger from the land of Phocis, and he has come to the palace at Argos to bear a message to Orestes' parents given to him by another traveler, declaring that Orestes is dead. His ashes are available for burial either in the town where he had lived or to be carried back to Argos and buried there within the city that was his home. The disguised Orestes, pleading ignorance to Agamemnon's death, asks to see the man's father so that he may relate this news to him as well. Clytaemnestra is slightly affected but does not appear to be overly grief stricken, "Oh curse upon our house, bitter antagonist,/how far your eyes range. What was clean out of your way/your archery brings down with a distant deadly shot/to strip unhappy me of all I ever loved./Even Orestes now! He was so well advised/to keep his foot clear of this swamp of death. But now/set down as traitor the hope that was our healer once/and made us look for a bright revel in our house" Line 692-699. She says that she had warned her son to be careful and not get himself killed, yet surely he did not heed her warning, nor does she ask how exactly her son died. The mother adds that she held a hope within her for Orestes to come home one day, but now this hope is shattered after hearing this sad news.
The disguised Orestes replies that Clytaemnestra is a very gracious hostess for her kind offer to make himself at home in her palace, and he was fearful before that she would not welcome him as gleefully since he is the bearer of such bad news. Clytaemnestra calmly reassures him not to worry at all, since if it were not him then somebody else would have brought this sad news to her. The mother remains relatively unconcerned about her son's death, urging her servants to show Orestes and Pylades into their rooms, while she goes off to consult with her "master of the house," Aegisthus, about this new information. They all exit, and Orestes and Pylades are led away by the Queen's servants. Clytaemnestra has no suspicions about the true identities of these travelers, nor does she suspect at all that they have in fact come there to avenge Agamemnon's death. Just as she did to Agamemnon once when he returned from the Trojan War, so now does her son Orestes succeed in deceiving her.
The Chorus of foreign serving women remains behind, commenting on the events that have just occurred at the royal palace of Argos. The women beg the Earth goddess to help Orestes in his plot to avenge Agamemnon's death, wondering how they can show Orestes that they support his actions even though they have all been sworn to secrecy. Orestes' old nurse Cilissa approaches them, crying because she is so saddened after hearing the news of Orestes' "death." The Chorus is surprised, asking what's wrong with her. The nurse replies that Clytaemnestra has just announced that Orestes has died, and she has been ordered by the queen to bring King Aegisthus to talk to the disguised Orestes and Pylades. Their plan is to slay both Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra for Agamemnon's murder. However, this plot of revenge remains a secret repeated to no one, and as such, Cilissa is unaware that Orestes is really not dead, although her natural reaction and sadness surely aid in convincing Clytaemnestra.
Cilissa talks on and on about her happy memories of raising Orestes since he was a small baby, "I took the other troubles bravely as they came:/but now, darling Orestes! I wore out my life/for him. I took him from his mother, brought him up./There were times when he screamed at night and woke me from/my rest; I had to do many hard tasks, and now/useless; a baby is like a beast, but it does not think/but you have to nurse it, do you not, the way it wants" Line 748-754. This nurse is like a mother to Orestes, for it was she that raised him during his earliest years of childhood. Indeed, Cilissa's reaction is much more emotional than that of Clytaemnestra, who is Orestes' biological mother. The nurse cares more about this dead man than his own mother does. She continues to reminisce about what a wild child he was when younger, acknowledging that it was King Agamemnon who had given her the responsibility of caring for Orestes. She was the laundrywoman as well, and this ability to perform both of these tasks apparently made her very marketable to the king.
The Chorus of foreign serving women does little to comfort her. Indeed, these women know that Orestes really is not dead. Instead, they ask Cilissa if Clytaemnestra told her to bring Aegisthus' bodyguards when she brought him to hear the travellers' news. Confused, Cilissa replies that yes, she was asked to bring Aegisthus and his bodyguards. In response the Chorus tells her to ignore this request and ask for Aegisthus to come alone as quickly as possible, urging her to act as if nothing was wrong. Cilissa is very confused now, wondering why these women are not saddened by Orestes' death as is she, asking, "But you are happy over what I have told you?" since the Chorus shows no remorse. Cilissa states that there is no hope left for any of them, since Orestes is now dead, but the Chorus speaks back ambiguously that he is not yet dead. Cilissa becomes even more confused, asking for more details about what this means. The women merely urge her to bring back Aegisthus alone and have faith in whatever plans the gods above have in store for all of them. These words spoken, Cilissa agrees, hiding her curiosity with a vow that god will guide them all. She goes and get King Aegisthus.
These serving women remain behind, invoking now the name of Zeus. They state that if Zeus aids Orestes in destroying these wicked people that now control the kingship in Argos, then Orestes will repay Zeus three times more than the effort Zeus would need to protect Orestes. The women compare Orestes to a young horse, harnessed to a "chariot of suffering" because he has been forced into exile and is deprived of the throne that is rightfully his, asking Zeus to make sure that his chariot wins this race and succeeds in his task of revenge. They recall the death of Agamemnon again, stating the justice must be served for this crime. They ask for Zeus to let the entire royal house of Argos to be able to see "daylight/and liberty" after so many years of living in darkness. The Chorus asks for Hermes, messenger of the dead to help Orestes, perhaps by bringing up support from his dead father. There is a great appeal that this task of revenge will be a success. It is made clear that they have all suffered for far too long.
Another reference is also made to them being like lost wayfarers, tossed about by vicious storms; in an earlier reference these storms pushed the ships around in circles, hindering their progress. Now, the women state that once this act of revenge is completed, "Then at last we shall sing/for deliverance of the house/the woman's song that sets the wind/fair, no thin drawn and grief/struck wail, but this: 'The ship sails fair.'/My way, mine, the advantage piles here, with wreck/and ruin far from those I love./Be not fear struck when your turn comes in the action/but with a great cry Father/when she cries Child to you/go on through with the innocent murder" Line 819-830. The women believe that this act of murder will cause their metaphorical "ship" that is the royal house of Atreus to suddenly have sunny skies to sail under. Everything will be made right once Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra are slain. Anticipating that Clytaemnestra will protest, the Chorus advises Orestes to think only of his duty to avenge his father Agamemnon. They call this act of murder "innocent," since it is his duty to avenge the murder of his father. Finally, they urge him to make a bloody mess inside of the palace as he hacks away at Aegisthus and his mother, asking him to release all of his pent up anger against them and "wipe out the man stained with murder."