The Libation Bearers Lines 838-1076
At this very moment Aegisthus arrives en route, without his bodyguards. Surely Cilissa did as the Chorus asked. Unlike Clytaemnestra, who was quick to believe, Aegisthus is very surprised to hear that Orestes has died and remains skeptical. Nor is he wholly convinced that Orestes is dead, asking the Chorus of women if this news is a mere rumor, lie, or the shining truth. In reply, the Chorus urges him to address the travelers directly, since they do not want to get involved in opinionating about this news. Aegisthus declares that he will demand to know the exact details of Orestes' death, and whether these men saw him die themselves right in front of their eyes, or if they are merely spreading some rumor or piece of gossip that they had heard secondhand from somebody else. With these words, Aegisthus leaves the Chorus and goes off to speak with Orestes and Pylades, who remain in disguise. Once again, the Chorus prays for Zeus to protect Orestes in his act of revenge.
The women wait in suspense to see what will happen next, knowing how very important that the next few moments will be in deciding their future, "The bloody edges of the knives that rip/man-flesh are moving to work. It will mean/utter and final ruin imposed/on Agamemnon's/house: or our man will kindle a flame/and light of liberty, win the domain/and huge treasure again of his fathers./Forlorn challenger, though blessed by god,/Orestes must come to grips with the two,/so wrestle. Yet may he throw them" Line 859-869. The future of Argos can go either way, for better or for worse. Either Orestes will fail in his quest, thus extinguishing any hope at all for avenging Agamemnon's murder, or Orestes can succeed in his mission and "kindle a flame/and light of liberty," restoring all hope and goodness to the city. Surely the kingship would then be given to him, as he is rightfully the only son of Agamemnon and is next in the line of succession. The Chorus ponders these two future possibilities, stating that Orestes must wrestle with these two scenarios as he makes his move.
A scream of pain echoes out from inside of the palace. Excited, the Chorus of women waits until the fighting has ended. Soon after, a loyal Follower of Aegisthus arrives, crying aloud that his King has been slain. Fearful of whatever shall happen next, he screams out for Clytaemnestra to come out from her bedroom immediately, warning that she is most likely the next target of this murderer. He warns that "her neck is on the razor's edge/and ripe for lopping, as she did to others before," for he realizes that this is payback time. Startled, Clytaemnestra arrives, demanding to know what all of the screaming is about; when told that her lover Aegisthus has been murdered, she shows no remorse. Instead, she cries out for someone to bring her an ax so that she can defend herself, realizing quickly that she has been deceived by these travelers, "We have been won with the treachery by which we slew." She knows that just as she had murdered Agamemnon when he least expected it, now she and Aegisthus have fallen into that very same trap of false security. She prepares to fight, remaining defiant.
Orestes and Pylades emerge from within the palace, and Clytaemnestra's personality dramatically changes upon seeing them. It almost appears that she is putting on a dramatic show for her son, calling her lover "Beloved Aegisthus," even as Orestes warns that soon she will be lying in the same grave as him. Frightened, she acts very emotional, because she does not want to die, even though she has called for an ax only moments before. Her change in tone is another tactic to try to save her life, "Hold, my son. Oh take pity, child, before this breast/where many a time, a drowsing baby, you would feed/and with soft gums sucked in the milk that made you strong" Line 896-898. Clytaemnestra reminds Orestes that he is her own child. The image of Orestes suckling her breast milk as a child recalls the nightmare she had been suffering about the snake that bit her breast when she suckled it. Now the moment for Clytaemnestra to feel her snake-child's bite will be very soon. Orestes is affected by her pleas, turning to Pylades for advice. Pylades reminds him about all of the reasons he has to kill Clytaemnestra, ranging from the oracle of Apollo to his promises to citizens in Argos, his duty to avenge his father, and his earlier requests that the gods aid him in this deed. Orestes is obligated to commit this act of murder because of all of these other factors.
Hearing these rational words, any emotions he feels towards his mother are stripped away, ordering her to go stand over Aegisthus' body. This is a fitting death for this adulterous woman, choosing to love Aegisthus instead of the virtuous Kin Agamemnon. Clytaemnestra replies that she had no control over her murder of Agamemnon, since Destiny had already determined it. Orestes simply states that now Destiny has determined that he must kill her, and there is nothing he can do to prevent that from happening. Clytaemnestra warns that Orestes will suffer a curse if he kills his own mother. Orestes shows resentment towards his mother because she had sent him away into exile away from Argos, the city that was his home. She dismisses this, saying that she harmlessly sent him to go and live with a friend. Orestes adds that his suffering was increased when she committed adultery with Aegisthus, but she does not ask for forgiveness. She murmurs offhandedly that women get lonely when their men are not around to keep them company. Their verbal confrontation continues.
Finally, Clytaemnestra accepts that she can do nothing to change his mind. The woman reminds him that he will suffer a terrible curse for this deed, "Take care. Your mother's curse, like dogs, will drag you down." Orestes replies that he will suffer his father's curse instead, so either way he cannot escape punishment. Clytaemnestra utters aloud that Orestes is "the snake I gave birth to. " Orestes agrees, affirming that he is the snake she had envisioned in her nightmare, and now she will be punished, "You killed, and it was wrong. Now suffer wrong." It appears in this instance that justice is served by delivering the same punishment to the criminal that the criminal has committed. In this instance, Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus had murdered another person, and now they themselves are to be murdered. The Queen of Argos is then passively led inside of the palace, where they will slay her so that her body will fall down, lifeless, next to that of Aegisthus.
The Chorus of foreign serving women comments about what has just occurred, declaring that they pity for Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra. They add that the battle between whether Orestes is victorious. These women recall what a tragic event it was for Agamemnon to return after ten years of fighting in the Trojan War only to be slain by these two traitors. At last the royal house of Argos is freed from this pain that had polluted it for so many years, praising the gods, "Divinity keeps, we know not how, strength to resist/surrender to the wicked./The power that holds the sky's majesty wins our worship./Light is here to behold./The big bit that held our house is taken away./Rise up, you halls, arise; for time grown too long/you lay tumbled upon the ground" Line 957-964. Their faith in the gods' power is once again reinforced because the gods have sent victory down for Orestes. Now they rejoice, thinking that all troubles have ended for Argos. They urge the very halls of the palace to awaken again in joy. The Chorus adds that now all sin has been wiped clean from the house of Atreus, paying little attention to Clytaemnestra's warning that her death shall bring another curse.
At that moment, the doors of the royal palace are thrown open wide and the dead bodies of Aegisthus and Clyatemnestra are revealed for all to see. Nearby, servants of Orestes now hold up the robe that Clytaemnestra had used to restrain her husband's arms when she murdered him in his bathtub many years before. Orestes is confident, swearing that he has preserved his father's honor, and he orders the servants to spread out the robe used to murder his father upon the ground, commenting on how cowardly it was for her to have used this robe to kill her own husband. Orestes dismisses Aegisthus' role as much simpler, for he was a seducer and a traitor, yet Clytaemnestra's situation is much more serious. He compares her to a viper that is filled with nothing but poison and evil. Orestes is disgusted to think of the terrible deed that his mother committed, thinking that he is totally justified in what he has done. He relates his feelings to the Chorus, Pylades, and the attendants who stand nearby as well; they all listen, for he is destined to be the king of Argos now. They give him their allegiance, and Orestes speaks boldly now just as any king would do.
The man expresses disdain towards this robe used to kill his father as well, "And this thing: what shall I call it and be right, in all/eloquence? Trap for an animal or winding sheet/for a dead man? Or bath curtain? Since it is a net,/robe you could call it, to entangle a man's feet./Some highwayman might own a thing like this, to catch/the wayfarer and rob him of his money and/so make a living. With a treacherous thing like this/he could take many victims and go warm within./May no such wife as she was come to live with me./Sooner, let God destroy me, with no children born" Line 997-1006. Orestes compares his dead mother to a highway robber because of the way that she chose to murder Agamemnon, by ensnaring him in a robe and then stabbing him to death. He prays to God that own his wife will never be such an evil woman, vowing that it is better to have no children with such a wicked wife. Orestes would choose death by some other way rather than at the hands of someone evil like Clytaemnestra.
Something very strange suddenly begins to happen. Orestes starts talking to himself, asking if Clytaemnestra was truly guilty of murdering Agamemnon after all, looking at that blood-stained robe as if searching for evidence and an excuse for what he has done. He adds that his "victory is soiled, and has no pride." The curse of Clytaemnestra begins at that moment to descend upon him, and the Chorus of foreign serving women begins to grow very alarmed to see this abrupt change in his personality. Orestes declares that he suffers terrible inner guilt for murdering his mother; yet he adds that so many people had said that he could commit this act of matricide and still escape punishment, because he was avenging his father's death. This is even what the oracle of Apollo had told him, but now he laments aloud that great suffering is consuming him, "And look upon me now, how I go armored in/leafed branch and garland on my way to the centrestone/and sanctuary, and Apollo's level place,/the shining of the fabulous fire that never dies,/to escape this blood that is my own. [Apollo] ordained/that I should turn to no other shrine than this./To all men in Argos in time to come I say/they shall be witness, how these evil things were done" Line 1034-1041.
Originally, Orestes was told by the oracle of Apollo that he would not be punished for killing his mother. Now, however, Orestes is confused and feels betrayed. He insists that, even though he wears the garlands of victory, he must leave the city of Argos in disgrace and return to the oracle of Apollo in the city of Pytho, also called Delphi. There he will seek guidance about what to do next and to learn how he can deal with the curse of Clytaemnestra that already begins to afflict him. The Chorus of women disagrees, telling him that he has done absolutely nothing wrong and that he must remain in Argos now and rule over them all as king. They tell him that he should not feel guilty at all. Orestes becomes very emotional, shouting back at them "No!/Women who serve this house, [the Furies] come like gorgons, they/wear robes of black, and they are wreathed in a tangle/of snakes. I can no longer stay" Line 1048-1050. Orestes is going crazy because the vengeful Furies are now pursuing him because he killed his own mother. The Chorus tries to reassure him that everything is really fine and his imagination is running away from him.
Orestes is not convinced at all by these words from the women, continuing to talk to himself and cringing away from these avenging creatures that only he can see or hear, invoking aloud the name of Apollo. He describes their appearance as having snakes wrapped around them in a wreath and dripping blood from their eyes. Convinced, the Chorus of women advises that the oracle of Apollo is the only person who can help Orestes. After Orestes' departure, the women utter words of good luck, hoping that the gods will protect Orestes. As this brave avenger is now himself haunted by the avengers, the future remains uncertain. Orestes has gone off to Delphi in search of an explanation of how he can be cured of this affliction and to discover why he was originally told by the oracle that he would not be punished.
The foreign serving women utter aloud the final lines, recalling that now a third generation suffers from the deaths of the earlier generation, forming a revolving cycle. Like the ship driven into circles, so now is the house of Atreus caught in the same pattern of suffering. Although all had hoped for fair skies and an end to this cycle, this is not to be so, "Here on this house of the kings the third/storm has broken, with wind/from the inward race, and gone its course./The children were eaten: there was the first/affliction, the curse of Thyestes./Next came the royal death, when a man/and the lord of Achaean armies went down/killed in the bath. Third is for the savior. He came. Shall I call/it that, or death? Where/is the end? Where shall the fury of fate/be stilled to sleep, be done with?" Line 1065-1076.
These women lament about the sad history that has afflicted the royal family of Argos. First, King Atreus killed his brother Thyestes' children and cooked them, feeding them to the father, who cursed the house. Then Agamemnon's curse demanded retribution for his own unjust death, and now finally Orestes, called the "savior" is forced to suffer because of Clytaemnestra's curse. The Chorus of foreign serving women ends with a question, wondering if the cycle of murder shall ever end, and if that wandering ship of state shall ever find fair skies to sail under, unhindered. The fate of Orestes remains uncertain, and the citizens of Argos must await what news will come of him.