Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Part II: The Libation Bearers

Study Questions

1) When we first see Electra, she leads a Chorus of captive Trojan women to her father's grave to pour libations, wine and oil to placate the restless spirit of the dead king.   What kind of juxtaposition does her relationship to the Chorus create and how does it relate to her current status in her family?

2) When she first describes her dilemma in carrying out her mother's will (108-9), how does Electra's speech characterize her position as a woman in crisis?  What effect does this have on her speech?  How do Electra's "libations" to Agamemnon compare with those referred to by Clytemnestra in the previous play?

3)  When the Chorus attempts to counsel her (109-11), what kind of justice do they appeal to and what does that mean for Electra's position as a woman?  What does it mean to her resemblance to her mother if she takes revenge, herself, for her father's killing?

4) When Electra fits her footprint into Orestes' (114), what kind of test is she applying? What does that imply about her expectations of the maker of that print?  How does it differ from the evidence of her own weaving in Orestes' scarf, and especially what does the design tell you about the scene we're witnessing?

5) Orestes says that Apollo told him he must avenge his father's murder or suffer diseases and madness "springing from [his] father's blood" (117). How could a modern politician interpret this? A psychologist? A family sociologist specializing in family violence? How do their views differ from what Orestes means when he says it?  To the Greek audience, Orestes is "inspired."  

6) When characters answer each others' lines in rapid back and forth succession, one following out the line of the other's interrupted statement or answering the other's question, the process is called "stichomythia." What does the stichomythic passage between Electra, Orestes, the Chorus, and the Leader of the Chorus dramatize about Orestes' inspiration (118-131)? The passage is meant to be chanted, faster and faster, with increasingly heavy stress.    What happens to their breath?

7) What dream wakes Clytemnestra to send the libation bearers out (129)? Why is it ironic that this is so?  Note that Orestes becomes a prophet when he interprets the dream (129-30)--what effect does its news have upon his inspired mind?  What does he do next?  (English 211 students would call this "metadrama.")

8) In Strophe 3 (pp. 132-33), the Chorus turns from the women of Lemnos, its prime examples of bad women, to Clytemnestra's marriage to Agamemnon. What is their prescription for a proper marriage? What is the core of the Orestia's horror?

9) How might you interpret Orestes' lie to Clytemnestra that "he is dead" (135)? Is there a sense in which he tells her the truth?

10) What essential function is served by the description of Orestes' infancy offered by Cilissa, his Nurse (138)? Is it appropriate? Where else is this period in his life alluded to and why does Aeschylus bring it up, so explicitly, here?  (Hint: see 144.)  How does this play use women's bodies, especially their relationship to birth and nurturing?

11) Is Clytemnestra's first response to the threat of death "heroic" (144)?  How does it affect the gender and family dynamics of the play?

12) What are the ironies in the Servant's report "The dead, I tell you--now--the living, kill" (144)? See footnote 18.  This sense of simultaneous meaning is crucial to the poet's way of seeing.  How might you compare it to what Cassandra saw as she looked at the doors of the House of Atreus?

13) What propositions guide the moral reasoning of Agamemnon's avengers? What is Clytemnestra's defense of her actions?

14)  On 151-2, the play's greatest "special effect" takes place as the Erynies (Furies) rise from the ground (probably emerging from a trap door cut into the stage floor).  They are women whose eyes bleed and whose hair is made of snakes.  Decode that image in terms of their gender.  How does it come to pass that the Greeks charge the task of driving avengers to their duty to women?  What kind of social circumstances might account for their sense that this is correct?

15)  How would you describe the Furies as sources of "inspiration"?  What effect do they have on Orestes, and how do you expect the playwright to solve his problem?