Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Part II: Choephoroi (The Libation Bearers)


     Reading Libation Bearers would give you an excellent opportunity to practice your Greek, not ordering ouzo in the Plaka or Old Town of Athens, of course, but those key value terms on the sheet posted to GoucherLearn.  Look for repeated advice and capitalized terms that reoccur, especially "Justice."    When characters are told to "control themselves," so as not to reveal the plot to Clytemnestra and Aethisthos, that is a reference to sophrosyne.  When characters appear to be losing their minds due to stress or anger or fear, that is mania.  Play around with these concepts as they appear to move or threaten the characters.  It's as if you are looking beneath the surface of the play and seeing mighty powers battling for control of the action.  Why would Aeschylus subject the people of Athens to three plays depicting the spectacular melt-down of the family of one of the Greek Homeric heroes?  The plays are said to have won the prize in the Dionysian festival competition.  Why?   Before class, take a look at the Web page where I cribbed Aristotle's stages of Greek tragedy so that you have some vocabulary for describing the play's major dramatic parts in terms a Greek would understand:


Study Questions


1)  Why is this play called Libation Bearers?  When you have finished reading the whole play, consider what else might be  a good name for it, and how might that name change your reading?  Remember that metaphorical or ironic libations to the dead could be expressed in tears, words, or the blood of sacrificial victims.


2)  What kind of justice does Electra appeal to?


3)  How do Electra's "libations" to Agamemnon compare with those  referred to by Clytemnestra in the previous play?


4)  When Electra fits her footprint into Orestes', what  kind of test is she applying?  What does that imply about her  expectations of the maker of that print?


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. 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?


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?  The passage is meant to be  chanted, faster and faster, with increasingly heavy stress. 


7)  What dream wakes Clytemnestra to send the libation bearers  out?  Why is it ironic that this is so?  Specifically, what mythic associations do Euro-Mediterranean cultures have with the mingling of blood and milk?


8)  In Strophe 3 , the Chorus turns from its 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 for Aeschylus and his contemporary audience?


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


10)  What essential function is served by the description of  Orestes' infancy offered by Cilissa, his Nurse?  Is it  appropriate?  Where else is this period in his life alluded to  and why does Aeschylus bring it up, so explicitly, here?



11)  Is Clytemnestra's response to the threat of death "heroic"?  



12)  What are the ironies in the Servant's report "The dead, I  tell you‑‑now‑‑the living, kill"?  Clytemnestra calls this a riddle, and quickly solves it.  What about her dream's riddle of the snake-child?  Why has she not remembered it (yet)?  This will tell you something about her pride in self-control and perception.


13)  What propositions guide the moral reasoning of Agamemnon's  avengers?  What is Clytemnestra's defense of her actions?  These principles will return again in the final play's trial of Orestes at Delphi when the competing claims of revenge and mercy are tested.