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The Libation Bearers

  • Study Guide
Characters

Orestes

Characters Orestes

The chorus calls Orestes the savior of Argos, and that he is, but in a different way than they imagine. Orestes returns home after years of exile at the prompting of Apollo, in order to exact vengeance for his father's murder. But, while he begins the play as a boy rebelling against his mother's power in order to affirm his own male identity, by the end of the play he will come of age and assume a far more complex form. For, in order to kill his mother, he must take on some of her strongest traits.

Despite Electra and Orestes' glowing praise for their father, the audience knows that Agamemnon is not the most appealing character. He has committed every crime for which Clytamnestra is charged, and without the developed sense of compassion and inner struggle that we see in Clytamnestra. He murdered his daughter, committed adultery with Cassandra, and overstepped his bounds by walking on the finest tapestries of the house when he returned home. Furthermore, he is not strong enough to resist Clytamnestra's wily words, and easily falls prey to her persuasions.

In contrast to both Agamemnon, and Aigisthos, Orestes is a worthy adversary for Clytamnestra. He is the only one who can equal her metal prowess and physical presence. The chorus is quite wrong when it says that Orestes is only his father's son. Orestes is the perfect combination of his mother and father; or rather, he becomes so over the course of the tragedy. He is, perhaps, the only man in the Oresteia whom Clytamnestra respects, evidenced by her plea that he let her grow old with him. Orestes cannot accept this solution, however, as his rigorous sense of morality and Justice demands that he complete his words with actions. If he did not kill Clytamnestra, Orestes would not be a son worthy of her respect.

Although Orestes inherits many of his mother's attributes, his sense of civic duty is very much in keeping with Agamemnon's. Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter so that the Greek fleet could sail to Troy, thus condemning himself to death in order to allow his society to prosper. Similarly, Orestes committed matricide, a heart wrenching and disgusting act, in order to preserve the order of society. Ultimately, his personal suffering brings the old and new orders to a head, and the modern law courts are the result. If Orestes had not sacrificed himself to a higher cause, this crucial step in the history of civilization could not have been taken. Aeschylus tells us that Orestes's act is meaningful and positive on many levels, thus ensuring that the suffering of the house of Atreus has not been in vain.