Zeus, Zeus, be witness of these doings!
And look upon the orphan brood of the father eagle,
of him who perished in the coils and meshes
of a dread viper!
(All quotations not otherwise attributed are from the literal translation of the Oresteia by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, published by the University of California Press in 1979; here, from lines 245-8.)
Electra has just welcomed back Orestes, in words that emphasize how utterly bereft she is. He is the only living member of her family she can still love. She ends by praying that Power and Justice and Zeus may help her brother. Orestes then begins a prayer to Zeus with these words, which reinforce the bereft state of both Electra and Orestes himself.
If the snake came from the same place as I
and lay among my swaddling clothes,
and opened its mouth about the breast that fed me,
and mingled the kindly milk with a curd of blood,
and she in terror cried out at the event,
it must come about, I say, that even as she fed the monstrous portent,
so must she die by violence, and it is I that turn into a snake
and slay her, as this dream announces.
The Chorus Leader has described the dream that woke Clytemnestra in the night. The Chorus in the first choral ode sang of the way the dream interpreters had read the dream, as revealing the anger of the dead against the killers, and so Clytemnestra had sent them with offerings to appease Agamemnon’s spirit. Now Orestes gives his own interpretation.
Know that the orphaned colt of a sire dear to you,
is harnessed in the chariot
of calamity; do you regulate
his running, and give it
the rhythm of those that come home safely,
so that over this course we see straining forward
a gallop that reaches the goal!
The Chorus Leader has just taken the crucial step of telling Orestes’ nurse, Cilissa, to tell Aegisthus to come hear the news from the strangers without his bodyguard. Now the Chorus sing a prayer to Zeus.
Orestes: Pylades, what shall I do? Should I be ashamed to kill a mother?
Pylades: Where henceforth shall be the oracles of Apollo
declared at Pytho, and the covenant you pledged on oath?
Count all men your enemies rather than the gods!
(899-902; the first line is a literal translation by Silvine Farnell)
Clytemnestra has just shown Orestes her breast and bidden him reverence it, since it nourished him so often as an infant. The words in which Pylades answers are the only words he speaks in the play.
Clytemnestra: Ah woe, that I bore and reared this serpent!
Orestes: Indeed, a true prophet was the fear caused by your dream.
You killed what it was not fitting for you to kill, so suffer what is not fitting.
(929-30; literal translation by Silvine Farnell)
The last line could also be translated, “You did wrong, now suffer wrong.” This is the last exchange between Orestes and Clytemnestra, before he forces her into the palace, to meet her death by Aegisthus’s side.
Look also, you who take cognizance of this sad work,
on the device they used, to bind my unhappy father,
their manacles for his hands and fetters for his feet!
Spread it out! Stand by in a circle,
and display her covering for her husband, that the father may behold
—not my father, but he who looks upon this whole world,
the Sun!—may behold my mother’s unholy work,
so that he may bear me witness on the day of judgment when it comes
that it was with justice that I pursued this killing.
Orestes stands beside the bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, and has just called on all to behold the dead tyrants and killers of his father. Now he calls on all to behold the robe Clytemnestra used to entangle Agamemnon before she killed him.
As I call upon this web that slew my father
I grieve for what was done and what was suffered and for all our race,
Bearing as I do the unenviable pollution of this victory.
Shortly before his madness comes upon him, Orestes for the first time says openly that what he has done has rendered him unclean, however just it may have been.
I am like a man in a chariot driving my team
far from the course; for my wits are hard to govern
and carry me away, losing the battle; and close to my heart
fear is ready to sing, and my heart to dance in anger to its tune.
Orestes speaks after his murder of his mother. He is aware of the gravity of what he has done and does not know what the ultimate outcome will be.
Chorus Leader: Why your act was noble! Let not evil slander
gag your mouth, do not speak any ill-omened words!
You have liberated the whole state of Argos,
lopping the heads of two serpents with dexterous stroke.
Orestes: Ah, ah!
Here are ghastly women, like Gorgons,
with dark raiment and thick-clustered snakes
for tresses! I cannot stay!
The Chorus Leader wants to see Orestes’ actions as having ended the trouble, but then Orestes sees the Furies for the first time.
You do not see these, but I see them!
They hound me on, I cannot stay!
Orestes is speaking of the Furies, and with these words he flies. The first line was used by T.S. Eliot in one of his poetic dramas.
Zeus, Zeus, be witness of these doings!