August 13, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
“Witchery works to scare people, to make them fear growth. But it [growth] has always been necessary, and more than ever now, it is. Otherwise we won’t make it. We won’t survive. That’s what the witchery is counting on: that we will cling to the ceremonies the way they were, and then their power will triumph, and the people will be no more.” – Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko
Euripides liked to challenge his audiences. So it is fitting that, even today, his plays present us with unanswerable questions. The Bacchae, for example, does not invite one to sit down with a meal and enjoy a play. Rather, the viewer feels partly criminal as if involved in the dark trajectory of this narrative. Dionysus (also called Bacchus), the Greek god of wine and ecstasy, god of fruitful vines and vegetation, is neither merciful nor just. In Euripides’ play, he shows himself to be an angry and vengeful god, almost human-like. Dionysus brutally destroys Pentheus and his family because they do not believe he is a god. But why must we watch a play about a vengeful god? In fact, why write the play?
Harvard University professor David Damrosch explains:
“Euripides’ contemporaries seem to have been both fascinated and unsettled by him—rather as Pentheus is by Dionysus, in fact. In Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs, staged the year after Euripides’ death, Dionysus himself journeys down to the underworld hoping to revive Euripides, as there are no good playwrights left in Athens. Yet he finds Euripides in heated argument with his great predecessor Aeschylus, who accuses him of having debased his art by focusing on low themes. Euripides proudly replies that he has taught women and slaves to speak, and ‘to think, to see, to understand, to love, to twist, to connive, to suspect the worst, to overthink all things’—to which his morally upright rival replies that the gods should have cut him in two before he’d done so. His plays are as unsettling today as they were to their first audiences.”
In other words, Euripides focused on marginalized groups long before society demanded it. In The Bacchae, the women (called the Bacchae) are a group of Greek women inspired by Dionysus to leave the confines of their city. They wander into mountains and forests freely, unaccompanied by men. Without escort, they escape the rules of the city. In fact, the messenger who spies their behavior report to Pentheus (the ruler) that the women were lovely to see. Their freedom obsesses Pentheus.
Judeo-Christian societies often speak of original sin. In the case of Pentheus (as is the case in many Greek dramas), original sin is linked to hubris, or man’s excessive pride and defiance of the gods. In this play, Pentheus refuses to believe in Dionysus, refuses to acknowledge that Zeus had a child with the mortal Semele (Pentheus’ aunt). As a result, Dionysus destroys order by leading the women into freedom. He also forces Pentheus to confront desire. Filmmaker Brad Mays explains, “What Pentheus brings is suspicion, is just simply an unwillingness to bend. So Pentheus has ordered his men to arrest this effeminate stranger and bring him to be interviewed.” Once Dionysus is in his sight, Pentheus cannot let go of curiosity. Not only does he want to know who this stranger is and why he is so attractive, but Pentheus desires to see what women look like when they are free. He wants to see with his own eyes what they are doing. The unhealthy nature of his desire directly confronts the audience (who is also desirous to know the end of the play). To satisfy his curiosity, Dionysus bewitches Pentheus who becomes a fool, and eventually the victim.
Pentheus makes us question the nature of desire. Seeking to know Dionysus and unaware that Dionysus is a god, Pentheus says to him:
“Well, stranger, I see this body of yours
is not unsuitable for women’s pleasure.
As for your hair, it’s long, which suggests that you’re no wrestler.
It flows across your cheeks. That’s most seductive.
You’ve a white skin, too. You’ve looked after it,
avoiding the sun’s rays by staying in the shade.”
Pentheus thinks only in terms of worldly desires, unable (or unwilling) to believe that Dionysus is a new god, he cannot see past the flesh and blood form of man. This will, of course, become a theme of the play. Just as Pentheus does not see the true nature standing in front of him, his mother, Agave, does not see her own son at the play’s end. Believing Pentheus to be a bull, she tears the bull apart, thus murdering her own son. The brutal narrative ends when Agave realizes her mistake and Cadmus (Agave’s father) claims that the punishment was too much.
CADMUS: Now we understand. Your actions against us are too severe.
DIONYSUS: I was born a god, and you insulted me.
CADMUS: Angry gods should not act just like humans.
Regardless of the harsh treatment, the play concludes with Cadmus and Agave worshipping Dionysus. Euripides directly confronts the nature of justice. Why do they worship an unjust god? Why do we expect justice from the gods? How are humans to interact with the divine? When is it acceptable to question, and when must man accept his fate? The Bacchae is brutal, raw and speaks of ancient worlds. Yet, the play transcends its time by exploring the nature of ceremony, tradition, justice, and truth.
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