Euripides Bacchae Essays

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Essay Q&A

1. What arguments do Cadmus and Teiresias present for endorsing the cult of Dionysus?
Both Cadmus and Teiresias are old men who recognize power when they see it. Each produces his own reasoning why they and the other citizens of Thebes should honor the new Asiatic cult that has arrived in Greece.
Cadmus is the founder and former king of Thebes who only recently abdicated his throne in favor of Pentheus. He is a shrewd man who understandably wants to preserve what he has built. He has a politician’s attitude to the new cult. He says to his grandson that if he does not believe that Dionysus is a god he should just pretend to do so; “the fiction is a noble one” (line 335) and would bring distinction to their family, since Semele, Cadmus’s daughter, would then be seen as the mother of a god. For Cadmus, then, truth becomes a matter of what is most practical and useful to believe. He well knows what may happen if Pentheus persists in his opposition to the cult.
Teiresias was a very familiar character to an ancient Greek audience. He is the wise old seer, who also appears in Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigone, as well as Euripides’ Phoenician Women. His wisdom is signified by his blindness. He may be physically blind but his inner eye is open and he is able to perceive the truth.
In The Bacchae, Teiresias gives a much longer speech than Cadmus in support of his argument that they should accept and honor the new god. His is the voice of ancient Greek culture that did indeed find room for the god Dionysus in its pantheon and its festivals. Teiresias argues to Pentheus that Dionysus has bestowed on man one of its two best blessings, the invention of wine (the other blessing comes from Demeter, the earth, who produces grain for man’s nourishment). He says wine is the best way of warding off unhappiness. He tries to convince Pentheus of Dionysus’s divine origins; Dionysus really is the son of Zeus. Teiresias also argues that the followers of Dionysus become endowed with special powers; that the cult will soon become established throughout Greece whatever Pentheus does; and that the cult is not associated with immorality or sexual license. It is a woman’s character that dictates whether she will be chaste or not; merely joining the Dionysian cult will not of itself make a woman immoral. In short, Teiresias’s argument, like that of Cadmus, is a practical one. Dionysus has brought benefits to man; he is a powerful god, and he will become part of the life of their society whether they support him or not, so it makes sense to adapt to the reality of the situation.
2. How did the ancient Greeks regard Dionysus and how did they deal with the energies he represents?
Historically, the worship of Dionysus was imported from Asia and reached Greece not later than 700 BC. This was several hundred years before Euripides wrote The Bacchae, and by that time, the cult of Dionysus had become an accepted part of Greek life. In addition to his association with wine and revelry, Dionysus was regarded, as the Roman historian Plutarch later put it, as “the lord and bearer of all moist nature.” The god was seen as the sap in the tree and the blood in the animal. He was the abundance of natural life itself, the god of all the procreative and generative powers of nature—the blossom-bringer and the fruit-bringer. However, the tumultuous, violent events that take place in The Bacchae could not have taken place in the fifth century Athens in which Euripides lived most of his life. By that time the worship of Dionysus had been brought under the control of the state and much diluted from its original wildness. The idea was to channel the energies of Dionysus in a way that would honor them without being socially disruptive.
There were two main Dionysian festivals, one in the winter and the other in the spring. During the festivals there was a procession to the altar of Dionysus, where a goat was sacrificed, and fruit was offered to the god. There was a choral dance, known as the dithyramb, which would celebrate the birth of Dionysus. Out of the dithyramb developed more elaborate dramatic forms, with actors performing verses separate from the chorus. This led to the creation of tragedy. The Dionysian festivals thus became dramatic festivals in which the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performed. 3. What is the significance of masculine and feminine symbolism in The Bacchae?
Pentheus and Dionysus may be bitter antagonists but they are also related; they are cousins, since Pentheus’s mother Agave is the sister of Dionysus’s mother Semele. They are like two sides of the same coin. Pentheus is masculine in his appearance; he is athletic with short hair. Dionysus is the opposite; he is feminine-looking, with long curly hair and fair skin. In ancient Greece, to be sun-tanned was a sign of masculinity; to be fair and untouched by the sun was a sign of effeminacy. Pentheus refers to Dionysus’s “girlish curls” (line 492), and in the stage directions that accompany Dionysus’s first appearance, he is referred to as “soft, even effeminate.” In some versions of the myths about Dionysus’s life, he was given by Hermes to Ino, to be raised as a girl. The Greek dramatist Aeschylus, in a fragment, referred to Dionysus as “the womanly one.” And of course, Dionysus’s followers are women. In the play, Pentheus also links Dionysus to the night, believing that he pursues Aphrodite, the goddess of love, in the night-time hours. The night is symbolically a feminine realm, in contrast to the rational daylight world in which the masculine Pentheus operates. Dionysus is also traditionally associated with water, understood as the element that regenerates and renews life. In The Bacchae, Dionysus’s  followers have only to strike the rocks with their wands and water pours out. Water, which is yielding and receptive, is also considered, for symbolic purposes, to be feminine.
Seen in this light, the play depicts a struggle by a society to find the correct balance between male and female elements in the human psyche. Civilization, the world of Thebes and its male citizens, with its rules, laws and established customs,  is the masculine world, shaped according to human reason. It represents in a sense the triumph of man over nature. But the Dionysian world is the opposite; it is a giving up, a surrender to the world of nature, which takes over the worshipper completely. Ideally in this dynamic between active and passive, masculine and feminine, both forces must be accommodated in their proper mode. However, this is not what happens in the play since the society depicted fails to find the correct equilibrium between opposing values, which leads to a catastrophe.
4. Should the play be interpreted as an attack on the Dionysian cult or as an endorsement of it?
The play has been interpreted in various ways, as an endorsement of the Dionysian cult and as a fierce rejection of it. Euripides’ intention cannot be known for certain. The balance shifts toward the end of the play. The early scenes present Pentheus as a bad ruler; all the voices, including the Chorus as well as Teiresias and Cadmus, speak in favor of the Dionysian cult, urging the citizens of Thebes to accept it. It seems that only Pentheus is against it, perhaps because as a representative of the ruling elite he feels threatened by a populist cult that was producing such wild, lawless behavior. The Chorus sings poetically of the benefits bestowed on man by Dionysus. Although the potential for violence and destruction is present from the beginning, the emphasis is on the god as the bringer of peace and contentment as well as a kind of raw, instinctual energy.
But the unmitigated savagery that results from Pentheus’s refusal to accept the cult, and Dionysus’s desire for revenge, may well tip the balance in the minds of the audience against the cult that can wreak such havoc. Dionysus’s revenge effectively destroys the royalty of Thebes. Pentheus suffers one of the most gruesome deaths in all Greek tragedy, and audience sympathy moves in his direction as the flawed human victim of a vengeful god. This is especially so since Pentheus has a moment of self-realization just before his death when he says, “I have done a wrong” (line 1120). He finally becomes aware, too late, of his own folly. Agave’s realization that in her frenzy she has torn apart her own son is also a potent reminder of the destructiveness of the new religion. Both Agave and Cadmus are driven into exile, despite the fact that Cadmus has done all he can to accept the presence of the god. In the end, Dionysus shows himself to be a ruthless, pitiless figure.
It may be, however, that Euripides was not choosing sides but condemning both of them. He wrote the play when he was living in exile, having left Athens only a year or so earlier. Athens was in decline and facing defeat to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, and perhaps the play expresses Euripides exasperation at corruption and tyranny in Athens, the failure of its institutions to cope with the many challenges it faced, and his pessimism about the future.
5. What is the significance of dismemberment in the play?
There are two descriptions of dismemberment in the play, both performed by the crazed Maenads. The messenger describes how the women tear apart calves, heifers, and even bulls with their bare hands. Then Pentheus meets the same fate, torn limb from limb. The tearing to pieces of animals seems to have been a part of the ancient Dionysian rituals. The Greek term is sparagmos, which literally means “tearing apart.” As E. R. Dodds explains in his introduction to his edition of the play, the culminating act of the ecstatic dancing that took place at the winter festival of Dionysus, “was the tearing to pieces, and eating raw, of an animal body” (“Introduction,” The Bacchae, Clarendon Press, 1960, p. xvi). The significance of these acts appears to have been twofold. First, they commemorated the circumstances of Dionysus’s birth. In one version of the myth about his birth, Zeus’s wife Hera sent the Titans to kill the infant Dionysus. The Titans tore the infant apart and ate all but Dionysus’s heart, which was saved and then used by Zeus to re-create him in Semele’s womb. Hence Dionysus is “twice-born”; he undergoes a death and rebirth. In the festival, the idea appears to have been that the rending and eating of an animal not only recalled the circumstances of the birth of the god, but also mimicked his “rebirth,” since as a result of the ritual the followers became an embodiment of the god; they somehow acquired a kind of superabundant energy and strength that also put them in a state of mystical communion with nature. They are reborn as larger than themselves. Dodds also mentions the likelihood that at one point, ritual worship of Dionysus may have included a human sacrifice, which would give added meaning to the tearing apart of Pentheus in The Bacchae. The death of Pentheus, who, unlike the god, will not rise again, is also a cruel reminder, as is the entirety of The Bacchae, of the gulf that separates the human from the divine.

In the spring of 411 BC, the comic playwright Aristophanes presented to the citizens of Athens a new work, Thesmophoriazousae, lampooning the tragedian Euripides. The tongue-twisting title of the play means “Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria,” a reference to an annual all-female rite held in honor of the fertility goddess Demeter. The ritual setting was crucial to the plot: in the play, the women of Athens, long irritated by Euripides’ penchant for putting oversexed and murderous heroines (Phaedra, Medea) onstage, take advantage of the seclusion offered by the Demeter festival to plot their revenge. An anxious Euripides, having got wind of their scheme, persuades an elderly relative, Mnesilochus, to dress up as a woman, sneak into the rite, and spy on the proceedings. But the old man is found out, and as the play reaches its farcical climax Euripides himself appears and attempts to rescue poor Mnesilochus. (As he does so, both men quote passages from various Euripidean dramas in which heroes fly to the rescue of helpless females.) The play ends in rejoicing, as Euripides vows never again to insult the women of Athens in his work.

Ancient biographers assert that not long after Thesmophoriazousae premiered, Euripides left the city of his birth for good, having accepted an invitation by the king of Macedon, a realm occupying the remote northern wilds of the Balkan peninsula, to adorn his court as a kind of writer-in-residence. There is little reason to believe that the playwright’s abandonment of the most civilized city in Greece for a remote cultural backwater was in any way connected to the comic drubbing he had received at Aristophanes’ hands. Some scholars believe that Euripides had become disgusted by Athens’s political and moral descent during the Peloponnesian War.

And yet it is hard to resist the thought that Aristophanes’ comedy had planted a creative seed in the mind of the great tragedian. A couple of years after arriving in the Macedon, Euripides died, in his mid-seventies; the following year, in 405 BC, his final work for the stage, Bacchae (Bacchantes) was produced in Athens. At the climax of that drama—which oscillates disturbingly between black humor and deepest horror, between the city and the untamed wilds beyond—a man possessed by curiosity about what certain women are doing during the celebration of an all-female rite dresses up as a woman in order to spy on them. But this time there is no rescue, no rejoicing. At least, not for the characters: for Euripides it won a posthumous first prize at that year’s annual dramatic competition, an accolade that had so often eluded the irreligious and daringly experimental playwright during his lifetime. Within the year his great rival, Sophocles, was dead, too, and soon after tragedy itself seemed…

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