Rational vs. Instinctual
The Greeks of the 5th century B.C. prized balance and order in their lives. Their art and architecture, laws, politics, and social structure suggest a culture that sought equilibrium in all things, including human behavior. Even their gods aligned themselves with opposing aspects of human essence. Apollo was the Greeks’ god of prophecy, music, and knowledge. He represented the rational, intellectual capacity of the human mind and its ability to create order out of chaos. As the god of wine and revelry, Dionysus represented the opposite but equally important feature of human instinct: the emotional, creative, uninhibited side of people that balances their daily rational, structured, lawabiding behavior. The main conflict in The Bacchae is between these two conflicting behavioral patterns, the rational and the instinctual, disciplines often referred to as the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
The fruits of Dionysus’s worship are extolled by Cadmus, the former king of Thebes; Tiresias, the elderly blind prophet of the city; and by the Chorus of Bacchae, the god’s followers. Never too old to learn a new lesson, Tiresias and Cadmus have discovered the joys of the Dionysian rites and in them a new youth. ‘‘I shall never weary, night or day, beating the earth with the thyrsus,’’ Cadmus boasts, ‘‘In my happiness I have forgotten how old I am.’’
The Chorus, who explain the history of the god and describe how to worship him, also warn about his dual nature, and the peril of crossing him. ‘‘The deity, Zeus’s son, rejoices in festivals,’’ they sing. ‘‘He loves goddess Peace, who brings prosperity and cherishes youth. To rich and poor he gives in equal measure the blessed joy of wine. But he hates the man who has no taste for such things—to live a life of happy days and sweet and happy nights, in wisdom to keep his mind and heart aloof from overbusy men.’’
Pentheus’s error in the play is his distaste for the simple pleasures Dionysus offers. He is totally dedicated to reason, and he refuses to acknowledge the need of his citizens, or himself, to occasionally release inhibitions—to dance, to sing, to eat, drink, and be merry. Ever the conservative moralizer, he warns Tiresias, ‘‘When the sparkle of wine finds a place at women’s feasts, there is something rotten about such celebrations, I tell you.’’ His sin is excessive pride, or hubris to the Greeks. He doesn’t believe in Dionysus, a god of wine and celebration, and his fanatical obsession with order proves his downfall, in spite of the warnings he is given.
Individual vs. God
The struggle between individuals and their gods, whether actual or metaphorical, has been depicted countless times in literature, from the biblical stories of Moses and Job to modern plays like Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1985) and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1993). Each of these stories recounts the difficult, delicate relationship between mortals and the higher powers that may have created them—and possibly provides them their life force, their sustenance, and their inspiration. In...
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