Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1298
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 spite of the love/hate relationship they often share in these stories, however, humans rarely encounter their divine nemeses directly, the way Pentheus battles Dionysus in The Bacchae.
At stake in the struggle is Dionysus’s right to exist and to expect homage from the mortals of Greece, whether they wish to honor him or not. ‘‘This city must learn, whether it likes it or not, that it still wants initiation into my Bacchic rites,’’ the god explains in the prologue to the play. ‘‘The cause of my mother Semele I must defend by proving to mortals that I am a god, borne by her to Zeus.’’ Dionysus’s jealous behavior is similar to that of God in the Old Testament, who tests his human creations, ravages entire cities, and floods the earth to purify it for his worshipers.
Pentheus, Dionysus’s mortal opposition, is a cynical realist, unwilling to believe in the god or his fantastic powers. He believes he can shackle Dionysus, contain his followers, and stop the spread of his worship through sheer physical force, even though everyone near him warns against his folly. Cadmus and Tiresias encourage Pentheus to allow Dionysus’s worship into the city. The Chorus sings the god’s praises. The Herdsman from Mount Cithaeron declares, ‘‘If he exists not, then neither does Cypris, nor any other joy for men at all.’’ In spite of all the warnings, however, Pentheus stays his course, and only experiences the mystery of Dionysus’s powers when the god himself hypnotizes the hapless king and sends him to his death.
The result of the struggle between individuals and gods is often the same, though with different lessons to be learned. After battling his creation for centuries, the Biblical God is reformed in the New Testament, following the life and martyrdom of his son, Jesus. Free will is offered to humanity, along with the freedom to suffer or prosper at the hands of others. In Amadeus, Shaffer’s Salieri is consumed by his hatred for God and destroys himself. The characters in Kushner’s Angels in America fight divinity to a draw. Pentheus, of course, learns a valuable lesson much too late.
Of all the Greek tragedians, Euripides provided the most leading roles to women (although, in keeping with the theatrical conventions of the time, the parts would have been played by men). His plays also often seem to sympathize with the plight of women in Greek society. Medea, scorned by Jason, becomes an almost sympathetic figure, in spite of the fact that she murders her own children. Hippolytus’s stepmother, Phaedra, is driven by a passion she cannot control and, like Pentheus, Hippolytus is a fanatical extremist who may deserve his grisly fate. In The Bacchae, the playwright’s analysis and criticism of the Greeks’ treatment of women may not be immediately obvious, but it exists in the portrayal of the Dionysian rites, the sympathetic Chorus of Bacchae, and Agave’s suffering at the end of the play.
During Euripides’s lifetime, women were mainly prohibited from politics, the arts, and many religious ceremonies. Dionysus’s cult offered women an outlet for worship, equal or greater to that afforded to men. In the spirit of the wine and revelry he represented, women could become priestesses of Dionysus, or ‘‘Bacchae,’’ simply by drinking, dancing, singing, and releasing their inhibitions. Although Pentheus, the conservative voice of maledominated Greek culture, objects to women drinking and participating in religious ritual, Tiresias notes that women’s own nature, not a god, will determine whether they are moral or not. ‘‘Even in Bacchic revels the good woman, at least, will not be corrupted,’’ he claims. The Chorus of Bacchae in the play prove Pentheus wrong. They have followed the god from Asia minor, where he first established his cult, and now exist only to worship him and share in his peaceful bounty. ‘‘The ground flows with milk, flows with wine, flows with the nectar of bees,’’ they sing.
Agave’s punishment at the end of the play proves that women are equal candidates for suffer ing as well as for pleasure. It was Agave who originally denied Dionysus’s divinity, claiming her sister, Semele, lied about her amorous relationship with Zeus, the king of the gods. Agave’s false claims brought the wrath of Dionysus down on the women of Thebes, driving them mad and sending them into the hills around the city. Because her son, King Pentheus, chose to compound her mistake by denying the worship of the god to the people of Thebes, they both suffered horribly: The mother was forced to kill her own son and carry his severed head among the stunned Thebans.
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