A COLLECTION OF LITERARY ESSAYS
AND PSYCHOLOGICAL CONFLICTS
FROM EURIPIDES TO LOWELL
THIS IS THE FIRST OF A NUMBER OF LITERARY ESSAYS
THAT I WILL BE POSTING FROM TIME TO TIME
IN THE FACE OF SOCIAL PRESSURES
The story of The Bacchae (c. 405 B. C.) by Euripides (c. 480-406 B. C.), briefly, is that of Pentheus, King of Thebes, as he attempts to stop the people of his city, especially the frenzied women, from following the new god Dionysus. While spying upon the maddened women on the mountain, Pentheus is mistaken for a lion by Agave his mother and the other female bacchants who tear him to pieces. Agave, still in delirium, carries his severed head to the city where she comes to her senses and realises that she has murdered her son.
Euripides’ play still attracts different interpretations. It is seen, for example, as a study in madness or Dionysian hysteria, public folly, the power of the gods over the feebleness of humanity, the repression and release of human, but particularly sexual instincts, and the loss of human dignity through animalistic instincts. Commentators continue to elicit morals and lessons from it, such as, that extremes of passions are dangerous, that you destroy yourself by trying to subdue the free forces of life, that it is futile to fight against great odds and that “human frailties are so great, laws are so numerous and society is so complex that few can escape.”1
The above themes are certainly part of The Bacchae. My view, however, of what the play is about is on the principle of what G. S. Kirk writes in the introduction to his translation of the text, namely that, “often his [Euripides] main moral purpose is...to present some uncomfortable truth about the world, about human nature, and about the necessities with which man is entangled”2 which, of course, embraces some of the preceding levels of interpretation. I believe that in his play Euripides reveals Pentheus’ inner conflict caused by his refusal to bend to social pressures, resulting in self-destruction. Pentheus fails to see that there are other ways to achieve human happiness and that his ways are not the only ones. His unsuccessful struggle is the result of his failure to form a totally integrated personality and of his refusal to work towards a well-balanced social structure in the face of the people’s demands.
Sophocles once said, “I draw men as they ought to be; Euripides draws them as they are.”3 Pentheus is no exception in his struggle against social pressures and the perils of kingship. He is a real person, preoccupied with his own vanity, striving to retain his supremacy. For him traditional values, reason, law and order should be the bases for personal integrity and the well being of his citizens. As a powerful monarch he commands an army, lives in a palace and has horses and slaves. According to one of his messengers, Pentheus’ impetuosity and dictatorial rule are notorious, “keenness of temper and excess of royal disposition” (670-671). Because now he faces strong opposition, he associates his rival cousin, the new god Dionysus, with “evil” (216, 512), the cult with a “disease” (223), and the women followers with “lechery” (223), “shameful deeds” (1062) and “unchastity” (354). But Pentheus is not going to bend to social pressures instigated by an effeminate deity whom women adore!
Women, according to Pentheus, should stay at home, look after their children, clean the house and weave. It is anathema, therefore, for a moralistic Pentheus to imagine that women are leaving their homes in preference for the wild orgies on Mount Cithaeron. Pentheus believes that because women have no power of their own and are easily influenced, he cannot accept their present actions:
“No, this exceeds all bounds,
if at the hands of women we are to suffer what we do!” (785-786)
Consequently he denies Dionysus for honouring women by freeing them from prisons and initiating their orgies. Their behaviour undermines the king’s authority. So, as a sign of his presumption of authority and supremacy he cuts off the long golden hair of the “stranger” (Dionysus in disguise), divesting him of his holy association with Dionysus. He also takes the thyrsus from his hands (495) in a symbolic gesture of defiance of the new religion. Pentheus is determined to subdue his enemy at all costs. Thebes has no place for a god of passion and intoxication.
Dionysus craves supremacy at Pentheus’ expense. In contrast to the king’s formality and restrictiveness, Dionysus promotes freedom, ecstasy, music and dance, elements which spell anarchy and a personal insult for Pentheus. This god encourages his disciples to seek “the pleasures of Aphrodite” (451-459) and makes his sacred religion sound universal, encompassing Lydia, Persia, Medea, Arabia and all of Asia (13-22). He has benefited mankind by giving man wine to forget his worries (280-283) and his worship is related to the miraculous. It is claimed that at his command milk, honey, water and wine are reported to flow out of the earth on his sacred Mount Cithaeron (141-143). By his power also, the vine around his mother Semele’s tomb flourishes instantly; an earthquake demolishes part of the royal palace, opening chains and barred doors to freedom for the imprisoned bacchants. The miracles are intended to show Dionysus’ divine powers. It is alleged that he also has the power to transform himself into diverse animals (918). The odds presented by Dionysus against Pentheus are great. How can a mortal king defy a god who performs miracles, disguises himself as a mortal “stranger”, sends women hysterically wild and is welcomed by the Thebans and the royal family?
Pentheus’ mother Agave with her two sisters and grand father Cadmus accept the new god and join in his worship, adding further insult to the king. Cadmus is thrilled by the thought of the splendour that will come to the royal family when his dead daughter Semele will turn out to be the mother of his grand son Dionysus:
“for since he is the child of my daughter’s womb
we must magnify him and make him
as important as we can.” (181-183)
Like Cadmus, the blind seer Tiresias tries to show Pentheus that the joy of living and the realm of ecstasy are as essential as the king’s rules and values:
“You see how you are pleased, when the multitude
throngs the palace doors,
and the city magnifies the name of Pentheus;
so Dionysus too, in my opinion delights in being honoured.” (319-321)
The blind man almost pleads for the king to change his attitude:
“...obey me Pentheus: do not be too confident that
sovereignty is what rules men;
nor, if you hold an opinion, but your judgement is sick,
take that opinion for good sense. Receive the god into this land
and pour offerings, and be a bacchant, and garland your head.” (310-313)
But Pentheus is drugged by his own pride. According to Tiresias, to refuse what Dionysus offers - wine, dance, ecstasy, joy, sleep and rest - is madness, “You are raving mad” (359). The limping old man assures Pentheus that the god expects honour from young and old (206-208), stresses Pentheus’ aggressiveness and prophesies the god’s inevitable future glory (270-274).
Everyone seems to be against Pentheus. He introduces himself as a conservative guardian of traditional values. The chorus, however, denounces him as an “unholy man” (613), exposing the city to divine retribution and urges the “swift hounds of frenzy” to destroy the blasphemer (977). In contrast, it praises Dionysus for letting people be one with nature (862-876). Even the servant who arrests Dionysus disguised as a Theban stranger feels ashamed of his act, “this beast [Dionysus] we found was gentle” (436).
When Pentheus succumbs to Dionysus’ urging and dresses up as a female bacchant to spy upon the bacchants, he loses his integrity and becomes deranged. He develops double vision. Dionysus appears to him like a bull with two horns (918-922). I feel that Pentheus’ desire to see the bacchants is less a type of voyeurism than a necessity for him to investigate for himself how the women devotees can live such a free and easy life, unrestricted by laws and traditional values. Dionysus convinces Pentheus by pampering him with the suggestion that by dressing up and thus confraternising with Dionysus and his worshippers, he has regained his sanity:
“your previous state of mind was not normal,
but now you have the one you need.” (947-948)
The king deplores the excesses of the new religion and he is only prepared to watch. But now he has gone too far and Dionysus sees his quarry “moving into the net...and to his death” (847-848). Mad Pentheus is utterly in the god’s hands, “On you [Dionysus] we now depend” (934). The hunter has become the beast to be torn to pieces.
Pentheus fails to accept the Dionysian aspect of life and is destroyed, bringing grief and despair to others. Dionysus has already punished the women of Thebes by madness (32-35) for refusing to acknowledge that Semele, Dionysus’ mother, was taken by Zeus and bore him a child. In other words, the women, including those of the royal family of Cadmus, have denied that Dionysus was the son of a god. Now Dionysus does not bring destruction and despair upon them personally but makes them destroy themselves. Agave murders her son unknowingly because she acts under the spell of delirium. Ruin comes to Cadmus and the rest of the royal house, “the god has ruined us, justly, but to excess” (1249). Agave’s triumph is a hollow victory, “for her he [Dionysus] brings tears as victory” (1147).
Is the king’s destruction of any benefit to the god? Dionysus is the spirit of joy and ecstasy and Pentheus represses his natural instincts of passion, emotion and the joy of living. Symbolically speaking, he commits suicide. Dionysus affirms that the divine forces are ruthless, gods are beyond good and evil and do not share our aspirations of mercy, “Long ago Zeus my father approved these things” (1349). The cold-hearted attitude of the gods is illustrated as Dionysus appears on the palace roof, high above all mortals, eager to depart, “why then delay over what is inevitable?” (1351). After the recognition of Pentheus’ murder, Cadmus and his wife Harmonia, Agave, the Lydian bacchants and the maddened women of Thebes go into exile. The city is deserted and Dionysus’ worship appears to cease. Thus Dionysus does not gain anything by the death of Pentheus. Only the dismembered body of the king is left.
The Bacchae is not about Dionysus and his cult but rather about the pressures a king or any human being faces from his society and his own family and how he responds to those pressures. In a way, therefore, it is the perennial struggle against self and the quest for self-knowledge. In the case of Pentheus we see his failure to grasp the need to let go of his one-sided claim for human happiness through his restrictive laws. Being a ruler the responsibilities become even greater. Changes and other people’s views should be investigated and not refused blindly. Pentheus also happens to be oblivious to the danger he puts himself in as he passionately embraces and sticks to his own traditional values.
For a wholesome and integrated life, equilibrium can only be achieved by the blending of the human and the divine within ourselves. Jesus expressed it well on two occasions, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Mark 12:17)”, and “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).” Pentheus, the mortal king, has refused to listen to the voice of the god within himself and the voice of the people who represent his other self.
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The quotations followed by their verse number are from the following text:
EURIPIDES, The Bacchae - translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Kirk G.S., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979.
1. PHILLIPS D. E., The Human Element in Literature, Taylor Publishing Co.,
U. S. A., 1969, p. 138.
2. EURIPIDES, The Bacchae - translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Kirk G.S., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979, pp. 10-11.
3. ROBINSON C. E., A History of Greece, Methuen & Co. Ltd, London, 1960, p. 168.
ESSAY COMPLETED ON 9.3.1983