The Bacchae: Two Rights make one Wrong
Euripedes’ play The Bacchae narrates the story of the Greek god of wine and ecstasy Dionysus as he returns to his hometown in Thebes to avenge the death of his mortal mother, as well as to punish his family for denying him a place of worship as a child of Zeus. The ‘good’ of the play focuses on the character of the god Dionysus and the king of Thebes Pentheus. Dionysus’ concept of ‘good’ is to clear the name of his mother and of his own – an extreme good because it focuses on personal benefit. The ‘good’ of Pentheus is to maintain order and proper behavior in society – but it is also considered to be extreme as he denies worship of Dionysus, because of his family’s actions. However, the underlying factor in both character’s good transforms their intention into irreconcilable motives where eventually, one character is doomed to lose and suffer. Dionysus is motivated by injustice and revenge while Pentheus’ consciousness is reinforced with the idea of order and opposition to wild revelry. Through the narration of the story and analysis of different passages in the play, we find the juxtaposition of the extremeness of ‘good’ found in the characters’ motivation and their attempt to overpower one another.
The play begins with the god returning from his many travels in Asia where he has also gathered a band of female followers or bacchantes. He declares his return to Thebes to clear his mother’s name Semele, princess of Thebes belonging to the royal house of Cadmus. She was Zeus’ mistresses, among many others, who he had seduced and she bore him a son. However, Hera, upon hearing such traitorous affair, decides not to reprimand her husband but to exact vengeance upon the women whom her husband had affairs with. In this case, Hera had confounded Semele and convinces her to ask for Zeus to appear in his true form. In spite of the remonstrations from Zeus, he eventually concedes to Semele’s request and makes his apparition, killing her instantly; no mortal can see a god without dying. However, Zeus manages to rescue the unborn child by stitching the fetus to his thigh. Meanwhile, Semele’s family believes that her death may have been caused by her lie that the child’s father is Zeus. The family assumes that child had also died with her, besmirching her name and denying the existence of the child. Dionysus arrives at Thebes disguised as a blonde stranger accompanied by his followers to punish the house of Cadmus for her mother and the refusal to allay sacrifices in his honor. The king of Thebes had passed down the throne to his arrogant grandson Pentheus who was responsible for banning Dionysius’ worship. Upon his arrival, he had induced the women in town, including some of his aunts, in a bacchic frenzy as they went to Mt. Cithaeron for worship of the god. As the ruler of Thebes, Pentheus is unconvinced of the divinely-inspired insanity of the women fleeing to the forest to perform Dionysius’ rites. He takes this as violation of the city’s laws and moral codes and orders for the stranger and the band of women to be arrested. The god allows himself to be easily captured and be brought to the presence of Pentheus. Being divine, Dionysus cannot be bound by chains and torture seems to have no effect at all. The king of Thebes attempts to drive a knife into the god but the knife passes as though slicing thin air. An earthquake shatters the scene and the king is left confused and disarrayed. Dionysus persuades the king to renounce his chosen creed and begin to worship the god, but Pentheus remain stubborn. A shepherd appears in the middle of the scene and informs the Theban king that the women had been in the forest celebrating in manic frenzy. However, they had attacked the shepherd and barely escaped; the cows had met an unfortunate end as they were killed by the worshippers. Pentheus shows interest in the news and the god takes advantage by offering a chance to see the bacchantes and promising his safety. He agrees to the parameters set by Dionysus, disguising as a woman with a wig and wearing a skirt. Upon reaching the forest, the king cannot see the women and asks that he be lifted in a higher ground. The god obeys and places himself atop a tree. The god then orders his followers, still induced with the divine frenzy, attacks the king. Agaue, Pentheus’ mother, kills her own son. At the palace, Agaue realizes her sins and weeps for her son. The old king Cadmus who only fully realizes the events, that the god had punished the family severely. Dionysus reveals himself to the city and Thebes welcomes their lost son.
The ironical depiction between the god Dionysus and the king Pentheus acts as the literary ‘foil’ in the play. Foil is focused on characters who represent two opposing characteristics and their interaction in the plot; in this case, the god Dionysus functions as the representation of himself, bacchic frenzy, inducing divine madness of celebration, ecstasy, and pleasure through disorder. Dionysian worship thrives on a pleasure-centered ritual without regard for rules or laws. The frenzy induced by the god heightens pleasure which rids of the intellect and reason that otherwise inhibits the self from acquiring true pleasure. Without reason and intellect, society cannot exist; that which Pentheus attempts to preserve. On the other hand, Pentheus, as the king of Thebes, represents social harmony, justice and order – the complete opposite of the god. As narrated, the king takes the insane celebrations to be a violation of conduct and laws of the city. The arrest is merely a political response; to address the violations of indecent behavior rather than a subversive attempt of further impeding the worship of Dionysus. Thus, we see the categorical division between the two opposing characters. We now take into account the ‘good’ of the plot, specifically in Dionysus part as he attempts to clear his mother’s name and introduce worship in his hometown.
The good in Dionysus intentions is merely a causal one; because of the treatment of his divine being and his mother’s suffering, his intentions of punishment is beneficial for himself rather than aligning the concept of ‘good’ in a more nobler purpose. In Dionysus perspective, it is only proper that the city he was born in and the mortal family he has relations to, are obligated to provide worship and sacrifice in honor of his name. But due to the actions of Hera, Dionysus’ mother was punished unjustly thereby destroying her name and her son. Vengeance, in the context of the play, is served to benefit the god himself; to appropriately teach a lesson to mortals who do not give proper reverence to divinities. It also functions as a representation of the god’s behavior in meddling with human affairs as well as an ironical symbol of divine imperfection. Thus, the good in Dionysus plot is to avenge her mother and his good name that in a sense is tragic, merely motivated by personal desire and hatred. In the end, the results are also tragic on the part of the royal house of Cadmus. Another concept of good is in Pentheus attempt to stabilize the moral norms of Thebes. As ruler, he functions as the representation of social order, proper behavior, and reinforcement of law. As exemplified in the following passage: “Touch me not away to thy Bacchic rites thyself! Never try to infect me with thy foolery! Vengeance will I have on the fellow who teaches thee such senselessness” (Euripedes, 2007, p. 21). However, his attempt of reestablishing the ‘good’ of moral conduct is to unconsciously subvert the worship of Dionysus rather than implying a strict sense of accepted moral behavior. Upon hearing the news from the shepherd, Pentheus attempts to arrest the disturbers of the peace but Dionysus warns him and advices him not to go against the ritual: “Still obdurate, O Pentheus, after hearing my words! In spite of all the evil treatment I am enduring from thee, still I warn thee of the sin of bearing arms against a god, and bid thee cease; for Bromius will not endure thy driving his votaries from the mountains where they revel” (Euripedes, 2007, p. 44). Dionysus’ statement is interpreted twofold: one, his advice to the king acts as a warning and an opportunity to see reason or the good of Dionysus worship. It is as though Dionysus presents an ‘or else’ scenario for the king. But Pentheus, blinded by his pride and distaste for the irrational frenzy, refuses to adhere to stranger’s words. Pentheus, like any other mortal in Greek mythology, establishes the mortal arrogance that always comes into the ire of the gods, most especially when they lay comparison with the divinities. However, Dionysus’ intention is to merely give proper respect and reverence to a god rather than supremely assert superiority. This ‘good’ is the motivation for the god which also acts as a test for Pentheus’ character.
As Pentheus moves to arrest the celebrants, he betrays himself as king; he shows interest on the celebrations, an interest on the forbidden:
Pentheus: That would I, though it cost me all the gold of Thebes!
Dionysus: So much? Thou art quick to fall to such great longing.
Pentheus: Aye; ‘twould grieve me much to see them flown with wine.
Dionysus: Yet cravest thou such a sight as would much grieve thee?
Pentheus: Yes, I fain. Would watch, ambushed among the pines. (Euripedes, 2007, p. 47).
From here, we see Pentheus sudden inclination to see the bacchantes. We consider whether it was the god who had influenced his intention or merely acting upon a hidden desire to see what is forbidden in the city. Nevertheless, the desire leads him to his painful end, thus fulfilling the notion of ‘good’ in Dionysus part.
The argument on the extreme of good is on the opposition of Dionysus’ and Pentheus’ natures; with respect to Greek mythology, the god merely asks for worship and sacrifice with the intention for Thebes to realize its mistake of renouncing him as their son. Mortals, as represented by Pentheus, remain ignorant and defiant of their actions and believe only upon prior circumstances without confirmation. Pentheus defies the god and meets an end similar for every mythological character who defies the gods. Both character’s intentions remain good in essence, but their motivation garbles their noble purpose and instead becomes a fight to see the other crumble. The gods in Greek mythology had always punished mortals who aspired to be divine through excessive pride. Pentheus represents intellect and reason contrary to the ‘frenzy’ Dionysus provides but his refusal to see the good made him to become proud, self-centered and arrogant. The gods have a funny way of teaching mortals life lessons through a hard understanding of right and wrong. The negation of two good objects in the play leads to a tragic ending, where only one good prevails instead of a synthesis of both.
Euripedes (2007). The Bacchae (G. Murray, Trans.). New York, USA. Clarke Press.