Review of The Bacchae by Euripides

I gather this play is a masterpiece, and I have no argument against that position. However, it didn’t do much for me, even after reading it twice. I’m sure I missed the point somewhere and lacked all sorts of historical context, but in the end the whole thing just fell flat. I understand that drama has served many purposes in its day, and ritual and myth are as important here as anything. While that is all well and good, I’m sorry to say I didn’t much care for the actual story itself or how it all unfolded.

The play follows the god Dionysus as he gets revenge on the House of Cadmus for wrongs he received regarding his parentage. His mother Semele of the House Cadmus was Zeus’ mistress and got pregnant with Dionysus. Zeus’ wife Hera was jealous and tricked Zeus into killing Semele by appearing in his natural form, thereby destroying her mind. Zeus then sewed up Dionysus in his leg, presumably cutting him back out when he came to term. Once Dionysus was a boy, his relatives in the House of Cadmus didn’t believe that Zeus was the father, so they denied that he was a god. And if there’s one thing that will piss off a god, it’s telling him he’s mortal. So that’s the backstory.

Now Dionysus shows up and makes all the women of Cadmus go off into the mountains to rave like lunatics, because that is just his jam, much to the consternation of Pentheus, the king, who thinks their behavior is very improper indeed. He blames The Stranger, a.k.a. Dionysus in disguise, and imprisons him, but of course that results in his house being burned to the ground. Then Dionysus gets Pentheus interested in seeing the Bacchanals with his own eyes, so he dresses him as a woman and sneaks him into the mountains where the women are still cavorting. Dionysus manages to get Pentheus up to the top of a tree, and then convinces the women to attack and tear him to shreds. Leading the charge is Pentheus’ mother, Agave, who literally rips his head from his body. In her defense, she thought he was a lion cub at the time. When she gets back to Thebes, she learns of her mistake and accepts the punishment of being banished, and everyone agrees that although they all had it coming, Dionysus was still exceptionally harsh on them.

So, I love a good god-disguised-as-human story as much as the next guy, but this one just didn’t sit well with me. I can accept that Dionysus was pissed, even though a god taking offense at what some puny humans think seems awfully petty. But in reading the play, Dionysus basically tricks all of the characters into doing what they do, with him as the vengeful puppet master. Agave, Pentheus, and the rest of them are entirely without agency. Which makes the whole thing not very interesting. I didn’t learn anything about how humans do or should behave; all I learned was that Dionysus is an asshole.

I’m pretty sure you can read the play as a meditation on the tension between the rational mind, represented by Pentheus and his uptight need to maintain the social order, and the animal instincts represented by the frenzy of the Bacchanalia, but given that the whole thing is just Dionysus pulling everyone’s strings, I felt this subverted the metaphor. I would have felt better about Pentheus getting his head ripped off if he’d gone there on his own instead of being tricked into it by Dionysus. And I would have read that as evidence of moral judgment inherent in the rational succumbing to the animal. But as it was, I could only read it as Dionysus being a dick. If I’d been around, you can be sure I’d have shared these notes with Euripides.

And can we go back for a second to Zeus sewing baby Dionysus up in his calf? Why his calf and not his gut, especially since Dionysus will embody visceral pleasure? Was he vain about his abs and didn’t want to mar his toga bod? And did Zeus’s calf bulge out as Dionysus came to term? Was it awkward, with none of the other gods having the nerve to ask about it as one of Zeus’s calves got super fat? Or maybe Zeus just came into the weekly Olympian staff meeting and said, “Yes, I’m growing a half-human baby in my leg. Long story.” I suspect that Euripides covered this in a subsequent prequel which has been, alas, lost to time. Makes you think, though.

Or does it?

Excerpt from The Bacchae, by Euripides

Pentheus.        Nay; not I! Force is not well with women. I will lie Hid in the pine-brake.

Dionysus.        Even as fits a spy On holy and fearful things, so shalt thou lie!

Pentheus (with a laugh).         They lie there now, methinks—the wild birds, caught By love among the leaves, and fluttering not!

Dionysus.        It may be. That is what thou goest to see, Aye, and to trap them—so they trap not thee!

Pentheus.        Forth through the Thebans’ town! I am their king, Aye, their one Man, seeing I dare this thing!

Dionysus.        Yea, thou shalt bear their burden, thou alone; Therefore thy trial awaiteth thee!—But on; With me into thine ambush shalt thou come Unscathed; then let another bear thee home!

Pentheus.        The Queen, my mother.

Dionysus.         Marked of every eye.

Pentheus.        For that I go!

Dionysus.        Thou shalt be borne on high!

Pentheus.        That were like pride!

Dionysus.         Thy mother’s hands shall share Thy carrying.

Pentheus.         Nay; I need not such soft care!

Dionysus.        So soft?

Pentheus.         Whate’er it be, I have earned it well!

[Exit Pentheus towards the Mountain.

Dionysus.        Fell, fell art thou; and to a doom so fell
Thou walkest, that thy name from South to North
Shall shine, a sign for ever!—Reach thou forth
Thine arms, Agâvê, now, and ye dark-browed
Cadmeian sisters! Greet this prince so proud
To the high ordeal, where save God and me,
None walks unscathed!—The rest this day shall see.

[Exit Dionysus following Pentheus.


Some Maidens.          O hounds raging and blind,
Up by the mountain road,
Sprites of the maddened mind,
To the wild Maids of God;
Fill with your rage their eyes,
Rage at the rage unblest,
Watching in woman’s guise,
The spy upon God’s Possessed.

A Bacchanal.  Who shall be first, to mark
Eyes in the rock that spy,
Eyes in the pine-tree dark—
Is it his mother?—and cry:
“Lo, what is this that comes,
Haunting, troubling still,
Even in our heights, our homes,
The wild Maids of the Hill?
What flesh bare this child?
Never on woman’s breast
Changeling so evil smiled;
Man is he not, but Beast!
Lion-shape of the wild,
Gorgon-breed of the waste!”

All the Chorus.            Hither, for doom and deed!
Hither with lifted sword,
Justice, Wrath of the Lord,
Come in our visible need!
Smite till the throat shall bleed,
Smite till the heart shall bleed,
Him the tyrannous, lawless, Godless, Echîon’s earth-born seed!

Other Maidens.           Tyrannously hath he trod;
Marched him, in Law’s despite,
Against thy Light, O God,
Yea, and thy Mother’s Light;
Girded him, falsely bold,
Blinded in craft, to quell
And by man’s violence hold
Things unconquerable.

A Bacchanal.  A strait pitiless mind
Is death unto godliness;
And to feel in human kind
Life, and a pain the less.
Knowledge, we are not foes!
I seek thee diligently;
But the world with a great wind blows,
Shining, and not from thee;
Blowing to beautiful things,
On, amid dark and light,
Till Life, through the trammellings
Of Laws that are not the Right,
Breaks, clean and pure, and sings
Glorying to God in the height!

All the Chorus.            Hither for doom and deed!
Hither with lifted sword,
Justice, Wrath of the Lord,
Come in our visible need!
Smite till the throat shall bleed,
Smite till the heart shall bleed,
Him the tyrannous, lawless, Godless, Echîon’s earth-born seed!

Leader.            Appear, appear, whatso thy shape or name
O Mountain Bull, Snake of the Hundred Heads,
Lion of Burning Flame! O God, Beast, Mystery, come!
Thy mystic maids Are hunted!—Blast their hunter with thy breath,
Cast o’er his head thy snare; And laugh aloud and drag him to his death,
Who stalks thy herded madness in its lair!

Public Domain. Translation by Gilbert Murray.

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