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The Bacchae

Euripides

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

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Study Questions

Why is Dionysus, as the Stranger, perceived as dangerous by Pentheus?

The long-haired, ruddy-cheeked, laughing Dionysus displays no overtly frightening qualities, but Pentheus takes an instant dislike to him. To Pentheusmdash;the ruler of Thebes and the protector of law and order—the luxurious stranger is Eastern and Barbarian, insidiously beautiful and suspiciously charming. In Pentheus's scheme, in a tightly controlled society such as his there can be no room even for Dionysus's less intense powers, for even they involve relaxing restraints and breaking barriers, antithetical to Pentheus's sovereign rigor. Pentheus sees himself as protecting a civilized society and does not want a force in his realm that he cannot imprison, let alone control. As the chorus sings, Dionysus not only disrupts civic order. Dionysus is "that which cannot be conquered." His fundamental antipathy towards Dionysus and what he represents leads Pentheus to brand the bacchic revelers as profligate, accusing them of lawlessness. Aside from the threat to the kingdom, Dionysus appears to Pentheus as a threat to him personally. He realizes, in the course of their conversations, that Dionysus has the upper hand, that is, that the reasoning of irrationality is stronger than himself. He is driven to question his own beliefs, and loses his willpower, ending up in Dionysus's grasp. He is finally forced to acknowledge that the licentiousness he had condemned is what he is drawn to and wants to witness.

Can Dionysus be called a champion of women?

Historically the cults of Dionysus had male members, but in the play, curiously, both the chorus and the mountaintop maenads are exclusively women. This is made more remarkable by the fact that none of Dionysus's powers are specifically meant to benefit women. That said, we might ask, why are women shown to be Dionysus's primary devotees? One answer lies in perceptions of the female gender and the nature of the god. Driven to madness before the action even begins, women are portrayed in the play as vulnerable and prone to frenzy and hysteria—such a perception is common to many cultures. The madness of the women forms a backdrop, assumed to nature itself and its power. Supposedly submissive by nature, women were also seen as more suited to the submission inherent in collective cult practices. Such an analysis is supported by the manner in which Pentheus goes mad. His descent into insanity is signaled by his dressing like a woman, his feminine fussing over his clothes, and his affected speech. Far from Dionysus being a champion of women, in the play women are victims as much as men are. While Pentheus's death is justified, though perhaps excessive, the tragedy that befalls his mother, Agaue, is surely the weightier one, for she is innocent and must live to bear the burden.

Do Euripides's sympathies lie with either Dionysus or Pentheus? Does he articulate a clear moral position in the play?

While Euripides certainly draws a very clear line between the established positions of Dionysus and Pentheus, the position of the playwright himself is clearly ambiguous. When Euripides splits the god to both divine and mortal, he also splits his own judgment of the deity. On the one hand he creates a calm, attractive Dionysus, one who interacts with mortals and tries to persuade personally. On the other hand, the divine form of Dionysus, which speaks from offstage, is intractable, curt and ruthless. The question arises, however, if the dark, divine side of Dionysus's character is the necessary corollary to the festive, lighter side. Pentheus believes that the dangerous potential in Dionysian disorder is great enough so as to justify disallowing even the innocent pleasures of wine and song. Euripides's answer, however, is not firm. He hints only at the importance of wisdom in maintaining the chaos of Dionysian passion at a distance while enjoying the communal festivities promised by the Stranger and unjustly rejected by Pentheus. Despite what Euripides may think about the moral integrity of Dionysus, Euripides indicates that Dionysus's moral ambiguity is part of the absurdity associated with having faith in the Gods. When Cadmus tells Dionysus that he should not act with human-like vengeance, Dionysus retorts, "Long ago Zeus my father approved these things." Like the unpleasant or absurd nature of many religious texts and stories, accepting Dionysus means putting ultimate faith in the knowledge of the Gods and what they have pre-ordained.

Suggested Essay Topics

Does Pentheus have a 'tragic flaw' in his character? If so, what is it? What are the various character traits attributed to King Pentheus: (a) as a king? (b) as a man?

What is the role of the chorus in the play? Is the chorus morally neutral?

Is there perhaps a second tragedy in the drama such as that of Agaue?

What are the various qualities of character of the God Dionysus?

How does Dionysus gain and wield influence over Pentheus as the play proceeds? To what extent does Pentheus have the power to resist Dionysus?

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