No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

2012/55: Bacchae -- Euripides

Kadmos: Is your soul still quivering?
Agave: I don't understand your words. I have become somehow
sobered, changing from my former state of mind.
Kadmos: Can you hear and respond clearly?
Agave: Yes, for I forget what we said before, father.
Kadmos: To whose house did you come in marriage?
Agave: You gave me, as they say, to Echion, the sown man.
Kadmos: What son did you bear to your husband in the house?
Agave: Pentheus, from my union with his father.
Kadmos: Whose head do you hold in your hands? [lines 1268-1275]
Read, along with several other tragedies (Oedipus Rex, Oresteia, etc), for the Coursera Greek and Roman Mythology course. I've seen a couple of productions of Bacchae, but wasn't familiar with the text.

Gods, it's a nasty story. But also quite funny, if you look at it from Dionysus' point of view. There's a dash of trickster to his character here, though I don't think it softens his punishment of Agave. (Pentheus, on the other hand, is a prick who deserves his fate.)

The essay I wrote is below ...

The Relationships between the Human and the Divine in Euripides' Bacchae

Euripides' Bacchae centres on the conflict between King Pentheus of Thebes, grandson of Kadmos, and the god Dionysus. Pentheus, like many of his countrymen, refuses to acknowledge the divinity of Dionysus: the god exacts a terrible price for this insult, not only causing the death of Pentheus but destroying Kadmos' whole house.

Dionysus' wrath is implacable, but he does not simply strike down the unbelievers. Instead, he assumes the guise of a foreign priest and allows Pentheus' soldiers to capture him. A servant reports that Dionysus 'laughed and allowed us to bind him and lead him away' [440], and Dionysus' attitude towards Pentheus is similarly light-hearted, which infuriates the king. Their banter, and the almost comic nature of Dionysus' escape from captivity, reinforces the god's power. Pentheus is both prey and toy.

Euripides contrasts the playfulness of the god with Pentheus' desire for control: he also draws parallels between the two, depicting them both as prone to anger and motivated by pride. 'You rejoice whenever ... the city extols the name of Pentheus. He too, I think, delights in being honored.' [318-22] Dionysus avenges the Thebans' failure to honour him by driving their king to madness and death, the latter at the hands of his own mother Agave. Kadmos reproaches Dionysus for the severity of the punishment he has inflicted on Thebes, saying that 'Gods should not resemble mortals in their anger' [1348]. Dionysus is at once divine and human, inciting madness and displaying human emotion.

The two sides of Dionysus, 'the most terrible and yet most mild to men' [862], are both apparent in Bacchae. The Chorus sing the praises of the god of wild revelry and wine, and the liberty and freedom he bestows upon his worshippers, while the action of the play moves towards the madness and death of the king who refuses to worship the god in his gentler guise. Those who deny the god are destroyed by him, and even those who worship faithfully -- like Agave -- may find their lives in ruins when they wake from sacred madness.

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