How, if at all, does Euripides’ Bacchae confirm and/or challenge the identity of the Athenian male citizen? Euripides was not averse to challenging the Athenian population to re-evaluate themselves on any number of levels. The Bacchae of course is no exception as Euripides toys with gender and citizen identity. This identity of the citizen is built around the foundations laid out by democracy as well as tragedy theatre itself, with clear constraints on who or what encompasses a citizen.
From this Euripides challenges his audience to confront two opposing ideals or what Cartledge (1997) calls the “two faces of Dionysus – creative euphoria and lethal retribution… [with] no single right answer… offered or advocated” (19) which he uses to enunciate his point regarding the contrasting gender identity. Firstly, it would be beneficial to look into what it was that constituted the citizen identity of the Athenian male population.
There were strict criteria for ‘formal citizenship, including dynasty and age. “Dynasty” in this case refers to the fact to become an Athenian citizen following the Periclean law implementation, both one’s parents must be Athenian citizens (Nimis 2007 399). “Age” refers to men having passed the ritual of manhood so they would be acceptable to vote and participate in city life. Women, for all intents and purposes, were citizens only in name as they lacked all functional abilities of citizenship.
Of course, it is worth noting – if only in passing – that it was actually quite rare for the audience to see themselves ever completely reflected in the subject matter of tragedies as noted by Cartledge (1997, 14) as many of them were hoplites or oarsmen and not as so many tragedies centre around the Homeric heroes or great royal figures. The strict citizenship laws served to create what Nimis (2007) calls “the doctrine that all Athenians are united into a homogenous collectivity [sic] by their common autochthonous irth” (399).
This celebrated myth of male autochthony works only in abstraction however, as this utopian society is “imagined to sustain itself and reproduce itself without the mediation of women” (406) which of course – aside from being impossible – demonstrates the clear divide in the perception of women against the background of Athenian citizenship. Integral to this citizen ideal comes the ideal of democracy, something unique to Athenian society.
The Athenians were deeply proud of their new governmental system to the point where even their recorded historical accounts reflect this. Herodotus’ histories – whilst not often outright praising democracy in full with the exception of one passage which speaks of Athens’ move to democracy as allowing the Athenians to become “the finest fighters in the world” – imply that democracy creates a civil strength and unity that other forms of government lack, and as a result it makes the Athenians stronger on all fronts.
Herodotus even goes so far as to have “the Spartans enunciate a view that was probably part of Athenian democratic ideology” (335) so as to further elucidate the greatness of democracy to his audience. Without question, the Athenians were incredibly proud of their exceptional – in every sense of the word – system of ruling. In fact, theatre and democracy were very much entwined as theatre was within everyday Athenian life because theatre, like democracy, was a proud Athenian creation.
Cartledge (1997) explains “tragedy… as an active ingredient, and a major one, of the political foreground, featuring in the everyday consciousness and even the nocturnal dreams of the Athenian citizen” (3) due to its deeply current political statements and ideas as well as its religious connections. The Athenians were practically a “performance culture” (6), with every aspect of daily life becoming part of a greater performance of citizen identity and the spectacle of everyday rituals. Tragedy was also actively important within the political culture due to its nature of “exploring and confirming but also questioning what it was to be a citizen of a democracy” (6).
Many playwrights would use the annual tragic festivals such as the Great Dionysia to comment upon various aspects of the contemporary political landscape, and Euripides was definitely not averse to this practice with the Trojan Women a direct parallel to the slaughter of the men of Melos which happened the year before its first performance. Euripides challenges the male citizenry’s ideas of masculine and feminine and the ideas this dichotomy holds. Perhaps the most visible example is that of Dionysus as the ‘stranger’ who visibly is feminine in appearance.
Pentheus’ reaction to the stranger seems to be a conflict of hyper-masculinity against – his very first words to the strange are “you are attractive” (Euripides 172. 453) followed by a series of complimentary jabs at his masculinity. Pentheus’ seemingly contradictory response to the stranger – part compliment and part disgust – could be seen as a paradox of hyper-masculinity – whilst he denotes the stranger for his effeminate features such as his “fair skin” (456), he does so in a way that could be viewed as sensual as could be inferred from his reference to Aphrodite .
In fact, his frequent reverting to concepts of sexuality (especially when relating to the Theban Bacchae) could be argued to indicate a contrast between the supposedly ‘rational men and the lustful woman being somewhat inverted to highlight the dangers of attempting to remove the feminine. The cross-dressing chorus may also have served to juxtapose gendered values and the “problematic relationship between the exclusively male community of Athenian citizens and the ‘tribe of women’ who are simultaneously insiders and outsiders” (402).
Whilst the East Asian chorus of Bacchae are present for what could be described as the entirety of the play’s action, they are not interacted with by other characters for the most part which could be seen as another example of this idea that the women as inferior. Despite the fact these women are – according to the play – running right through the middle of Thebes, they are completely ignored and left to their own devices only ever interacted with in very small and dismissive doses. They are, for he most part, an audience within a play – guiding all action onstage with their opinions which are supposed to represent the audiences’ social conscious.
All actions have to pass through the chorus’ judgement, which for this particular play gives it a strange sense of self-awareness as Pentheus attempts to act and dress like a woman – the entire chorus is cross-dressing men and they do so evidently quite well so having them monitor Pentheus (aside from being somewhat ironic) demonstrates a kind of meta-theatre which may have served to change how the audience perceive performance, even of something like gender.
Beyond this, the very action of Pentheus – hyper-masculine, indomitably aggressive Pentheus – dressing as a woman and behaving in an effeminate manner is supposed to be greater than a cruel irony; it is supposed to remind the audience that this behaviour is ‘sinking down’ to be on the female level, something they themselves would evidently avoid as females at the time were viewed as “deformed, incomplete males and therefore designed by nature to be subservient to men” (Cartledge 1997 24). This idea of lessening all that is feminine is not a new concept for the ancient world, and in fact appears in other works of Euripides such as Medea.
Nimis (2007) argues that aspects of Medea reflect this othering of women and foreigners by way of the Athenian autochthony myth and the divisive attitudes this creates regarding females. The original autochthony myth of Athens speaks of the men as being “born of the earth” following the attempted rape of Athena at Hephaestus’ hand whilst the women are described with the “complementary” myth of Pandora and the ‘tribe of women’ who are notably “fashioned from” (400) as opposed to “born from” the Earth, thus creating a clear distinction between women and men even in myth.
Cartledge (1997) goes on to explain that it is with the autochthony myth attempting to separate the men as being contradistinctive from the women that a deeply political class based stasis re-emerged to further divide what was supposed to be a ‘united Athens (28). In relation to the Bacchae, this cultural context has not changed and in fact neither has the portrayal of women – the chorus of East Asian Bacchae are still wild, foreign and ‘other’ in their characterisation just as Medea was.
Another point worth examining is that of democratic punishment against the backdrop of the Bacchae’s supernatural vengeance. In the world of Athenian punishment, the ideal prosecutor according to Allen (2009) was “not only an adult male Athenian citizen but also personally involved in the case at trial, acting as the angry defender of his and his family’s honour… ” (50). This description interestingly completely aligns with Dionysus in the play, who aims to “vindicate [his] mother Semele/and stand revealed to mortal eyes as the god/she bore to Zeus” (Euripides 41-43).
The four major concepts of the Athenian penal system as well as the city’s “system of values” as a whole (Allen 50) – anger, honour, reciprocity and social memory – are also clearly key instigating forces in Dionysus’ vengeance towards the city. Perhaps this is why Dionysus’ punishment of the Thebans is enacted so flawlessly; it fulfils so much of what the Athenian citizens would have recognised as a penal trial which, evidently, the entire Theban royal family have indeed lost.
Perhaps the inversion of gender roles so present in the Bacchae only serves to further reinforce them. For this we must be wary of our audience’s reactions – all of whom are men – and contemplate the possible messages they take from the play. The key ‘ messages’ of this play could be relating to the balance between reason and euphoria, excess and moderation.
This play is also often traditionally read as being about a conflict between “a king and the unruly or liberated women he would like to domesticate” (Hoing 2015) which in itself is interesting connotative language relating to the Bacchae; it elucidates a concept of taming a beast and the entire play may have left the entirely male audience wary of the women they had left in their homes. One could even go so far as to say this play was a warning about allowing freedom to women as, evidently, they were wild and could easily be bewitched and become barbaric and uncivilised.
Ultimately, the Bacchae can be interpreted any number of ways when juxtaposed against its broader socio- historical context. It could be a religious warning about what happens when proper rites are not observed and the gods not properly honoured; an exploration of the female as being more than sexuality (as Pentheus was so certain they were not); or a demonstration of a classical tragedy fate in that it is hubris which eventually caused the fall of Pentheus. It was a play designed to make the audience uncomfortable, to challenge their perceptions of gender especially the supposed dichotomy of masculine and feminine and all that these entailed.