Thursday, August 4, 2011

Euripides' Bacchae - Character Analysis: Dionysus

The storyline was undoubtedly familiar to the public of the time, as it should be to modern audiences as well. Dionysus, the god in human form, comes up on stage in the very beginning to detail the plot line, announcing straightforward that he's seeking revenge for the treatment he and his mother received from their mortal relatives. The god is angry and vengeful – but without his direct announcement, the audience would have no way of knowing – throughout the rest of the play, Dionysus is the embodiment of calm grace.

The force behind events that change the world, Dionysus himself is a static character: gods don't change. He is multi-faceted and ambiguous, and the human form he takes on stage is just one his many; however, he does not evolve – rather, he pushes others on the path of spiritual evolution. Unchanging, Dionysus is the god of transformation and rebirth, and of all the perils that lie when one renounces social individuality in search of deeper inner knowledge. Even more, Euripides' Dionysus is the god of the mask, not just of theater masks, but the ones people wear every day to maintain their social status. In the same line of interpretation, he's also the god of letting the mask drop to reveal the deepest secrets. Dionysus slowly pushes the proud Pentheus to reveal himself, showing that there's nothing behind the ruler's mask – nothing but death.

The entire play is heavy on dualities: law and chaos, civilization and barbarism, Pentheus and Dionysus, old (Tiresias and Cadmus) and young Asian Bacchae, humans and gods, hunt and murder, religious tradition and innovation. For Dionysus the god, there's an interesting parallel drawn early on, by Pentheus, who claims the women of his land are not praying to the new god, but rather lust for carnal pleasures: “Bacchios! Nay, ’Tis more to Aphrodite that they pray.” This is the first sign that Pentheus refuses to accept the sublimation of deep, inner instincts brought by Dionysus, and prefers the most common, earthly version that people are simply seeking to satisfy their primordial instincts.

The interpretation of the godly powers of Dionysus gathers immediately a new dimension, when the blind prophet Tiresias draws a new parallel, this time justly so, with Demeter, mother Earth. Both Demeter and Dionysus were gods of rebirth, and both were celebrated in mysteries that remain covered in shrouds to this day. It should also be noted that the two old and wise characters, Cadmus and Tiresias, both decide to embrace the cult of the new god and feel his rewards, without being caught in the spell cast by Dionysus over Thebes:
Aye, men will rail that I forgot my years,
To dance and wreath with ivy these white hairs

For the audiences of the time, there was no need to prove Dionysus as a rightful god, it went without saying, but Cadmus and wise Tiresias both act as literary reinforcements of the cult's legitimacy.

The effeminate looks of the human form of Dionysus are essential in understanding the character and the impact he makes, and Pentheus never ceases to mention them. The first thing Pentheus wants to do when he apprehends Dionysus is to cut his curly hair, and he receives the answer: “I have vowed it to my God; 'tis holy hair”. That's a strange argument to hear from Dionysus the god, it means that his hair is vowed to himself, a very early “beauty for beauty's sake” argument.

Dionysus' intervention in the human world is not brutal and direct; rather, he unleashes the hidden forces of human nature, and lets events unveil at their own pace. He could strike down Pentheus and Agave, he proves so when he destroys their palace with an earthquake – but then again, he is a god, and doesn't need to prove anything.

Dionysus is without a doubt cruel, all ancient Greek gods were. The image of Agave carrying her son's head, boasting about her kill, is bone-chilling, surpassed only by the moment when she realizes she murdered her own son. Euripides' Dionysus doesn't push anybody to murder – he simply allows people to follow their instincts – which prove disastrous. The question that lingers at the end of the play is would Dionysus allow Pentheus to live, had he seen his errors and embraced the new cult? In mythology, events are fixed, and once the spell is cast on the women of Thebes, there is no turning back. From a literary perspective, however, Euripides' Dionysus subtly hints that redemption is not utterly impossible.

Death of Pentheus

The most important question is now what meaning has Euripides' Dionysus mean for a modern audience, for those who know relatively little of the conventions of ancient Greek, and have limited time for finding more. Beyond the respect we owe to a piece of ancient literature, does this character still speak to a contemporary sensibility? We are no strangers today to various escapism methods, but we also tend to seek confirmation for our preconceptions in theatrical and all other entertainment experiences, so Dionysus still stands as a stern reminder of balance in duality. There is no reality without fantasy, no order without chaos and no law without transgression.