Study Guide

Dionysus in The Bacchae

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Dionysus, the protagonist of The Bacchae, is one big contradiction. The character embodies many of the dualities that we see throughout the play. Let's take a look at some of these. First of all, in some ways he represents both human and god. Sure Dionysus definitely has all the powers of a god. We definitely see plenty of evidence of this. This guy summons earthquakes, lightning, and has a knack for getting into peoples heads, driving them totally insane. Still though, part of him is human. Though his father was Zeus, King of the gods, his mother was the mortal woman, Semele. Also, for most of the play, he appears in his human disguise, the Stranger. Though, Dionysus is a god through and through, it seems like Euripides manages to in some ways tie him to the mortal world as well.

Another interesting duality is that Dionysus is foreign and Greek at the same time. He was born in Greece, but his religion, for some reason, first spread in Asia. In his opening monologue he tells the audience, "All Asia is mine", but that "In the land of Hellas [Greece] this city Thebes is first place I have visited." Dionysus has come home to Thebes, the place of his birth, to spread his religion and to punish the members of his mortal family who have denied his divinity. He is not surrounded not by Greek followers, but with a chorus of Asian women. Even the mortal form he takes looks Asian instead of Greek. In a way, though Dionysus has returned to his hometown, he's totally foreign.

Yet another contradiction is that Dionysus in some ways represents both male and female. Yes, he is a male god, but the mortal form he takes is said to be quite effeminate. When Pentheus sees him for the first time he says, "Hm, my man – not a bad figure, eh? At least for the ladies" (32). The King goes on to tell Dionysus that he has "nice ringlets," and that they're "very fetching […] the way they ripple round [his] cheeks" (32). Also, notice that all of Dionysus's followers are women. The Chorus is made up of his female Asian followers, and the Maenads are all the women of Thebes. We should also note Dionysus's strange birth. After his mother was obliterated, Zeus stitched Dionysus's fetus into his thigh until the baby was ready to be born. In a way, Dionysus was born of both male and female. Looks like from the get-go there was some blurring of gender centered around Dionysus.

Last of all, we'd like to point out that Dionysus is both animal and human. When Dionysus puts Pentheus into a trance, the King observes the god's animal form saying, "Now I'd say your head was horned…or were you an animal all the while? For certainly you've turned into a bull" (178). Also, the Chorus describes their god in animal terms, singing, "Appear as a bull or be seen as many-headed dragon. Or come as a fire-breathing vision of a lion." This duality of animal and man, could be seen as a duality within a duality. By taking both forms, Dionysus has one foot in nature and one in civilization. In a way he's a bridge between the two forces. Also, he's a bridge between the animalistic irrational forces and that of the very human rational forces. While he causes a lot of chaos in the play, every time he's in his human form in the play, he's cool, calm, and collected.

So, what's with all these dualities? Perhaps the play is trying to say that everything that exists is also its opposite at the very same time – more specifically, that we as human beings are inherently contradicted. We're all both rational and irrational. All humans are animals, but there's also something special that undeniably separates us from the rest of Earth's living creatures. Though we all (or at least most of us) belong to one gender or another, there are things about all of us that don't quite fit into the role that society prescribes to specific sexes. Even though everybody is from somewhere, we're all a foreigner somewhere else. Sometimes we even become foreigners in our own homes. Lastly, even though we're certainly mortal, maybe, just maybe, some part of us is eternal and divine. It seems to us, that in the character of Dionysus, Euripides captured many of the amazing contradictions that make up every human being.

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