Study Guide

The Bacchae Women and Femininity

By Euripides

Women and Femininity

Dionysus:
"every female in this city,
I've started on a wild stampede from home" (1)

The Bacchae could be interpreted by some as a text of female liberation. Greek women were pretty much expected to stay home and be submissive. Not so with these ladies of Thebes. They're all out dancing in the woods. It's interesting, however, that these women aren't rebelling because they thought it was a good idea. Instead, they've been magically driven to it, and by a male god. They've unwillingly become the Maenads, the frenzied worshipers of Dionysus.

Dionysus:
"Onwards! My women Tmolus, you bulwark of Lydia,
you, my sisterhood of worshipers
whom I led from foreign lands to be my company
in rest and march…" (1)

The Chorus, unlike the Maenads, celebrates Dionysus of their own choice. Their presence in Thebes must be very disconcerting to Pentheus and the men of Thebes. They are strong, powerful women with the power of a god behind them. These ladies are completely outside of the patriarchal power structure of Thebes.

Chorus
"Him [Dionysus] who his mother miscarried in a blast of light from Zeus, […]
Was taken by Zeus and sheltered within his thigh:
Stitched with golden brackets,
Secreted from Hera." (2)

Here's an interesting inversion of the role woman. Dionysus began as a fetus in the womb of his mother, Semele. But when his father, Zeus, accidentally destroyed Semele he stitched Dionysus' fetus into his leg until Dionysus was ready to be born. In a way, Dionysus was given birth to twice – once by a male, once by a female. Throughout the play, we see this blurring of the lines between the sexes.

Pentheus:
"Hm, my man--not a bad figure, eh?
At least for the ladies; […]
Nice ringlets, too…
no good for wrestling, though" (32)

The King compares the human form that Dionysus has taken to a woman. This is undoubtedly meant to demean the man that Pentheus thinks is just some foreign priest. The fact that being called effeminate is an insult is indicative of the low status of women in ancient Greek society. Of course, calling somebody a girly man isn't usually a compliment these days either, is it?

Herdsman:
"Some [Maenads] lying on their backs upon the piney needles,
All modestly, not as you suggested, sir,
not in their cups, or in a flute-induced trance,
or any wildwood chase of love." (119)

The Herdsman corrects Pentheus's assumption that the Maenads are going around sleeping with everybody. If Pentheus were right about all the women acting loose, it would be a big no-no. Part of the suppression of women in ancient Greek was sexual. Wives were expected to stay at home and behave themselves, while men had a lot more freedom.

Herdsman:
"Oh, the women wounded men, set men to flight…
that was not without some unknown power." (119)

It would've been hard for a ancient Greek male to believe that a woman could defeat a man in battle, as women were considered much weaker.

Pentheus:
"Well, how do I look?
Don't I have Aunt Ino's air,
and Agave my mother's carriage?" (180)

The beguiled, cross-dressing Pentheus seems to proud of his new found feminine beauty. Don't miss the irony of him comparing himself to his mother, the lady who's just about rip him limb from limb in a few pages. When this happens it could be seen as an inversion of stereotypical gender roles. Agave becomes the violent aggressor, while Pentheus becomes the helpless victim.

Pentheus:
"Have mercy on me, Mother,
and because of my mistakes do not kill your son--your son." (225)

A mother killing her own son could be seen as a rejection of motherhood itself. Agave gave Pentheus life and now she is taking it away. This isn't the first time we see a mother killing her son in work of Euripides. Check out our guide to Medea for another example.

Agave:
"come and see our catch:
the animal we Cadmean daughters caught and killed…
and not with nets or thronged Thessalian spears
but our own strong white hands." (259)

Agave and the other Maenads have taken on yet another traditionally male role. Earlier in the play they became warriors, and now they've become hunters as well. It's interesting that this happened through possession by a male god. Of course, Dionysus himself is said to be a bit effeminate, existing somewhere between male and female. Perhaps this blurring of the lines between the sexes is a way to bring human beings closer to him.

Agave:
"I've deserted loom and shuttle
and gone on to greater things
to wild beast hunting with bare hands." (261)

This statement seems to point out how deeply entrenched patriarchy, or male domination, was in ancient Greek society. Agave is proud of the fact that she's deserted "womanly" duties and has taken on "manly" ones. Weren't both roles equally as valuable and necessary to society?

Agave:
"I seem to be becoming…somehow…aware.
Something in my mind is changing. […]
No…no…It's Pentheus' head I hold…
most wretched woman!" (284)

Agave's final transformation yields an unpleasant surprise. She's now gone from triumphant warrior priestess to a murderer. To make matters worse, she's murdered her own child. What's interesting about Agave's case is that her transformations have existed only in the realm of her own perception.

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