Analyze the Monstrousness in Euripides’ Tragedy in Bacchae
Bacchae is a classic story of Greek mythology reconsidered and dramatized by Euripides. The plot is powerful and, without exaggeration, scary. The ideas of god’s visitation unrecognized, vain confrontation of a mortal and a deity, a parent murdering a child, madness, and divine wrath were frequently utilized in ancient literature. However, Bacchae is one of the few works that reveal these themes in artful and terrifying manner. The most horrible episode is, beyond any doubt, the scene of Agave together with other maenads ripping to death her son, Pentheus. It is preceded in plot and closely followed in terrifying effect by the mention of the same women tearing apart a herd of cattle. The women committed those acts under a spell of madness imposed by god Dionysus. This essay attempts to deconstruct and analyze the monstrousness in Euripides’ tragedy: first, the monstrous act of killing own child, second, turning into a monster by the will of gods.
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People are afraid of madness. It is a natural fear of something beyond the scope of a normal human conscious. The fear of madness has two sides: people are cautious of those who are already mad and afraid of becoming insane themselves. The acts of mad people cannot be explained by ordinary logic; they have no obvious profit and are unpredictable. They reveal a monster hidden inside a person, who exists beyond moral and laws, beyond the relations of love, friendship, and kinship, who is destructive and self-destructive. The idea of going mad scares a human because nobody knows one’s inner beasts better than oneself. If somebody else’s monsters are strange, those dwelling in one’s own subconscious are half-known. A person is more afraid of acquaintance with their own monsters than encountering those of the others. The point of this fear is losing control over the situation and over oneself. While maenads are under the bliss of divine madness, they do not realize what they are doing. They can peacefully rest and enjoy themselves, and yet instantly they turn in bloodthirsty furies (Euripides 42-45).
Fear of the Unpredictable, and Incommensurable
Greek gods are unfair, just as life is. They are far from the rational system of karma where a misdeed involves a commensurable and predictable result. The concept of karma is absent in European paradigm. As people are always sinful and guilty, they deserve all kinds of punishment. Ancient Greeks were not able to hide from the caprices of nature that they regarded as the punishment of gods; they did not have the saving shield of the cause-effect relation between the crime and the punishment. The only thing they could be sure about was that punishment would follow. Acknowledgment of the sin, repentance, and even a grave punishment do not relieve the rage of gods. Even the fact that Agave killed her son in an induced madness and Cadmus had worshiped the new god does not cancel a more severe punishment, which seems unreasonable and excessively cruel to the mortals. Agave asks, “Should God be like a proud man in his rage?” In reply, Dionysus confirms, “Tis as my sire, Zeus, willed it long ago” (Euripides 80). For that reason, ancient people feared and revered gods.
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Agave, otherwise a loving mother (for her son trusts her without hesitation), murders Pentheus without knowing it. Before, she has left the city with other women and turned into a maenad, a female worshipper of Dionysus. The jolly band dressed in fawn skins rest in the woods, drink milk, wine, and honey springing from the ground, and cuddle wolf cubs. Until they see herdsmen, they behave peacefully and inoffensive. Emergence of male intruders drives them to sudden fury.
Divine versus Natural
Natural madness is scary; divine madness is terrifying. It is possible to notice some symptoms of approaching natural madness, but divine madness is sudden. The madness of the maenads is a vivid example of a crowd captured by rudimental impulse. The crowd instantly switches from peaceful to ferocious mood and then return back to peace. Young girls and old women do not notice their age and forget their status; they run around “like birds, by their own speed upborne” (Euripides 44). The crowd of maenads is a menacing, blind force, and, at the same time, the jolliest company. Since Dionysus is the god of wine, the behavior of the maenads resembles the behavior of a drunken society. Actually, they are mad partially due to the wine they consume. Drunkenness is a borderline state between normality and madness. Wine is a mind-transforming substance that partially releases the madness inherent to a person.
Freedom versus Order, Male versus Female, and Individual versus Crowd
Male principle is associated with order, virility, patriarchy, hardness, moral, and norm, etc. Female principle is its opposite; it denotes free, fluid expression, sexuality, intuition, mystics, and – madness. Pentheus is a representative of the male principle: he is tough, inflexible, robust, and proud. He acts as a champion of moral and order. As a king, he feels that women that left the city to worship the new god threaten social order and is ready to apply power and violence against them. Pentheus’ inner monster, however, is weak, lustful, and immoral. He is secretly attracted to the freedom of bacchanalia, which is revealed by Dionysus. At the same time, while he is exercising his power and arrogance, Theiresias reproaches him:
Hard heart, how little dost thou know what seed
Thou sowest! Blind before, and now indeed
Most mad! (Euripides 23)
Maenads, in their madness, refute the frames of moral, norm, and social behavior imposed by a patriarchal society. The women enjoy freedom and reveal their innate sexuality. In the woods, they are not only free by themselves, but also free from men. Hence, they see men as intruders and react respectively.
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Dionysus appears as a stranger from the East. Kearney writes that “the figure of a stranger … frequently operates as a limit-experience for humans trying to identify themselves over and against others” (Kerney 84). Dionysus is a trickster, the bridge to the subconscious. The god is androgynous, with tender skin, luxurious hair, and in a long robe. He sends a spell of madness on Pentheus and cajoles him to dress as a woman. The young man, stripped of his virility and power, reveals his vulnerability and hidden vices. The scene bears a transparent sexual implication, as well as the scene of Pentheus watching the maenads. As he embraces his other self, though without realizing it, Dionysus assures, “Thy soul, Being once so sick, now stands as it should stand” (Euripides 57).
Therefore, the juxtaposition of madness and normality in Bacchae is much more than a personal drama; it is a confrontation of order and freedom, human and nature, male and female. Moreover, madness is scary and dark, it makes even the most unflinching humans succumb to their instincts, meet their inner monsters, and reveal those monsters to the surrounding world. Madness imposed by Dionysus is liberating and terrifying. As a natural element, it smites the glance of civilization and makes gentle women behave like wild beasts.
Violence is a ubiquitous element of ancient literature. The whole life in that time was penetrated by violence and people were much closer to sudden and violent death than modern people. For this reason, unless excessive or abnormal, it used to be a part of social norm. Wars, hunts, technological injures, corporal punishments were an element of everyday life for the Ancient Greeks and did not evoke many emotions. The manslaughter described in Bacchae stands out of the daily background of violence. It is a direct result of madness induced by god. The unusual aspects that evoke the highest grade of horror are the actors and the method: it is Pentheus’ own mother who murders him, and she dismembers him with her bare hands.
Mother Killing a Child
The theme of a parent killing a child is not uncommon in Greek mythology. Starting with Cronos who swallowed his children in Greek cosmogony, child abuse was ubiquitous though the reasons could be different. Medea killed her two sons to avenge Jason for abandoning her, and Tanthalus killed his son to make dinner for gods. As staggering as they are, these deeds cannot equal Pentheus’ murder. He was adult and completely conscious at the moment of his death, and he died in the hands of his mother who ripped him in madness.
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Mothers are tender, loving, and forgiving to their children. Normally, Agave was a good mother because Pentheus trusted her and knew he was loved. However, madness blinds her and makes her lead maenads against her own son. In addition to the horror of death in general, Pentheus’ death from the hands of his mother is especially shocking. Mothers should care, console, love, and save their children even at the expense of own life. In the face of imminent death, Pentheus appeals to Agave but in vain:
He touched the wild
Cheek, crying: "Mother, it is I, thy child,
Thy Pentheus, born thee in Echîon's hall!
Have mercy, Mother! Let it not befall
Through sin of mine, that thou shouldst slay thy son!" (Euripides 65)
The utter brutality of the situation is enhanced through a vivid portrayal of Pentheus’ psychological condition. He is in terror, endangered, maimed, and still retains some hope until Agave fails to recognize him. The failure of Pentheus’ address to his mother equals to the failure of the last resort, last resource, or the very essence of the self. Thus, the hopelessness of betrayed expectation adds to the terror of death and ultimately breaks Pentheus’ will.
Pentheus’ fate has much in common with another character of Greek myths, Acteon, a young man turned to a deer and torn by his own hounds. Acteon also calls his hounds by names and dies from those who failed to recognize their master and wildly follow their hunting instinct. For instance, Agave refers to other maenads as “wild White Hounds” (Euripides 44) and believes they are hunting a lion while actually murdering Pentheus. Thus, “hounds raging and blind” (Euripides 59) mentioned by the chorus are the symbols or the spirits of madness.
Another shocking feature is the method of inflicting death. Agave and other women do it barehanded; they dismember Pentheus while he is still alive:
Round his left arm she put
Both hands, set hard against his side her foot,
Drew . . . and the shoulder severed!—Not by might
Of arm, but easily, as the God made light
Her hand's essay. And at the other side
Was Ino rending; and the torn flesh cried,
And on Autonoë pressed, and all the crowd
Of ravening arms. (Euripides 65)
Dismemberment is the most horrifying thing: it makes nerves cripple and body fail. The messenger, who reports Pentheus’ death to old Cadmus, is unable to move or to flee in terror to save his life because horror paralyzes him. He is watching something unwatchable, a scene of disfigurement. As Cavarero notices,
The physics of horror … has rather to do with the instinctive disgust for a violence that, non content with merely to kill because killing would be too little, aims to destroy the uniqueness of the body, tearing at its constitutive vulnerability. (Cavarero 8)
While until the moment of Pentheus’ death readers or spectators follow the collisions out of interest, from that moment on they cannot help reading or watching out of sheer horror. The scene of dismemberment is repulsive, and the way the maenads hold the parts of the hunter’s body is disgusting but strangely fascinating at the same time.
Bacchae is a provocative, terrifying, and fascinating play, a real masterpiece that has endured the test of time. It is difficult to find a literary work so concise in form and yet so rich in senses, associations, and allusions. Euripides writes about things that are disgusting, horrible, and yet strangely attractive. The author exploits the themes of unrecognized deity, madness and manslaughter. Though there are no mean or monstrous characters in the play, people that are sane and normal commit monstrous deeds by the will of god. Madness is a frightening state of mind that reveals inner monsters present in humans. At the same time, borderline conditions are a chance of learning one’s true self. The juxtaposition of madness and sanity in the play relates to the juxtaposition of freedom and order, female and male, human and natural. Euripides masterly exploits aesthetic of fear, dwelling on a wide range of related sensations. The culmination point is horrifying dismemberment of Pentheus by his mother and other maenads under a spell of madness, which is both repulsive and fascinating.