The Ancient Greek playwright Euripides (408-406 B.C.) has often been categorised a misunderstood genius. Out of his numerous works — many of which were mere dramatisations of quotidian happenings — The Bacchae is undoubtedly his chef-d’oeuvre, the greek tragedy par excellence. The play, following its deceivingly harmless opening, is the purest characterisation of the Gods’ fury in the ancient world. Dionysus, whose godly status is contested by many, hatches an intricate plan which culminates in Pentheus, king of Thebes and cousin of the god himself, having his head ripped off by his mother’s bare hands.
Underneath the gory and somewhat repugnant exposition of vanity and lechery through the killing of Pentheus, lies a much more pervasive element of the play. Throughout The Bacchae, the recurrent portrayal of Dionysus’ rights simultaneously as a divinely induced madness and a return to a natural state illustrates a very unconventional (for the time) perspective on human nature. The clear parallels between the consumption of wine associated with Dionysus and the God’s own powers — an exemplification of the Greeks’ desire to fundamentally understand the world around them — are clear, becoming a profound exploration of our underlying instincts, the raw desires we hide behind our masks of civility.
By means of the constant contrast between the followers of the Bacchian God — those willingly indulging in the Dionysian rites and the embracing of their natural state — and those like Pentheus — proud of their civility, of their refinement — exposes conformity and the seeking of distance from one’s carnal and bestial desires as ultimately a social construct, superficial and inaccurate. Pentheus’ refusal to legitimise Dionysus’ rites in Thebes, dismissing them as barbaric (which they are!) is revealed as a mere façade: given the opportunity to observe, unnoticed, the Bacchae’s raving orgy on the mountainside, he cannot impede the lustful drives that lead to his perdition.
This fundamental dichotomy between our primal, unavoidable, irrational instincts and the delicate, considerate, civilised image we project, as an adherence to an unspoken social dictum is undoubtedly the origin of the philosophical argument at the heart of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. It is a polarity, however, that not only plagued the Ancient Greeks and perplexed philosophers of the 19th Century, but that still haunts us today: where must the line be drawn between our desires, our urge to advance our own pursuits, whether or not it is to the detriment of others, and between the social expectations which confine us to orthodoxy?
Image: Luca Giordano, Orpheus and the Bacchae.