Philosophy 422 Fowler Reaction to The Bacchae and The Birth of Tragedy

ADM 2 September 1992

Perhaps the most striking motif in Euripedes “The Bacchae” is the duality that begins with Dionysus’ androgynous appearance and his various names, and ends with the Chorus’ conclusion that “The gods have many shapes./ ...And what was most expected has not been accomplished.” This, to be sure, is true, although duality’s assault on the reader and the characters throughout the play may leave one guessing exactly what he should “most expect.” The telling, though perhaps late-coming, explanation that Dionysus can bring extreme pleasure and extreme pain perfectly defines the play, as one can see by comparing the Bacchanalian revelry of the women at the mount with the gruesome blood bath that follows. The line between the two is thin, if it is present at all, and the women fated to be taken into Dionysus’ charm cannot help but cross the line, and pursue blood with the same zeal they employed in their search for milk and nourishment. The Nietzschean / Dionysian element is in some ways obvious and in others far less palpable. In considering the passion with which Cadmus, Teiresias, and the Bacchanalians live, the reader should easily understand Nietzsche’s joy with the Dionysian. But squaring Dionysus’ plea to bow down to a god, no matter how vital that god, with Nietzsche’s general approach to deities and religion is a difficult philosophical task, and perhaps not a necessary one.