Euripide's - The Bacchae

Euripide's - The Bacchae

In Euripide’s tragedy The Bacchae we cannot find the prototype of Aristotle’s tragic hero: none of the main characters (Cadmus, Agave, Pentheus) fits perfectly in the pattern that the Greek philosopher theorized in his Poetics; in each one of them, as a matter of fact, we can find some of the characteristics of the classic tragic hero.

The one I think is the closest to the Aristotelian model is Pentheus, the young king of Thebes, who engages in a desperate fight against Dionysus’ cult, and against the god himself. Goethe said that “everything tragic is based upon an irreconcilable opposition”, and in The Bacchae’s case this opposition, this conflict (agon, αγώυ) lies in the relation between Dionysus and Pentheus; though Agave and Cadmus could be seen in some ways as tragic heroes, for various features, the young, proud and ignorant king of Thebes sets himself apart from the others and is truly the protagonist of the play. He is, furthermore, the one that stays longer on stage, that ACTS more than anyone in the tragedy ( apart from Dionysus), and, as we know, Aristotle upholds that the real core of theatre is the action (drama actually means “to do” in the Doric dialect).

To prove that Pentheus is really the most similar character to the Aristotelian protagonist, let’s start with the very first feature of the tragic hero: the TRAGIC FLAW. Aristotle defines the character marked by this flaw as “ a man who is eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty”(p. 23). Pentheus is a young, brave king; his family and city love and admire him, but he has the misfortune to “presume to wage war with a god” (P.192, lines 673): he does not know who Dionysus is, because of his disguise as a human; he insults the god, mocks him with blasphemy, not aware of the consequences of his actions; unawareness is indeed the key of the tragic flaw, and the main feature that marks Pentheus.

( Dionysus: You do not know/ the limits of your strength. You do not know/ what you do. You do not know who you are p.189 lines 542-4). His blasphemy is his AMARTIA, and consists in his stubborn will (childish and proud) to persecute Dionysus, despite the warning of his grandfather Cadmus and of the diviner Teiresias: Pentheus fights against his human limits, and tries to cross them to overcome the gods’ and the Fate’s will ( Unwise are those who aspire/ who outrange the limits of man p.186 lines 427-8; A man, a man and nothing more,/ yet he presumed to wage war with a god. p.192, lines 672-3). He commits, to sum up, an act of UBRIS (pride), that will be punished severely by Dionysus.

Pentheus, therefore, engages in an AGON (conflict) with the god, a thing that neither Cadmus nor Agave have in the play: the old king tries to please the god dressing up and acting like a bacchant, while his daughter, driven mad by the god, does not appear on stage until the very end. This, I think, is the strongest argument on my thesis: the young king is the only one that acts, unaware of the consequences, against a god’s will, during the action of the tragedy (your blasphemies/ have made you blind p. 189 lines 538-9). Furthermore, he embodies all the moral characteristics Aristotle present us as typical of a tragic hero: he is a male (women could not be heroes, for they are inferior beings, though Greek tragedy had some women protagonists ( e.g. Antigone, Medea), and he is king ( “he must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous” p.23), his moral choice ( fighting against the unknown, against the madness personified by Dionysus) defines him as a character. No other character can compare: Agave is a woman, she does not fight against the god’s will, she does not show up until the last scenes. Cadmus could not in the least be the protagonist: since the beginning of the play, he tries to please Dionysus: this means he KNOWS his human limits ( “I am a man, nothing more. I do not scoff/ with heavens” p.180, lines 212-3), and is desperately trying to avoid Pentheus from crosses them.

So, if we presume that Pentheus is the tragic hero, his inciting incident results to be the moment when he sends some guards to capture Dionysus. That’s the break of the stasis for Pentheus; the relative stability of Thebes was already shaken by the arrival of the god and by the escape of women to the mountain, but the real point of no return of the king’ ruin is without any doubt the beginning of his ubris ( pride) against Dionysus. From this point onward, the action starts to “rise” toward the inevitable climax: the blasphemies of Pentheus get more and more impertinent, he even attempts to cut Dionysus’ holy hair (“my hair is holy/ my hair belongs to the god” p.189, lines 530-1). When a messenger enters, telling what is happening on mount Cithaeron, Dionysus offers to guide Pentheus on the mountain to spy the Bacchae; the natural adolescent curiosity for female and sexual worlds, his eagerness to discover the rituals of these women lead him to listen to the god’s words: possessed and mad like the Maenads, Pentheus dresses himself as a woman and seems to finally SEE the god for the first time (…you are a bull/who walks before me (…) Dionysus: it is the god you see p. 200 lines 975-8). From this point, the rising action rushes to the climax: he shall see the Bacchae/ and pay the price with death (p. 198 lines 896-7), says Dionysus. We do not witness, as an audience, however, to the apex of the tragedy: a messenger tells us what happened on mount Cithaeron, because the scene of Pentheus’ last desperate moments would have been too violent and bloody for Greek theatre.

In part VI of the Poetics, Aristotle tells us that “the most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy” are the PERIPETEIA (reversal of fortune), and the ANAGNORESIS ( recognition). These two capital elements of tragedy are both present in the Bacchae, and they happen, in different ways and times, to all the three main characters; the most effective, however, are the reversal of fortune and the recognition of Pentheus: we do not see it, as I have already told you, but even in the messenger’s words we can feel pity and fear ( eleos ,ελεος , and phobos, φοβος) for Pentheus’ fate. (Aristotle tells us, in fact, that the main effect of the tragedy on the audience must be CATHARSIS, a sort of purification from dangerous passions, obtained by the feelings of pity and fear for the protagonist’s destiny). His reversal of fortune happens with his recognition: when Dionysus throws the young boy at the furious Bacchae, Pentheus understands finally who really the stranger was, what his fate is going to be, and yet he fights once more against bigger forces, trying to stop the divine plans with human affections: No, no Mother! I am Pentheus,/ your own son, the child you bore to Echion!/ Pity me, spare me, Mother! I have done a wrong/ but do not kill your own son for my offense. (P.205, lines 1168-71).

In these lines we see not only the obvious peripateia and the anagnoresis of Pentheus, but we can also see his Scene of Suffering ( the scene of suffering is a destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds, and the like. Poetics, p.21). However, it’s Agave and Cadmus that have the greatest scene of suffering in the tragedy; this does not make them protagonists, though, because it all revolves around Pentheus, even if he’s dead. His head in his mother’s hands, Cadmus and Agave’s mourning and curse remind us constantly of his tragic fate.

To sum up, even though The Bacchae has three main characters acting on stage, each one with some feature of an Aristotelian tragic hero, I think I have proved that only Pentheus can be seen as the actual protagonist of the tragedy, according to Aristotle analysis.