These Women Murder : Sexual Politics in Sade and “ The

Abstract

Often called the most “modern” of the great classical tragedians, Euripides is a figure of some ambivalence, and his final play, The Bacchae confirms the ambiguities—as well as the power—of Euripidean drama. This paper examines the dynamics of gender and sexual politics in late classical Greece via The Bacchae. After an analysis of the play in its social and historical context, attention will turn to the works of the Marquis de Sade. It will be shown that within the diabolical algorithm of Sadism lurks an inherent potentiality for female empowerment in the modern age, just as bacchic revelry held for women in the classical world of Euripides. Though the two are not by any means identical, fundamental similarities can be enumerated, and allow for a more nuanced interpretation of the place and position of women in The Bacchae. Both Sade and Dionysos call for a release of the senses from the social restraints of morals, values, and virtues. Second, both Sadism and bacchic maenadism are leveling forces, erasing—at least in theory—all artificial distinctions between male and female, Jew and Greek, rich and poor, and even “man” and beast. Third, and perhaps of greatest significance: women are allowed, under the reign of Sade and Dionysos, a sexuality that is not tied to reproduction or maternity. As other Greek playwrights noted, this last is an area where women hold an incredible natural power, given that the keys to the continuation of the male line and the future of the species lie in their hands. Charming sex, you will be free; just as men do, you shall enjoy all the pleasures that Nature makes your duty, do not withhold yourselves from one. Must the more divine half of mankind be kept in chains by the other? Ah, break those bonds: nature wills it. – The Marquis de Sade These were young mothers who had left their infants behind... – Euripides, The Bacchae Of all the classical Greek tragedians, Euripides is the one most often perceived (and lionized) as a “modern” by scholars of today, and justifiably so. Steeped in a critical perspective, the youngest of the Tragic Triad brought classical drama down to earth, by allowing for the characterization and dramatization of the lives of actual figures, even if they are still clad in mythical garb. In addition, the plays of Euripides evince skepticism about the patrios nomos—“the totality of all traditions and customs on whose observance the ethical life of the polis depends” (Friedrich 16). As such, the poet was condemned, like Socrates, for his contributions to the death of the polis as a political, social, and moral entity. Perhaps a kinder epitaph would suggest that Euripides actually portrays, in his tragedies, both the problems and possibilities of the late classical world, without actively working to either destroy or protect such a world. In any case, Euripides is a figure of some ambivalence, and his final play, The Bacchae (also known as The Bacchants), confirms the ambiguities—as well as the power—of Euripidean drama. The Bacchae remains something of a riddle for classical scholars, with various interpretations having been offered with regard to the author’s perceived intentions. More significant (considering that the poet’s real intent can never be known) is the portrayal in The Bacchae of the various contemporary crises of the polis-world—in particular the dynamics of gender and sexual politics in late classical Greece. Hailed as a great sexual liberator at times and demonized as a misogynist at others, discussions of gender and sexual politics in the classical world often beat a path back to the door of Euripides. Most often it is his Medea that is examined under these terms, but The Bacchae also illuminates a number of salient issues, as we shall see. At first glance, the inconclusive characterization of Dionysos and his followers in The Bacchae is matched only by the ambiguities surrounding the tragic fate of Pentheus. Euripides was writing during a period of turmoil; the Peloponnesian War was finally coming to an end with a far from glorious victory for the Spartan side. The long was war disastrous for the city-states of the Greek world, with great destruction wrought on all sides. Moreover, as Thucydides tells us in his History, stasis was spreading rapidly throughout Hellas, and civil strife was rampant. Correspondingly, and in important ways consequent with the profound political crisis, there emerged in the latter fifth century a wave of critical thinking, led by the Sophists, which in many ways undermined the solidity and stability of traditional Greek (and especially Athenian) society. In particular, critical examination called for a free subjectivity based not upon the patrios nomos but instead upon physis or nature itself. This new sense of individuality was aimed to some degree at emancipation from the tyranny of the polis. The younger “physis Sophists,” in particular, stressed a proto-fascist will-to-power—a dismissal of all that the polis represented in order to pursue natural and instinctual drives. In short, disorder was the order of the day, and not merely at the level of politics. The influx of orgiastic religious cults at this time can hardly be surprising considering the weakness of the poleis and nomoi. These new cults did not specifically belong to Dionysianism—a older movement that had become accepted and regulated by the poleis. Rather, they resembled the cult of Dionysos prior to its Hellenization; i.e., bacchanalism in its rawest form. In The Bacchae Euripides portrays the cult of Dionysos in its earlier forms, but with allusions to the newer ecstatic cults invading Greece in his own day. Originally, Dionysos was the god of life, in its free, natural, abundant, and instinctual forms. Despite his official recognition in the classical pantheon, and domestication within the borders of the polis, Dionysos had not been com-

Cite this paper

@inproceedings{Shields2008TheseWM, title={These Women Murder : Sexual Politics in Sade and “ The}, author={James Mark Shields}, year={2008} }