THE TRAGEDY OF DYING AS A DRAG QUEEN
Even though The Bacchae was written in 408 B.C, we can recognize in the play themes, values and prejudices that are so engrained in our Western culture to this day. Greek gods and goddesses had gender and their dynamics were similar to the contemporary ones. Dionysus is a manly god, his battle with Pentheus resembles two men fighting for power, protecting their pride and manhood against mockery. They both feel complete authority and send grandiose threats for disobedience to their God/King authority.
In this annotation I am looking at the gender normative narrative embedded in The Bacchae. The gender mandates are expressed in the assigned clothing for each gender. Men dress as men and women dress as women. The violation of this mandate carries shame and humiliation. Euripides ridicules the old men dressing as women to join the Bachcae’s rituals: “He is incongruously dressed in the bacchant’s fawn skin and he is crowned with ivy”, he says in the stage directions when referring to Teiresias. “He is an incongruous and pathetic figure” (161), he adds when referring to Cadmus.
A man dressed as a woman will be ridiculed and reduced to a joke but also will carry with him the ultimate destruction of his dignity. Pentheus will succumb, after losing his fight with Dionysus, facing what seems to be the supreme offense and humiliation a man can face, he will walk to his death dressed as a woman.
Convinced by Dionysus, Pentheus agrees to dress in a woman’s dress to see the revels in the mountains. Even though at the beginning he thinks that he “would die of
shame” (191) by doing it, he allows Dionysus to lead his cross- dressing. This ritual between the two manly figures becomes particularly relevant because Dionysus is secretly planning Pentheus destruction but Pentheus is innocently enjoying the ceremony. Dionysus puts a wig on him with long curls. (191). Next, robes to his feet and a net for his hair. Then a thyrsus for his hand and a skin of dappled fawn. (192). After showing resistance to dress in women’s clothes, Pentheus begins to enjoy his transformation becoming a real drag queen. “One of your curls has come loose from under the snood where I tucked it”, Dionysus complains. “It must have worked loose when I was dancing for joy and shaking my head” , Pentheus responds. Dionysus sees Pentheus’s transformation as his victory and enjoys humiliating him.
There’s an apparent bonding between the two men during the cross-dressing, Pentheus gives himself to Dionysus, “ I am completely in your hands” (196), he tells him.
But Dionysus sees his transformation as his victory. This way he plans the ultimate punishment for Pentheus. He will die twice, first by being ridiculed: “I want him made the laughingstock of Thebes, paraded through the streets, a woman” (193). And then “butchered by the hands of his mother.” (193).
The fall and destruction of Pentheus is marked by his transformation into a woman. That’s the death we see onstage. The death in the hands of his mother happens off stage. At the end Agave, his mother, enters carrying Pentheus head on her thyrsus.
The struggle for power between the two manly figures, King and God, ends with the triumph of the god Dionysus and the collapse of the king Pentheus, whose image is shattered to pieces.
Even though Euripides guides our feelings through the stage directions, stressing how ridicule and pathetic men look when dressing as women, the feminization of Pentheus before his horrible death makes him in a way a martyr in the story. We end with a feeling of sympathy for this man who was at the beginning arrogant and manly, and dies wearing a wig with long curls and jewelry, a woman. Laughter or pity seem to be the only two feelings we are allowed to experience in the face of this gender bending scene. Losing his manly appearance as a king seems to mark Pentheus’ defeat in the hands of Dionysus.
Euripides. Euripides V. The Bacchae. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1959.