Euripides Explains Anti-LGBTQ Votes

Cross-dressing Pentheus torn apart by his mother & aunt

Cross-dressing Pentheus torn apart by mother & aunt


A number of my “Literature and Nature” students are choosing to write their final essay about Euripides’s The Bacchae. As this is unusual, I am wondering if it’s because of what has been going on in North Carolina.

You may be aware that the North Carolina state legislature recently called a special session in order to pass the most sweeping anti-LGBTQ legislation in the country. Here’s Vox’s account of what happened:

The measure came in response to the government of Charlotte, North Carolina, in February attempting to ban businesses from discriminating against LGBTQ people, much in the same way businesses can’t discriminate against people based on their race or religion today…

[O]n March 23, the North Carolina legislature held a special, $42,000-a-day session to pass a sweeping anti-LGBTQ bill that not only repeals Charlotte’s ordinance, but bans future local laws that protect LGBTQ people. And on the exact same day, the governor signed the bill into law.

The item that particularly caught people’s attention—certainly Ted Cruz has been applauding it on the campaign trail—is a law forbidding transgender people to use the bathrooms of their chosen gender:

[The new law] prohibits transgender people from using bathrooms or locker rooms in schools and government agencies based solely on their gender identity. Instead, they’re forced to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on the gender noted on their birth certificate, which can be changed in North Carolina through an arduous process after gender-affirming surgery but not before then. 

When we discussed The Bacche in class, my students focused on the scene where previously macho King Pentheus dresses up as a woman so that he can spy on the Dionysus’s female followers, who include his mother and his aunts. If Dionysus represents a facet of human nature, I asked them, then what does this mean?

We talked about how sometimes legislators who are the most ardent advocates of traditional family values sometimes are caught with a mistress or a secret gay lover. Their fanaticism, we noted, arises out of an attempt to override their inner Dionysus, wild urges that they are ashamed of and keep hidden.

Pentheus early in the play stands in for patriarchal law and order. Here he is mocking the effeminate Dionaysus, whom he refuses to acknowledge as a powerful force [translation by Ian Johnston]:

Well, stranger, I see this body of yours
is not unsuitable for women’s pleasure—
that’s why you’ve come to Thebes. As for your hair,
it’s long, which suggests that you’re no wrestler.
It flows across your cheeks   That’s most seductive.
You’ve a white skin, too. You’ve looked after it,
avoiding the sun’s rays by staying in the shade,
while with your beauty you chase Aphrodite.

Pentheus locks the god up in prison but soon learns that one can repress one’s forbidden longings for only so long. An earthquake erupts, toppling the prison and serving as a nice metaphor for how sex scandals have erupted in the lives of such “family values” candidates as Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, Louisiana Rep. David Vitter, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, and Tennessee Rep. Scott Desjarlais. Here’s Euripides’s description:

DIONYSUS [from inside]
Sacred lord of earthquakes, shake this ground.

[The earthquake tremors resume]

Ai!  Soon Pentheus’ palace
will be shaken into rubble.

Dionysus is in the house—revere him.

We revere him, we revere him.

You see those stone lintels on the pillars—
they’re splitting up. It’s Bromius calling,
shouting to us from inside the walls.

DIONYSUS [from inside the palace]  
Let fiery lightning strike right now—
burn Pentheus’ palace—consume it all!…

[Enter Dionysus, bursting through the palace front doors, free of all chains, smiling and supremely confident.]

And now look at how Pentheus suddenly flips:

In that case, [to see the Bacchae] you must clothe your body
in a dress—one made of eastern linen.

What! I’m not going up there as a man?
I’ve got to change myself into a woman?

If they see you as a man, they’ll kill you.

Right again. You always have the answer.

Dionysus taught me all these things.

How can I best follow your suggestion?

I’ll go inside your house and dress you up.

What? Dress up in a female outfit?
I can’t do that—I’d be ashamed to.

You’re still keen to see the Maenads, aren’t you?

What sort of clothing do you recommend? 
How should I cover up my body?

Pentheus is ultimately ripped apart by his own out-of-control mother, who has undergone her own conversion. Once a staid matriarch who ostracized her sister for becoming pregnant, now she’s joined the Bacchae and dances naked in the woods. Her fury at her patriarchal son, whom she mistakes for a lion, knows no bounds as she tears him to shreds.

What is the lesson for our own political battles? Maybe a political party that allows itself to be led by people obsessed with bathrooms will sooner or later tear itself apart.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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