I share today the results of an English 101 essay assignment (Composition and Literature) where my Sewanee students were to compare and contrast Euripides’s Bacchae and Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The students were to differentiate tragedy from comedy, explore the relationship between nature and society, and determine whether they themselves had a comic or tragic vision of the world. I also wanted them to understand how authors use figurative language to capture human dramas.
Both plays are about social authority reacting badly when people follow their natural impulses, an issue that resonates with 18-year-olds. In Bacchae the queen mother Agave denigrates her sister Semele after she gets pregnant, and in Midsummer Night’s Dream Egeus is prepared to have his daughter executed if she follows her desires rather than marrying the man he has chosen. In both plays, the authors uses supernatural figures to capture the intensity of human desire. If society doesn’t deal sensitively with this intensity, tragedy follows.
Once the students recognized the parallels between Bacchae and Midsummer, they could explore why the stories take different turns.
Euripides captures the force of human desire through the figure of Dionysus, who is the son of godly power (Zeus) and human desire (Semele). This god is celebrated by the Bacchae, cultic women followers who acknowledge his power by dancing in the mountains and drinking wine. Furious that his mother has been denigrated, Dionysus stings Agave into madness, getting her to drop her queenly respectability and join the Bacchae. In other words, she starts behaving like the sister she castigated.
Wildness has also infected Shakespeare’s characters. Even before Oberon and Puck show up with their magic desire juice, Helena, who is humiliating herself in her chase after Demetrius, reveals she has been maddened by another Greek god:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
Cupid has also struck Hermia, who is so in love with Lysander that she will defy her father and death.
Puck is another Cupid figure, causing first Lysander and then Demetrius to fall in love with Helena (and out of love with Hermia). He also drives the queen of the fairies to fall in love with an ass. Surveying the chaos that arises out of human desire, he concludes, “What fools these mortals be.”
I told my students to think of these mythical nature figures as metaphors for internal forces, not as independent characters. They represent that dimension within humans that cause us to act irrationally.
How does society respond to desire’s madness? Not well, according to these two plays. In addition to Agave shaming her sister’s memory, Pentheus threatens to lock up Dionysus and cut off his head. In Midsummer, meanwhile, Egeus calls for his daughter’s execution:
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.
As king, Theseus is subject to the country’s laws and has no option but to go along, although he adds an option:
Hermia: But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.
Theseus: Either to die the death or to abjure
For ever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires;
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether, if you yield not to your father's choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mew'd,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
While enforced chastity is better than death, it’s another attempt to subdue nature. It’s worth remembering that Theseus himself has imposed his will on Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, dragging her from nature and into his court. “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, doing thee injury,” he tells her in his opening speech.
Nature, when thwarted, fights back, and both plays see characters fleeing from their overly rigid society into the anarchic forest of desire.
Whether a play turns out tragically or comically, then, depends on the degree to which society and human desire can be reconciled. Optimists find a middle ground more likely than do pessimists.
Now for my students. Henry, who has Lebanese roots, drew on stories from his uncle to note the aversion to women’s freedom found in many Middle Eastern nations. There are still places where a Semele who got pregnant would be killed by her family in an honor slaying, and women leaving the home to dance in the woods would not fare much better. (Women aren’t even allowed to drive in a number of these societies.) No wonder Pentheus has a meltdown when he discovers his mother has left the home.
Where Henry focused on rigid patriarchal societies, Patrick looked at societies that evolve. Mentioning how his own originally conservative view of same-sex marriage changed once he met same-sex couples, he noted that something similar occurs in Midsummer: once the lovers pair up happily, Thesus overrides Egeus’s will, bringing ancient Athenian law more into accord with human desire. Similarly, American laws concerning LGBTQ individuals are becoming more tolerant.
Jacob noted that such a compromise is offered to Theseus in Bacchae. His grandfather Cadmus and the seer Teiresias are prepared to worship Dionysus, and they urge Pentheus to join them. Having recently read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Jacob noted that this is like people taking time off from their responsibilities to join Ken Keasey and his Merry Pranksters. In other words, they honored Dionysus on the weekends and Zeus during the week. In a healthy society, both gods must be propitiated.
Pentheus, however, is not in a healthy state, nor is Agave. When they fall under the spell of Dionysus, they engage in prurient pursuits (in his case) and violent activities (in hers). They don’t so much embrace freedom as explode from the force of repressed emotion. As Henry pointed out, citizens from repressive Middle Eastern nations visit pornographic websites at a higher rate than anyone else in the world. In our own country, the politicians who most loudly proclaim family values often have secret lovers or repressed same-sex yearnings.
So that students would see the clash between the law and desire as a real issue, not just some abstract academic query, I asked them how it showed up in their lives. I heard accounts of clashes with parents, most of which ended happily. For the most part my students are like the lovers in Midsummer, who don’t allow their rebellion to override all social checks. Lysander and Hermia, after all, are running off to get married, not to engage in promiscuous sex (although Lysander tries to jump the gun once they find themselves lost).
A darker vision would be to regard Dionysus rather than Puck as directing human emotions. When these emotions are unleashed, vandalism, fights, and rapes can ensue.
While most of the students came down on the side of nature and the rebels, Xiangrun Li of Beijing, China found himself more drawn to Pentheus and Egeus. I realized, as I followed his argument, that China’s long tradition of respect for elders makes youthful rebellion harder to countenance. The West may have a history of humanist individualism dating back to Euripides’s time (and getting a boost during Shakespeare’s), but China has a different view of community. It’s not the first time that Chinese students have expanded my vision of a literary work. (Check out how they opened my eyes to certain aspects of Edgar Allan Poe.)
Perhaps because most of my students, like me, have lived privileged lives, we are drawn more towards the comic vision than the tragic. It’s possible for us to believe that Theseus and Oberon, society and nature, see eye to eye and want the same ordered outcome. Not all cultures have that luxury.