The Drag King
An Analysis of Royal Tranvestism in Eurpides's The Bacchae
In the culture of ancient Greece, women were seen as being sub-human, with even wild beasts being above them in status. It was unacceptable for a man to express empathy for a woman or treat her any better than he would a slave. These kind of strict social pressures created an atmosphere demanding hostility to and disrespect for all things female. Therefore, if a man, in the process of discovering his sexuality, found that he had
some attraction to the feminine, the moral codes of the day would have caused him to instantly repress and dismiss these feelings. When Pentheus, king of Thebes, found these urges within himself, he would have felt intense fear at the possibility of discovery. His fear manifest itself as a zealous prosecution of women, but despite Pentheus's apparent contempt for the women and Bacchic liberation movement, he actually idolizes them, to the point of desiring to emulate their manner and dress.
Pentheus's hostility toward the Bacchae is a product of two influences, his position as king and his fear of having his secret desires discovered. As lord of Thebes, the most masculine of celebrities, he cannot possibly endorse this rebellion; without the women there, the men are helpless to take care of themselves, says Pentheus, "it is certainly beyond endurance if we are to suffer what we now suffer at the hands of women" (66). The king must be seen as an enforcer of the domestic order, going so far as to command arms to be taken up against the women in order to force them back into their place as "slaves at the loom" (58). He uses these occasions to assert his masculinity and attempt to remove all doubt as to his sexuality: after all, who would suspect the most violent prosecutor of this movement of enjoying drag?
Though he would order his armies to march up Cithaeron to recapture the women, Pentheus occasionally lets his true feelings slip. In his first meeting with Dionysus, he views the god through the aesthetic eye of a woman, remarking that the disguised immortal is "not unhandsome...to a woman's tastes, at any rate" (56). Later, when Bacchus is counselling His Majesty on apprehending the women, Pentheus states his great desire to so much as lay eyes on their rituals. Realizing his mistake, he then abruptly changes the subject, reverting back to his macho Defender-of-Morality role, in an attempt to conceal the slip up.
Dionysus: Ah! Do you want to see them sitting together on the mountain?
Pentheus: Very much so, and I would give an infinite weight of gold for that.
Dionysus: How is it that you have conceived so great a passion for this?
Pentheus: I should be glad to see them drunk.
Dionysus: But would you nevertheless by glad to see what is bitter to you?
After he has been made up to look like one of the women, having given up all hyper-masculine pretenses, Pentheus is ecstatic at the delightfully illicit
nature of what he conceives their rites
to be, imaging a bacchanal to be an elaborate orgy
, with the Bacchae like "mating birds caught in the delicious nets of love
Perhaps the most scandalous of Pentheus's deeds is his transformation, at the hands of Dionysus, into a woman in order to infiltrate the mountain-top gathering. On the surface, the god is enticing the king into an irony-laced destruction, but a closer reading reveals that Pentheus is, at the same time, using Dionysus to indulge his own hidden fantasies. Using the official, military nature of the situation as a cover, he is able to at long last dress as a woman, parading thus costumed in front of the entire court and city, with no one the wiser as to the king's real motivations for such a disguise.
Though he gets what he wants, but he must be very careful in getting it. He cannot refuse Dionysus, for then he would be deprived of what he wants; likewise, he cannot be too eager for the mission, as that would expose him to ridicule and humiliation. He must be clever with the god, playing the part of the good king, resigning himself to the disgrace of womanhood for the benefit of his people. Throughout his plotting with Bacchus, Pentheus maintains his character well: the god will suggest some bold step, to which the king will initially feign indignation and revulsion, but will eventually consent to what was proposed, keeping his regal dignity at the same time as he dives into the linen folds of Theban femininity.
With his metamorphosis complete, Pentheus abandons all of the illusions of moral conservatism he had so carefully woven. He takes full indulgence in his newfound splendor, doting on every curl of his hair, obsessing over the line of his dress, even asking in which hand he should hold the thyrsis in order to achieve the most feminine look possible (71). He is totally intoxicated by his experience, to the point that Dionysus has to remind him of what the "real" goal in all of this is.
In the end, the illusion is pierced and Pentheus, the most zealous crusader for a domesticated woman, is shown to idolize that which he so publicly reviles. His macho image was just that, an image, projected to hide his true nature from his citizens, who most certainly would have exiled him for such a disgrace. This fear of public humiliation drove the king to viciously pursue the Bacchae, until he was presented with the opportunity to become one of them, an opportunity he eagerly accepted. But only for official reasons, naturally.
Node your homework: English 2030 - Honors
1. Euripides. The Bacchae. Trans. James Morwood. New York: Oxford, 1999