The Bacchae

Matricide and Cross-Dressing: Gender Clash in Greek Justice

When two men confront similar situations and meet distinct fates, the perennial question emerges. Why does Orestes in Aeschylus' The Eumenides win redemption, and Pentheus in Euripides' The Bacchae die ignobly? Both address the same moral dilemma between condoning retributive justice and upholding social order. Both men witness women aggressing and doling out retributive justice, and, recognizing the burden of their sex, choose to uphold male social order. The son of Agamemnon succeeds in his quest because he remains true to his masculinity and proves rational, persuasive, and resolved; conversely, effeminate Pentheus perishes because he attempts to adopt an unnatural male identity. The Eumenides and The Bacchae demonstrate that triumph goes to those who remain true to their selves.

In both plays, the abstract conflict of retributive justice versus social order becomes a concrete gender clash. The female forces of retributive justice include Clytaemnestra, the Furies, and the Maenads; the male opposition comprises Orestes, Apollo, and Pentheus, defending the testosterone-dominated status quo. As the female Chorus in The Bacchae declares,

---O Justice, principle of order, spirit of custom,

come! Be manifest; reveal...

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