(Fe)Male Dionysus: the False Dichotomy of Gender in Euripidean Theatre

Tracy A. Jamison

University of California, Santa Barbara

Dionysus, god of wine and the grape, civilization and madness, both male and female in form, clearly embodies the very essence of the theatre itself, dualistic in its very nature by way of the costume and mask: an actor is both a person and a character.  My goal in this paper is to dispel the typical structuralist notion of dualism, replacing it with a concept of unity illustrated through the theatre's representation of sex and gender as performed on the stage, which is perhaps more true to the 5th century Athenian conception of theatre and performance as a whole.  In the larger scope of my dissertation, of which this paper will be a part, I hope to prove that an individual character's performance of a gendered role onstage is a reflection of the theatre itself, Dionysus, and Athenian culture as a whole.

I shall begin with a brief discussion of the difference between the terms sex and gender, especially as regards the differences between modern and ancient interpretations of them both.  Thomas Laqueur's book, Making Sex.  Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard UP: Cambridge, 1990), is instrumental in this study.  His "one sex" theory claims, much like Aristotle and Galen before him, that anatomical sex is the cultural phenomenon, while gender was primary or 'real.' There are, however, specific examples within Euripidean theatre (Medea, Helen, and Dionysus, to name only a few) that seem to defy this theory, which I will next discuss.  Euripides, in fact, appears to flout or at least questionably view the strict sexual categories as optional at best.  Dionysus is a slippery character throughout the Bacchae, switching back and forth between roles (Stranger vs. God) and genders (through his use of gender-specific vocabulary, especially in the cross-dressing scene).  Helen, too, uses vocabulary fit more for a man than a woman in her ability to derive a plan of rescue as well as use her gift of sophistry on the Egyptian king, Theoklymenos.  Finally, Medea is the pinnacle of gender confusion through language and action, though her very nature as not only a woman but a barbarian confounds her place within the typical paradigm of how a person 'should' speak and act.

Dionysus himself, and his theatrical realm, constitute part of the same whole or two sides of the same coin; by either metaphor, the oneness exists purely through the single identity of the character onstage, who, for the moment embodies someone else, breathes his or her breath, and becomes the 'other.'


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