The UCL Department of Greek and Latin regularly hosts a public lecture named in honour of its most celebrated professor (and poet) A. E. Housman and delivered by a scholar of international distinction. Our guest speaker this year is Professor Judith Butler.
Although contemporary lay readers of Classical Greek drama tend to focus on Oedipus and Antigone to query the internal complexities of kinship, Euripides' The Bacchae lends itself to queer readings of kinship that might not immediately seem obvious: the women famously abandon their domestic tasks and familial obligation; Dionysus shifts gender and exercises a great power of seduction and incitation over the women; and Pentheus cross-dresses, but is thought to be an animal, suffering a terrible fate. The boundaries between human animal seem to break down when the general laws of kinship no longer regulate desire and rage in the ways they are supposed to do. What can The Bacchae tell us in the present about the fantasies of destruction that follow upon the breakdown of traditional kinship? Are there flashes of queer kinship that emerge in this play, and where are they to be found? Although some read the play as a morality tale extolling the dangerous possibilities that follow from abandoning traditional roles, others have celebrated the play as a feminist utopia. The task of this paper is to identify a queer ambivalence at the heart of the play, letting it guide our contemporary reflections on kinship, life, and death.