The Bacchae – Euripides – Summary & Analysis | Ancient Greece – Classical Literature
(Tragedy, Greek, c. 410 BCE, 1,392 lines)
Introduction – Who wrote the Bacchae
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“The Bacchae”, also known as “The Bacchantes” (Gr: “Bakchai”), is a late tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides, and it is considered one of his best works and one of the greatest of all Greek tragedies. It was probably written as early as around 410 BCE, but it only premiered posthumously at the City Dionysia festival of 405 BCE, where it won first prize. The story is based on the myth of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave, who are punished by the god Dionysus (also known to the Greeks as Bacchus) for refusing to worship him.
Synopsis – Bacchae Summary
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The play begins with a prologue by the young god Dionysus, who explains the complicated circumstances of his birth. His human mother, Semele, became pregnant by Zeus, king of the gods. Zeus’ wife, Hera, angry at her husband’s betrayal, convinced Semele to look at Zeus in his true form, for which Zeus appeared to her as a lightning bolt, killing her instantly. At the moment of her death, however, Zeus saved the unborn Dionysus, hiding it from Hera by sewing the foetus up in his own thigh until it was ready to be born.
Semele‘s family, though, particularly her sister Agave, had never believed her story about a divine child, convinced that Semele had died as a result of her blasphemous lies about the identity of the baby’s father, and the young god Dionysus has therefore always been spurned in his own home. Meanwhile, Dionysus has travelled throughout Asia gathering a cult of female worshippers (the Bacchae, or Bacchantes, of the title, who are the Chorus of the play), and has returned to his birthplace, Thebes, to take revenge on the ruling house of Cadmus for their refusal to worship him, and to vindicate his mother, Semele.
Asa the play begins, Dionysus has driven the women of Thebes, including his aunts Agave, Autonoe and Ino, into an ecstatic frenzy, sending them dancing and hunting on Mount Cithaeron. (These possessed women are collectively known as the Maenads, as opposed to the Bacchae, who are Dionysus’ voluntary followers from Asia). The old men of the city, like Semele‘s father Cadmus and the old blind seer Tiresias, although not themselves under the same spell as the Theban women, have nevertheless become enthusiastic devotees of the Bacchic rituals.
The idealistic young King Pentheus (Agave’s son and Dionysus‘ cousin, who has recently taken over the throne from his grandfather, Cadmus) scolds them harshly and effectively bans Dionysian worship, ordering his soldiers to arrest anyone else found engaging in the rites. He sees the women’s divinely-caused insanity merely as drunken cavorting and an illicit attempt to escape the mores and legal codes regulating Theban society.
Dionysus himself then enters, having deliberately allowed himself to be arrested in his disguise as the long-haired Lydian leader of the Dionysian priests (“the Stranger”), and he is questioned by the skeptical Pentheus. It is clear from his questions, however, that Pentheus himself is also deeply interested in the Dionysiac rites, and when the stranger refuses to reveal the rites fully to him, the frustrated Pentheus has him (Dionysus) locked up. Being a god, however, Dionysus is quickly able to break free, and promptly razes Pentheus’ palace to the ground in a giant earthquake and fire.
A herdsman brings sensational reports from Mount Cithaeron that the Maenads are behaving especially strangely and performing incredible feats and miracles, and that the guards are unable to harm them with their weapons, while the women appear able to defeat them with only sticks. Pentheus is now even more eager to see the ecstatic women, and Dionysus (wishing to humiliate and punish him) convinces the king to dress as a female Maenad to avoid detection and go to the rites himself.
Another messenger then reports how the god took his vengeance a step further than just humiliation, helping Pentheus up to the top of a tree for a better view of the Maenads but then alerting the women to the snooper in their midst. Driven wild by this intrusion, the women tore the trapped Pentheus down and ripped his body apart, piece by piece.
Pentheus’ mother, Agave, still possessed by the Dionysian ecstacy, arrives back at the palace carrying the head of her son, believing it to be the head of a mountain lion which she had killed with her bare hands, ripping its his head off, and she proudly displays her son’s severed head as a hunting trophy to her horrified father, Cadmus. But, as Dionysus‘ possession begins to wear off, Agave slowly realizes with horror what she has done. Cadmus remarks that the god has punished the family rightly but excessively.
Dionysus finally appears in his true form, and sends Agave and her sisters into exile, the family now all but destroyed. Still not satisfied, though, Dionysus chastises the family one more time for their impiety and, in a final act of revenge, turns Cadmus and his wife Harmonia into snakes. By the end, even the Bacchantes of the Chorus pity the victims of Dionysus‘ over-harsh revenge, and look on Agave and Cadmus with compassion. The old, blind prophet Tiresias is the only one not to suffer, for his efforts in persuading Pentheus to worship Dionysus.
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“The Bacchae” was probably written around 410 BCE, but it only premiered posthumously as part of a tetralogy that also included his “Iphigenia at Aulis” at the City Dionysia festival of 405 BCE. The play was brought back to Athens by Euripides‘ son or nephew, Euripides the Younger, who was also a playwright, and it was probably directed by him. It won first prize at the contest, ironically a prize that had eluded Euripides all his life. Indeed, no play seems to have been more popular in the ancient theatre, or to have been more frequently quoted and imitated.
During his lifetime, Euripides saw the incursion of strong Asian and Near Eastern influences into cult practices and beliefs, and the god Dionysus himself (still incompletely integrated into Greek religious and social life at that time) mutated during this period, taking on new forms and absorbing new powers. The character of Dionysus himself, in the prologue to the play, highlights the perceived invasion of Greece by Asian religions.
The play attempts to answer the question of whether there can be a space for the irrational within a well-structured and ordered space, either interior or exterior, and it depicts a struggle to the death between the forces of control (restraint) and freedom (release). Dionysus‘ implicit message in the play is that, not only is there space within society for the irrational, such a space MUST be allowed for that society to exist and thrive, or it will tear itself apart. It demonstrates the necessity of self-control, moderation and wisdom in avoiding the two extremes: both the tyranny of excessive order, and the murderous frenzy of collective passion.
Unusually for a Greek drama, the protagonist, Dionysus, is himself a god, and a god who is by his very nature contradictory: he is both the divine god and the mortal Stranger, both a foreigner and a Greek, both inside and outside of the play’s action. He is at once intensely masculine (symbolized by a giant phallus), and yet effeminate, delicate and given to decorative clothing; he allows women to question the supremacy of men, but then punishes them by sending them mad; he is worshipped in the wild countryside, but is central to an important and organized cult in the heart of the city; he is the god of “letting go” and festivity, but his powers can drive humans to let go of their sanity, their judgment and even their very humanity. He blurs the division between comedy and tragedy, and even at the end of the play, Dionysus remains something of a mystery, a complex and difficult figure whose nature is difficult to pin down and describe, unknown and unknowable.
The play is sprinkled throughout with duality (oppositions, doubles and pairings), and opposite forces are major themes of the play: skepticism versus piety, reason versus irrationality, Greek versus foreign, male versus female/androgynous, civilization versus savagery/nature. However, the play is extremely complex, and it is part of Euripides‘ intention in the play to show how these binaries are inadequate. For instance, it would be a gross over-simplication to try and attribute the two sides of these forces to the two main characters, Dionysus and Pentheus.
Similarly, all the main characters command a different form of wisdom, but each with its own set of limitations. King Pentheus, for example, is portrayed as young and idealistic, the guardian of a purely rational civic and social order. The order that Pentheus represents, however, is not just the legal order, but what he sees as the proper order of all of life, including the supposedly proper control of women, and he sees Dionysus (and women roaming around freely in the mountains) as a direct threat to this vision. He is also shown to be vain, obstinate, suspicious, arrogant and, ultimately, hypocritical. The prudent old counsellor, Cadmus, advises caution and submission, believing that it is perhaps better to pretend to believe and to practice a “useful falsehood” even if Dionysus is not a real god.
The play exemplifies Greek xenophobia and chauvinism, and Pentheus repeatedly insults the disguised Dionysus as “some Asian foreigner”, “too womanish to be a proper man”, bringing his “filthy foreign practices” to Thebes. These foreign practices are seen as especially threatening as they stand to corrupt all the women folk and to encourage the women to revolt against male authority and break the bonds tying them to their narrowly defined domestic sphere within a patriarchal society. Euripides had an enduring fascination with woman and their social position, and pointed out in this play (and in several others) how implicit and entrenched the oppression of women was in Greek civilization.
It has been suggested that Euripides wished, in his old age, to reconcile himself to his countrymen, and to atone for his previous attacks on their religious beliefs. However, it is likely that the play was written after his final departure from Athens, and it is anyway doubtful whether the religious jibes of his previous works had given much offence to the majority of his countrymen. It also seems unlikely that he would have wished his depiction of the fervid enthusiasm of the Bacchantes to be regarded as his own last words on the subject, and even in this play he does not shrink from exposing the imperfections of the legend and alluding to the frailties and vices of the legendary deities.
In addition to his other roles, Dionysus is also the god of the theatre, and the dramatic competitions at which Euripides‘ plays were performed (the City Dionysia of Athens) were theatrical festivals in his honour. To some extent, the character of Dionysus himself effectively stage-directs the play, and emulates the author, costume designer, choreographer and artistic director of the play. Masks and disguises, with all their symbolism, are essential elements in the play.
“The Bacchae” deals with the different relationships of theatre to various aspects of society, including its relationship to art itself. Dionysus offers his worshippers the freedom to be someone other than themselves and, in doing so, the chance to achieve a religious ecstasy through theatre itself. Although Pentheus begins as an external spectator and onlooker, viewing the Bacchic rites with a removed and disapproving gaze, he jumps at the chance offered by Dionysus to move from the margins to centre stage of the drama. Euripides cleverly draws the audience’s attention to the artifice of the play and to its conventions and techniques, while at the same time asserting the seductive power of that very artifice, both over the characters in the play and over the audience itself.
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- English translation (Internet Classics Archive): http://classics.mit.edu/Euripides/bacchan.html
- Greek version with word-by-word translation (Perseus Project): http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text.jsp?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.009