The Bacchae (Bacchantes) is Euripides’s greatest play. It tells the story of Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, as he jealously rebukes Pentheus, ruler of Thebes (the latter city of Oedipus), for his lack of faith in Dionysus’s sovereignty. Pentheus’s impiety ultimately costs his city and family their nobility -Dionysus, in disguise, persuades Pentheus to dress as a woman as observe the frenzied bacchanal taking place up in the hillsides. However, Pentheus is led into a trap and Dionysus calls upon his “bacchae” (the Chorus of women who are under his maddening spell) to jump upon Pentheus and rip him apart limb from limb, beginning with Pentheus’s mother, Agave. Tragically, at the end of the play Agave awakens from her Dionysian frenzy and realizes what she has done. She is thus banished from Thebes along with Cadmus.
Some have found allusions to religious concerns throughout the play, such as the seeming primacy of faith Dionysus enforces in the play. However, The Bacchae can also be read as an allegory for the tragic art, itself. In performance, Dionysus beckons actors to play different roles. In the play, Dionysus also plays the role of a human, and Pentheus, a doubter of Dionysus, is also persuaded by the god he doubts to play the role of a woman. Meanwhile the women of the Chorus do not need persuasion, and instead they are simply overcome by the Bacchic ecstasy. However, Dionysus is not to be trusted. Echoing Socrates, the poets, so influenced by Dionysian revelry, are to be distrusted, for Dionysus can assume the face of any person. The relationship between poetry and politics a bit is more complicated in the play – Pentheus represents the politician – rational and brave. He distrusts foreign claims to divinity, like the Bacchic cult, but his staunch opposition to Dionysus becomes his own undoing. Perhaps if he had remained open and listened to his elders, like Cadmus and Tiresias about the mysteries, he would not have met such a grisly fate. One is reminded of the political choice Constantine made with regard to the growth of the Christian religion throughout the Roman Empire, a very different choice from Pentheus’s.
At any rate, Pentheus was not wrong that Dionysus poses a danger to the city. The mysteries of Dionysus release the inner bestial inhibitions of people, so much so that they cannot foresee when they are tearing apart their son or king. Such chaos cannot survive in the city. However, perhaps if Pentheus could have found a way to harness the Bacchic energy and harmonize it with the Apollonian will to rational order, he may have been more successful and saved his city.
Rumor would have it that The Bacchae was one of Euripides’s last written plays. As the story goes, Euripides was old and he retired to the court of Macedon where he wrote several plays. However he died only two years after emigrating to Macedonia, and Euripides the Younger, possible his son or nephew, brought his late tragedies back to Athens where they were performed and won several awards at the Dionysia, awards that Euripides did not often win during his lifetime.
The Bacchae provides a unique glimpse into the mysteries of the Dionysian cult which persisted in secret throughout antiquity, though the cult rose to prominence toward the end of Euripides’s life. It emerged as an Eastern cult and grew throughout ancient Greece.
Who Was Dionysus?
In Euripides’s play he is described as youthful, pleasing to the eye (for a woman), with blond curly hair, fair skin, and beardless. He is the premature child of Semele (daughter of Cadmus – early founder and king of Thebes) and Zeus. He was shot from Semele’s womb prematurely as part of a ploy of a jealous Hera (Zeus’s wife), thus Zeus concealed Dionysus by sowing him into a patch on his leg. Dionysus’s theatre sat at the Acropolis in Athens.
It is fitting that our survey of Greek tragedy ends with Euripides’s greatest tragedy, albeit a skeptical play about the power of the poets. At the end, we do not necessarily see an apologia for the deceptive art of theatre in the same way that Shakespeare appeared as Prospero at the close of The Tempest, however we do see a more comical and playful Euripides (portraying the main character in cross-dress) who nevertheless raises questions of the dangers of Bacchic tragedy.
For this reading I used the William Arrowsmith translation.