In one key scene Dionysus asks the question which has perplexed theorists of tragedy: “would you really like to see what gives you pain?” Dionysus, ironic questioner and stage-manager of the action, is a double of the poet himself. The difference is that the god lacks the dramatist’s compassion.
—John Davie, Preface to Bacchae, in The Bacchae and Other Plays
Euripides’ Bacchae claims a preeminent place in both classical Greek drama and Euripides’ career as his and his age’s last great tragic drama. Written in Macedonia after the playwright’s voluntary exile from Athens, the Bacchae was produced after Euripides’ death around 406 b.c. A play of great poetry and suggestiveness, the Bacchae is in many ways Euripides’ most provocative work. The only Greek drama to feature the god Dionysus as a central character, the Bacchae is a drama about belief and faith, expressed with Euripides’ characteristic willingness to complicate easy answers. It has been interpreted as both Euripides’ approval of Dionysian nature worship and his condemnation of its excesses. The violent natural forces Dionysus embodied are treated as both essential and terrifyingly destructive with Dionysus and his resister, Pentheus, presented in ways that raise as many questions as consolations. “The Bacchae,” poet and historian Thomas Macaulay wrote “is a glorious play. It is often very obscure; and I am not sure that I understand its general scope. But, as a piece of language, it is hardly equaled in the world. And, whether it was intended to encourage or to discourage fanaticism, the picture of fanatical excitement which it exhibits has never been rivaled.” Critic J. Michael Walton has observed that “The sheer power and mystery of the Bacchae is so startling that it rightly belongs in the forefront of the greatest plays ever written.” The Bacchae persists largely because of the play’s astonishing capacity to harness psychological and emotional forces to form a central myth with far-reaching psychological, moral, and ontological implications.
As the Peloponnesian War (431–404 b.c.) ground on toward Athens’s eventual defeat, Euripides completed a series of tragedies—Electra (413), Phoenician Women (409), and Orestes (408)—reflecting the playwright’s bitterness and growing despair. In 408 Euripides left Athens at the invitation of the Macedonian king Archelaus, who hoped to establish a cultural center to rival Athens. Euripides’ departure from Athens in his old age has been attributed to the playwright’s disappointment with the hostility that greeted his works. Although invited to produce tetralogies for at least 22 of Athens’s Dionysian festivals, Euripides won the competition only three times before his departure, compared to his contemporary Sophocles, who won 24 first prizes. Aristotle reported that, outraged by Euripides’ disrespectful treatment of the immortals, the archon (chief magistrate) Kleon prosecuted him for blasphemy, but no record indicates the trial’s outcome. Whatever the reason for his departure, Euripides spent his last 18 months enjoying royal patronage and support. Legends surrounding his death, no doubt influenced by the subject of his last completed play, suggest that Euripides was either killed accidentally or deliberately by the king’s hunting dogs or torn apart by women outraged by the playwright’s treatment of their sex. Found among his effects were three plays—the Bacchae, Iphigenia at Aulis, and the Alcmaeon (now lost)—produced as a trilogy in Athens in 407 under the direction of Euripides’ son and securing posthumously the fourth first-place prize for the playwright whom Aristotle would call in the Poetics “the most tragic of dramatists.”
What is initially striking about the Bacchae is its return to many of the themes treated in Medea and other plays written 20 or 25 years earlier, along with its being, for the iconoclastic and innovative Euripides, one of his most conventional dramatic structures. Summarizing Euripides’ development, scholar H. D. F. Kitto has stated:
Love and vengeance are the basis of the Medea; Aphrodite and Artemis in the Hippolytus are instinctive, non-moral forces, jealous of each other, beneficent to man only when each receives her due honour. The [Pelo-ponnesian] war brought a new tragic theme to the fore, and the tragedy of rational man preyed on by irrational but necessary passions is pushed into the background. The war continued and the spirit of Athens flagged. Athens, and Euripides with her, turned from high tragic issues to a lighter or a more intellectual drama. At last Euripides escaped from the agony and weariness of Athens, and in Macedonia, where spirits were fresher and the tragic implications of political life were out of sight, he returned to his sources.
The Bacchae restages the primal battle between rationality and irrationality for a final summary statement on both divine and human natures.
The mythic backstory for the Bacchae is the relationship between Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes, and Zeus. Bearing a child by the god, Semele incurs the jealous wrath of Zeus’s wife, Hera, who tricks her rival into demanding to see Zeus in all his godly splendor. Appearing to her in the form of bolt of lightning, Semele is immolated, but Zeus saves the unborn child, taking it into his thigh before delivering a son named Dionysus, an embodiment of the power of nature, revelry, wine, frenzy, and the irrational. Semele’s sisters, however, refuse to believe that she could have given birth to a god, thinking that instead Zeus has killed her for blasphemously claiming an affair with him. It is the doubt about his divinity in Thebes that Dionysus intends to correct as the play opens, and the god himself, in human form, disguised as a priest in his cult, delivers the prologue. Standing beside his mother’s tomb, where flames ignited at the time of her death still smolder, Dionysus announces his mission to call the Greeks to his worship, beginning in Thebes. To teach the nonbelievers a lesson Dionysus has driven the town’s women into an ecstatic frenzy and away from their homes and responsibilities:
up to the mountains where they wander, crazed of mind,
and compelled to wear my orgies’ livery.
Every woman in Thebes—but the women only—
I drove from home, mad. There they sit,
rich and poor alike, even the daughters of Cadmus,
beneath the silver firs on the roofless rocks.
Like it or not, this city must learn its lesson:
it lacks initiation in my mysteries;
that I shall vindicate my mother Semele
and stand revealed to mortal eyes as the god
she bore to Zeus.
Dionysus is particularly incensed by the doubt and disrespect of Pentheus, Cadmus’s grandson and Dionysus’s cousin, who now rules Thebes and is to be tested. The prologue establishes the play’s crushing central irony: The audience knows what the Thebans do not—the god’s true identity and intention at the outset. Their doubt is therefore our certainty. Disbelieving the divinity of Dionysus, Pentheus considers what has happened to the Theban women to be perverse and abhorrent and the newly arrived foreign priest of a false god to be a charlatan who must be persecuted, thereby sealing his doom.
Following his monologue, Dionysus introduces the Chorus, women devotees who have followed him from the east and who sing an ode in Dionysus’s honor and of the delight they feel in worshipping him. They, in turn, are followed on stage by the prophet Teiresias and Cadmus. Both old men are wearing the same garb as the Bacchants but offer different reason for their conversion. Cadmus embraces the worship of Dionysus out of family pride rather than from any genuine belief, while Teiresias rationalizes Dionysus’s divinity, accepting the new god as a concept rather than a felt force. Pentheus enters, furious at both men for succumbing to the cult, and announces his determination to stamp it out by seizing the newly arrived priest. Certainly Pentheus’s wilful blindness merits Teiresias’s condemnation: “Reckless fool, you do not know the consequences of your words. You talked madness before, but this is raving lunacy!” Yet Pentheus is responding to a crisis in which the women’s departure has led to a breakdown of order in the city, threatening their survival. He has been called “prejudiced, rash, violent, deaf to advice” and a “Puritan with a prurient mind” in his obsession with what the women are up to in the mountains, yet Pentheus’s skepticism and insistence on order are not unworthy attributes of a responsible leader. These virtues, when pursued exclusively and blindly, ignoring the unmistakable signs of Dionysus’s godly powers, will produce his tragic fall. Euripides, however, complicates the audience’s sympathy by not turning Pentheus into a simple tyrant who deserves his fate and by presenting Dionysus as brutally pursuing the vengeance aimed at destroying his entire human family.
Soldiers enter with the captured Dionysus. Pentheus taunts him; has some of his long hair cut; seizes his thyrsus, his staff tipped with a pinecone and twined with ivy; and interrogates him about the mysteries and rites of the new religion, though Dionysus warns him that it is forbidden to reveal any-thing to the uninitiated. Threatened with imprisonment, Dionysus insists that “The god himself will set me free whenever I wish,” but Pentheus persists and orders him chained and locked in the palace stables, prompting a final set of warnings from Dionysus:
You do not know
the limits of your strength.
You do not know what you do.
You do not know who you are. . . .
though not to suffer, since that cannot be.
But Dionysus whom you outrage by your acts,
who you deny is god, will call you to account.
When you set chains on me, you manacle the god.
In all Greek tragedy there is no clearer or more effective dramatization of hubris than Pentheus’s defiance of these warnings, made even more certain by the audience’s knowledge that the speaker is divine. The Chorus calls upon the gods to punish Pentheus, and their pleas are answered at the end of their song as an earthquake shakes the palace and Dionysus emerges unbound. Pentheus follows, enraged at seeing his prisoner free, and receives a report about the Theban women, including Pentheus’s mother, Agave, who are on a nearby mountain and whose nature worship includes the slaughtering of cattle and ravaging the countryside. Under Dionysus’s spell Pentheus expresses a desire to see the women at their worship. Dressed as a woman to avoid detection, Pentheus, now feeling the effects of Dionysus’s power, appears to be intoxicated, sees double, and foolishly and vainly fusses with his female attire. “The god is with us,” says Dionysus sinisterly. “Now you are seeing what you ought to see.” Here the absurdity of Pentheus’s loss of control and rationality is mixed with the tragic suggestion offered by both Dionysus and the Chorus that Pentheus is going to his doom.
After Pentheus’s departure the Chorus sings an ode calling for his destruction, followed by what is surely the most horrific messenger speech in Greek drama. Announcing Pentheus’s death, the messenger reports that, led to the woods to spy on the women, Pentheus is seen, and thinking him a lion, the women, including his mother, Agave, tear him apart. Impaling his head on her thyrsus, Agave enters to display her prize:
You citizens of this towered city,
men of Thebes, behold the trophy of your women’s
hunting! This is the quarry of our chase, taken
not with nets nor spears of bronze but by the white
and delicate hands of women. What are they worth,
your boastings now and all that uselessness
your armor is, since we, with our bare hands,
captured this quarry and tore its bleeding body
limb from limb?
This extraordinary challenge to masculine power and gender conventions under the influence of Dionysian power is followed by one of the most excruciating moments in all of drama: Agave is slowly restored to her senses and made aware by Cadmus that she has murdered her son and his grandson. It is a scene of wrenching self-recognition and suffering as Agave realizes that her punishment for doubting the divinity of her sister’s child is the death of her son by her own hands. “All our house,” Cadmus exclaims, “the god has utterly destroyed.” Cadmus draws the moral that “If there be any man who slights divinity, / let him look at Pentheus’ death—and believe in gods.”
Dionysus appears in all his glory atop the palace, and although lines from his speech are lost, it is clear from context and other sources that he proclaims his divinity and banishes Agave and Cadmus, who acknowledge their sins and beg for mercy but are refused. “Gods should not show anger like men,” Cadmus asserts. Implacably, Dionysus responds “My father Zeus decreed this long ago.” To which Agave says, “It is fated, Father. We must go.” Euripides suggests that the powerful, instinctual, and irrational forces Dionysus embodies are repressed or ignored at our peril. Pentheus’s rationality is no match for the power like a force of nature, that defies his understanding and owes nothing to human compassion or sympathy. Euripides’ tragedy unleashes that force and shows how susceptible we are to it. Ultimately, the play is less about faith in the gods than an acknowledgment of the contradictory forces that rule the universe and human nature.