Tag Archives: Euripides

The Bacchae

23 Feb

Euripides’s Bacchae is undoubtedly one of most disturbing and eerie of the extant classical tragedies. If this play had been written post domine Dionysus’s position in the play would have to be occupied by a demon or Satan himself. Who else in our cultural tradition could function as the Other, the Outsider, the endlessly travelling Stranger who dissolves all boundaries, causes us to transgress all limnitations, then moves on to do it all over again? However, in ancient Greek society this is a role for a god and, as Dionysus reminds us, refusing a god their proper worship can bring disastrous consequences.

The Bacchae opens with the god Dionysus, also known as Bacchus and Bromius, explaining how he was born from Zeus and Semele – the mortal daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes at the time. Dionysus is angry at his mother’s family for denying she was impregnated by Zeus and refusing to worship him. He’s recently come from the East, where he’s already introduced the Dionysian mysteries, and compelled his aunts and the other women of Thebes to enter the wilderness outside the city and become Bacchantes.

Pentheus – the current king of Thebes and son of Agave, who’s now reveling on the mountain with the other Bacchantes – finds himself simultaneously attracted and repelled by Bacchus and his Maenads. He attempts to imprison Dionysus but the god promptly escapes and destroys Pentheus’s palace. The king is then lured into dressing as a Bacchante and spying on their rites in the wilderness. This brings us to the strange and sad scene in which Dionysus helps Pentheus get properly dressed and, given that we already know what becomes of the king, every line is pitifully ironic. (Agave later wins the Bacchae’s pitifully ironic first place trophy in her scene with the chorus of foreign Bacchantes, but this is a close runner up.)

The scene between Dionysus and Pentheus brings the woo to the Bacchae. Why is Pentheus so excited to be dressed up as a Maenad? Particularly he seems delighted that he looks like his mother. Ancient shades of Norman Bates? Is all this coming from Pentheus’s subconscious, or is he under the sway of the god at this time? Support for either interpretation can be found in the text. I’m not sure the audience is even supposed to find answers to all these questions, though. Perhaps Euripides’s point here is that when all boundaries are erased and nothing’s left but ambiguities, there are no answers – only an endless series of questions.

The Bacchae ends with every member of the Theban royal family exiled from their city, as Euripides was from Athens until the end of his life. As a final farewell to a city that had not been very kind to the playwright, it’s possible to see in the Bacchae as much curse as blessing. As the play closes Dionysus assures the audience that since he’s finished up in Thebes he’ll be moving on to the next Greek city. See you soon, Athens!