The Bacchae

The Bacchae is a tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. It premiered posthumously at the Dionysia in 406 BC, where it won first prize.


Characters and Setting

Characters include:

  • Dionysus, one of the Olympian gods, son of Zeus and Semele
  • Pentheus, the young Theban king, cousin to Dionysus
  • Agave, mother of Pentheus
  • Cadmus, father of Agave and the late Semele, grandfather of both Dionysus and Pentheus
  • Tiresias, an aged, blind prophet
  • two messengers
  • Theban soldiers
  • servants
  • a chorus of Bacchae, female followers of Dionysus

Setting: The City of Thebes

The Set-Up

The Dionysus in Euripides' tale is a young, spiteful god, angry that his mortal family, the royal house of Cadmus, has denied him a place of honor as a deity. His mother, Semele, was a mistress of Zeus, and while pregnant, she was killed by divine means. Most of Semele's family, however, including her sister Agave, refuse to believe that Dinoysus is the son of Zeus, and the young god is spurned in his home. He has travelled throughout Asia and other foreign lands, gathering a cult of worshippers (Maenads or Bacchantes), and at the start of the play has returned to take revenge on the house of Cadmus, disguised as a blond stranger. He has driven the women of Thebes, including his aunts, into a feral frenzy, sending them dancing and hunting on the mountain of Cithaeron, much to the horror of their families. Complicating matters, his cousin, the pompous young king Pentheus, has declared a ban on the worship of Dionysus throughout Thebes.

The Plot

Dionysus first comes on stage to explain to the audience the story so far and why he decided to some to Thebes. He explains the story of his birth, how his mother Semele had enamoured the god Zeus, who had come down from Mt Olympia to lay with her. She becomes pregnant with a divine son, however none of her family believe her, thinking she had instead had an ilicit relationship. Hera, jealous at her husband Zeus' betrayal, comes to Semele and tells her to ask Zeus to reveal himself in his godhead. Semele pursuades him and the moment she sees him she is killed, for no-one can see a god in theur true shape. In the moment of her death, Hermes swooped down and saved the foetus of Dionysus before he too was burnt. To hide the baby from Hera, Zeus has the foetus sewn up in his thigh until the baby is full term. However, the family of Semele, believed that she was killed because she had claimed untruthfully to have been visited by a god to exempt herself for her ilicit affair. Her sisters (Agave and Ino included) and father (Cadmus) still believe this when Dionysus comes to Thebes. Dionysus must vindicate his mother Semele.

The old men Cadmus and Tiresias, though not under the same spell as the Theban women (who include Cadmus' daughters Ino and Agave (who is also Pentheus' mother), have become enamored of the Bacchic rituals and are about to go out celebrating when Pentheus returns to the city and finds them dressed in festive garb. He scolds them harshly and orders his soldiers to arrest anyone else engaging in Dionysian worship.

The guards return with the disguised Dionysus himself, Pentheus questions him, still not believing that Dionysus is a god, but he avoids giving him any straight answers. This greatly angers Pentheus who has him locked up. However, being being a god, he is quickly able to break free and creates more havoc, raising the palace of Pentheus to the ground in a giant earthquake and fire. Word arrives via a herdsman that the Bacchae (maenads) on Cithaeron are behaving especially strangely and performing incredible feats, putting snakes in their hairin reverie of their god, suckling wild wolves and gazelle, and making wine, milk, honey and water spring up from the ground. He tells that when they tried to capture the women, they went crazy and decended on a herd of cows, ripping them to shreds with their bare hands. Had it not been for the cows the guards of Pentheus would have been torn apart. Dionysus aims to have Pentheus killed for defying him and denoucing him as a god, never praying to him or paying him libations. He slowly drives Pentheus mad, Pentheus appears possessed and strangely does everything that Dionysus wills. He convinces Pentheus to investigate the situation on the mountain himself, an undercover operation which requires the king to dress as a female Maenad to avoid detection. He dresses Pentheus, even though before Pentheus would not allow him to even touch him, showing how much power Dionysus now has over him. He then wanders up into the hills, intending to watch the maenads in order to gain information on how better to catch them.

The god's vengeance soon turns from mere humiliation to murder. A messenger arrives at the palace to report that once they reached Cithaeron, Pentheus wanted to climb up an evergreen tree to get a better view of the Bacchants. The blonde stranger used magic to bend the tall tree and place the king at its highest branches. However, once he was safely at the top, Dionysus called out to his followers and showed the man sitting atop the tree. This, of course, drove the Bacchants wild, and they tore the trapped Pentheus down and ripped his body apart piece by piece.

After the messenger has relayed this news, Pentheus' mother, Agave, arrives carrying the head of her son which she herself had pulled off. In her possessed state she believed it was the head of a mountain lion; she proudly displays it to her father, eager to show off her successful hunt, and how brave she had been. She is confused when Cadmus does not delight in her trophy, his face contorting in horror. By that time, however, Dionysus' possession is beginning to wear off, and as Cadmus reels from the horror of his grandson's death, Agave slowly realizes what she has done. The family is destroyed, Agave and her sisters are sent into exile, and Dionysus, in a final act of revenge, returns briefly to excoriate his family one more time for their impiety. Cadmus himself is turned into a snake, Tiresias, the old Theban prophet is the only one not to suffer.

A filmed adaptation of Euripides' The Bacchae, directed by Brad Mays, was due to be released in 2002 but was never finished. It was planned to be a contempory look at the old storyline with the tagline "everyone will get stoned". A theatrical adaptation set in modern times has also been written by the playwright Chuck Mee, titled The Bacchae 2.1.

External links

nl:Bakchai (Euripides)


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