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The Bacchae - Euripides

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Themes: Pride, Suffering, Transcendence

 

The Bacchae opens in Thebes with Dionysus, son of Zeus and of Theban princess Semele, explaining how he has been disrespected by the Theban royal family. The sisters of his mother claimed that Zeus did not love Semele. For this sin, the god Dionysus comes to Thebes, disguised as a human worshipper of Dionysus; he drives his mother’s sisters into the mountains in a frenzied madness, along with the rest of the women in Thebes. The young king, Pentheus, will be given a chance to acknowledge his cousin as a true divinity by allowing the Bacchic worship of song and dance, and by respecting the female worshippers of Dionysus. The god warns that if Pentheus does not take this chance, he will join his divine power to that of the possessed women and lead them into battle. 

 

Angry and arrogant, Pentheus will not embrace the worship of Dionysus. Teiresias and Cadmus, old and wise as they are, try to persuade the young king; “the god draws no distinction between young / and old, to tell us which should dance and which should not. / He desires equal worship from all men: his claim / To glory is universal; no one is exempt” (207-210). Pentheus responds with scorn: “The truth about Dionysus / Is that he’s dead, burnt to a cinder by lightning” (269-70).

 

Dionysus gives Pentheus more than one chance to change his mind, including the spectacle of a miraculous escape of the god from capture, and the story brought by a herdsman of the supernaturally peaceful life of the women in the wilderness and of their superhuman strength when threatened. The worship of this god includes wine, dance, song, peace with nature, and holy freedom. When Pentheus derisively calls Dionysus “The god who frees his worshippers from every law” (652), the disguised deity responds that the king’s intended insult is in reality a compliment. 

 

In seeking to promote probity in his kingdom, Pentheus misses the opportunity to show reverence to his cousin-god. His words about the woman worshippers shows flippant disapproval. Suddenly expressing a desire to see the women in their wildness, he consents to let the disguised Dionysus dress him in feminine clothing and a wig, and is placed bu the god at the top of a tall tree. When the women in their Bacchic frenzy catch sight of him, they turn violent. 

 

This play draws us into a painful but beautiful world, and invites us to witness with fear the shocking suffering of house of Cadmus, while still feeling compassionate respect for all of the characters. The Bacchae challenges us to question our own assumptions about divinity, family, leadership, and what it is to be human.

 

Opening questions:

 

Why does Dionysus come to Thebes? 

 

How can Dionysus be called by the chorus “god of joy” (153), when he brings such sorrow to Thebes?

 

Teiresias says “all should dance” to honor Dionysus (207). Why should everyone dance? 

 

Teiresias calls Pentheus mad (360). Is he mad? If so, what kind of madness does Pentheus exhibit?

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Suggested Pairing:

 

Poetry, Power, Piety, and Society - The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche; Poetics, Aristotle; Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud