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Bacchae


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AT: The Bacchic Women; Bacchants A: Euripides Pf:c.405 bc, Athens Tr: 1782 G: Greek trag. in verse S: Before the palace of Pentheus in Thebes, mythical past C: 7m, 1f, extras, chorus (f)The god Dionysus returns in disguise to his birthplace, the city of Thebes. He is angry that the women of Thebes have denied that he is divine and so, with his chorus of Asian women, has driven them wild in Bacchic orgies. Pentheus, King of Thebes, is furious on his return to find his city in such uproar, especially when he discovers the priest Tiresias and his grandfather Cadmus have also joined with the Maenad women. Pentheus orders the destruction of Tiresias' shrine and the capture of Dionysus. Dionysus meekly accepts his arrest, but his women are miraculously freed from imprisonment. Pentheus confronts Dionysus and orders him to be incarcerated. Soon Dionysus too frees himself and then urges Pentheus to disguise himself as a woman in order to witness the Dionysian rites for himself. Pentheus enthusiastically accepts and goes off into the mountains to join the women. Once there, Dionysus denounces him as the man who mocked their sacred rites. The furious women dismember Pentheus, and his mother Agave, imagining she has slaughtered a lion-cub, triumphantly carries back his severed head to the city. Cadmus comes with the torn limbs of Pentheus, and Agave recognizes in horror what she has done. No longer disguised, Dionysus appears in order to justify his actions: Pentheus was judged because he neglected to worship a god. Complaining that the god's ‘vengeance is too heavy’, Cadmus and Agave must go into exile.

AT: The Bacchic Women; Bacchants A: Euripides Pf:c.405 bc, Athens Tr: 1782 G: Greek trag. in verse S: Before the palace of Pentheus in Thebes, mythical past C: 7m, 1f, extras, chorus (f)

Although written right at the end of his life when in his seventies, Bacchae is one of the most powerful and accomplished of Euripides' plays. It won him a posthumous prize, his fifth, at the dramatic festival of the Great Dionysia. Bacchae is the only extant play to depict the god of tragedy, Dionysus, and elements like dressing in disguise, ecstatic dancing, and the confusion of reality and appearance were, appropriately, essential elements of the Greek theatre. In this regard, Pentheus may be seen as a forerunner of Plato with his stern condemnation of artists. This, however, does not explain the lasting power of the play. What we also find here, as in Hippolytus, is the misguided attempt by Pentheus to disregard his natural instincts, in Freudian terms to repress his sexuality. This can lead only to disaster. His comic enthusiasm about dressing as a woman betrays his true nature, and his refusal to accommodate Eastern mysticism and ecstasy in his Western demand for order produces a furious and destructive backlash. This has allowed later interpreters to view the play as the model of a fascist dictatorship, as in the Performance Group's Dionysus in '69 (1969), or of the anarchy of drug culture, as in John Bowen's The Disorderly Women (1969). Caryl Churchill has also used the theme in a dance piece created with David Lan, A Mouthful of Birds (1986).

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Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights) — Religion.


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