In about 408 b.c.e., Euripides left Athens to accept the invitation of King Archelaus to write works for his court in Macedon. There Euripides died in 406 b.c.e. His final trilogy of plays, including both The Bacchae and Iphigeneia en Taurois (c. 414 b.c.e.; Iphigenia in Tauris, 1782), was produced in Athens by his son. Posthumously, he was awarded first prize for this trilogy, the fifth time that the poet had been so honored.
One of the reasons why The Bacchae may have been popular with its original audience was that it reflects a far more traditional view of humankind and the gods than do many of Euripides’ plays. Dionysus in The Bacchae is still seen as a psychological force or as a state of mind (in this case, irrationality), like Aphrodite and Artemis in the Hippolytus. In this play, however, it is Pentheus, the “modern man” who uses reason to challenge the authority of the gods, who suffers most. At the end of the tragedy, Cadmus cites the fate of Pentheus as proof that the gods exist and that they punish those who resist them (lines 1325-1326).
The final words of The Bacchae are a restatement of the traditional Greek view that the gods act in ways that humankind does not expect and that human knowledge is therefore limited (lines 1388-1392). It is a conclusion that would be...
Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, the king of Thebes, is visited by Zeus and conceives a child. While she still carries her unborn child, she prays to see Zeus in all his splendor. Zeus accordingly appears to her in the form of a bolt of lightning, and Semele is killed instantly. Zeus takes the prematurely born child he fathered and places him within himself. At the proper time, the child is born again and named Dionysus. When he grows up and becomes the god of revelry and wine, men establish a cult for his worship. The cult of Dionysus spreads throughout western Asia but does not initially gain a foothold in Europe. Dionysus, the god-man whom his devotees associate with the vine and with the ecstasies derived from the juice of the grape, decides that Thebes, home of his ancestors, will be the logical place to initiate his cult in the West. At first, Theban resistance to Dionysian behavior encumbers his efforts, and many Thebans refuse to believe that he is a son of Zeus. Pentheus, the king of Thebes and grandson of Cadmus and cousin of Dionysus, dreads the disorders and madness induced by the new cult, and he stubbornly opposes its mysteries, based on orgiastic and frenzied rites of nature.
A group of eastern women, devotees of Dionysus, call on the Theban women to join them in the worship of their beloved god. During the ceremonies, blind Tiresias, an ancient Theban prophet, summons old Cadmus, now withdrawn from public life, to the worship of Dionysus. While performing the frenzied rites, the two old men miraculously regain youthful vigor.
Pentheus, enraged when some of his people turn to the new religion, imprisons all women who are seen carrying bacchic symbols such as wine, an ivy crown, or a staff. He rebukes his aged grandfather and accuses Tiresias of spreading the cult in Thebes. Tiresias champions Dionysus, declaring that wine provides men with a temporary release from the harshness and miseries of life. The Theban maidens, he says, are exalted and purified by the bacchic ecstasies. Old Cadmus seconds the words of Tiresias and offers to place an ivy wreath on Pentheus’s brow. Pentheus brushes it aside and orders some of his soldiers to destroy Tiresias’s house; others he directs to seize a mysterious stranger, a priest of Dionysus, who has a remarkable influence over Theban women.
When the stranger, Dionysus in disguise, is brought before the king, all the Theban women who were jailed suddenly and mysteriously find themselves free in a forest, where they proceed to worship Dionysus. Meanwhile, in the city, Pentheus asks the prisoner his name and his country. Dionysus refuses to give his name but says that he is from Lydia, in Asia Minor, and that he and his followers received their religion from Dionysus. When Pentheus asks to know more about the strange religion,...