Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 572 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Bacchae Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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....
(The entire section is 1150 words.)
The setting of The Bacchae is the royal palace of Thebes, where Pentheus has succeeded his grandfather, Cadmus, as king. The play begins with a prologue spoken by Dionysus, the great god of wine and revelry himself. He announces that he has successfully spread his cult throughout Asia and returns now to the land of his mother, Semele, in order to teach the Greeks how to worship him through dancing, feasting, and sacrifices.
Some of the women of the city, including his own mother's sisters, have denied his status as a god, claiming he is simply a mortal and that the great Zeus killed his mother for lying about her lover. In threatening tones he describes how he has already driven the women of Thebes mad and sent them to the hills around the city, where they wear the animal skins of bacchants, priestesses of Dionysus, carry the ivy-entwined thyrsus (a symbol of his worship), and dance and sing hymns of praise to the new god. Now he is ready to turn his attention to King Pentheus, who opposes his worship and denies his existence.
To accomplish his task, he has come to Thebes disguised as a mortal and brought with him a chorus of his Asian followers. Together, he claims, they will try to persuade the Thebans to accept him into their rites of worship, even fight them if necessary. Then he will leave Thebes and spread his cult throughout Greece.
Dionysus leaves to join the bacchants on Mount Cithaeron as his Chorus enters to sing...
(The entire section is 1593 words.)