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 appropriate for nearly any Greek tragedy, and, indeed, it strongly resembles the endings of both Sophocles’ Antigon (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729) and Oidipous epi Kolni (401 b.c.e.; Oedipus at Colonus, 1729). This traditional Greek belief that moderation is best because humankind’s knowledge is limited is central to the entire structure of The Bacchae. While Pentheus is punished for his stubborn resistance to the god Dionysus, his mother, Agave, who accepted the god, also suffers. For modern readers, this development is one of the most troubling aspects of the work; at the end of the play, Dionysus seems to be punishing both his enemies and his own followers. Yet it must be remembered that, for Euripides, Dionysus symbolizes irrationality. Those who exclude irrationality totally from their lives become stolid, unimaginative, and dull; when their carefully reasoned worlds collapse, they may be “torn apart” by irrationality, as literally happens to Pentheus in this play. Yet those who succumb to irrationality entirely are playing with madness, and they may eventually destroy what is most dear to them. With irrationality, as with everything, Euripides is saying, the middle way is best.
In dramatic terms, Euripides accomplishes a difficult task in The Bacchae. He manages to change the audience’s opinion about both Dionysus and Pentheus as the drama unfolds. When Dionysus first appears, he wins the audience’s favor: They are told that Pentheus is resisting the god unjustly and that Dionysus has come to Thebes in person to reward the just and to punish the guilty. By the end of the drama, however, Dionysus seems a fearful figure whose penalties are extreme and whose power destroys even those who embrace his cult. Pentheus, on the other hand, first appears as a brash, skeptical, and thoroughly unlikable individual. Yet by the end of the drama, the audience is likely to pity him because of the degree to which he has been punished. This ability to change an audience’s perspective in such a short time is one of Euripides’ finest accomplishments in this play.
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...
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