Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711
Dionysus (di-eh-NI-suhs), also called Bromius, Evius, and Bacchus (BA-kuhs). He is a god of the general fertility of nature and especially of wine. He has been traveling through the world spreading his teachings but has met with opposition at Thebes, where he appears disguised as his own prophet to take measures on the human level to overcome his opponents. He has driven his mother’s sisters (he was the son of Semele by Zeus) to frenzy because they refused to recognize him as a god, and they now revel as thyrsus-bearing Bacchantes with the other women of Thebes on the slopes of Mount Cithaeron. Chief of the god’s foes was young King Pentheus, who refuses to recognize Dionysus as a god. Appearing at first as the friend of mortals, he is joyful and willing to reason with the young king, even when Pentheus imprisons him in the royal stables. He frees himself and makes one last attempt to convince Pentheus that he must acknowledge Dionysus’ divinity and power. Only when Pentheus determines to drive the Bacchantes from the hills by force does Dionysus reveal the opposite aspect of his character. Becoming cruel, ruthless, and cunning, he establishes control over the mind of Pentheus and leads him, disguised as a woman, through the streets of Thebes to Cithaeron, where he is torn apart by the maddened women of his own city, led by Pentheus’ mother, Agave. At the end of the play, after Agave has returned and has realized what she has done, Dionysus appears to pass the sentence of exile on the family of Pentheus. The most terrible aspect of his character emerges as he extends Pentheus’ fate to include the suffering of the old and the innocent.
Pentheus (PEHN-thews), the young, still beardless king of Thebes. He is a puritan with something in his own mind that prevents his seeing any but the extreme aspects, the supposed sexual excesses, of the worship of Dionysus. His opposition to the god is adamant. He imprisons some of the women who follow Dionysus and even the disguised Dionysus himself. When the imprisoned women are miraculously released, he remains angry and scornful. After he determines to move with armed force against the Bacchantes, Dionysus exerts control over him and the young king appears beastly drunk, losing all self-control and self-respect. Disguised as a woman, he is led off by Dionysus to spy, as he thinks, on the Bacchantes. The maddened women fall on him and tear him to pieces.
Agave (uh-GAY-vee), the mother of Pentheus. In a frenzy, she leads the Bacchantes as they tear her son limb from limb under the delusion that he is a lion. Still under her delusion, she first appears carrying her son’s mangled head affixed to her thyrsus like a trophy. She praises the gods for guiding her in the deed, inquires after her father, Cadmus, and calls out to Pentheus to come and receive the trophy she has brought. When Cadmus slowly and painfully brings her back to sanity, dazed and perplexed, she realizes what she has done. She is condemned to exile by Dionysus.
Cadmus (KAD-muhs), the father of Agave. He first appears on his way to worship Dionysus, whom he has conventionally accepted as a god for the good of the family, because Dionysus is reputed to be the cousin of Pentheus. He urges his grandson to do the same but is refuted. He next appears, after gathering the mangled remains of his grandson from the slopes of Cithaeron, to bring Agave back to sanity. He is condemned to exile by Dionysus, even though he protests that such action is too severe.
Tiresias (ti-REE-see-uhs), the blind prophet of Thebes. He appears with Cadmus as they prepare to worship Dionysus. He has cleverly accepted Dionysus while retaining his old beliefs. He is proud of his good sense; he has not reasoned dangerously. He urges Pentheus to do the same.
Ino (I-noh) and
Autonoë (oh-TOHN-oi-ih), Agave’s sisters, who help her tear apart Pentheus’ body.
Chorus of Asian Bacchae
Chorus of Asian Bacchae, followers of Dionysus. Their odes in praise of Dionysus present a picture of Dionysus worship in its purer form and contrast with Pentheus’ warped ideas.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1573
Agave is daughter to Cadmus, the founder and former king of Thebes, and mother to Pentheus, the city’s current ruler. As revealed by Dionysus in the play’s prologue, Agave insulted the god by saying he was not the son of Zeus; that Semele, Dionysus’s mother and Agave’s own sister, lied about her lover, who was actually some mortal. For her heresy, Dionysus has driven Agave, and all the women of Thebes, mad and sent them into the hills where they have been wearing animal skins, dancing, and singing hymns of praise to the god of wine and revelry. Near the end of the play, Agave, still in a mad frenzy, leads the women in a bloody attack on Pentheus, her own son, who she mistakes for a mountain lion. She returns to Thebes triumphant, carrying her son’s head as a trophy. Cadmus finally breaks the spell she has been under, bringing her back to sanity and the painful realization of what she has done. She and her father are both condemned to exile by the angry Dionysus.
In Greek mythology, Cadmus was the ancient founder of Thebes. He populated the city by sowing the teeth of a dragon he and his brothers had slain. The planted teeth grew into soldiers called Spartoi, who became the Theban nobility and helped Cadmus build the city’s citadel. Interestingly, because one of Cadmus’s daughters, Semele, was Dionysus’s mother, Cadmus is actually the god’s uncle. In The Bacchae, Cadmus appears in his old age, after he has resigned the throne to his grandson, Pentheus. Cadmus and his friend, the blind prophet, Tiresias, have discovered the joys of the worship of Dionysus and thereby discovered a second youthful spirit. Try as he will, however, he cannot convince the headstrong Pentheus to accept Dionysus into the pantheon of gods in Thebes. At the end of the play, he is banished by Dionysus and told he and his wife, Harmonia, will become serpents before perishing in another land.
The Chorus is a group of Asian ‘‘Bacchae,’’ women followers of Dionysus who wear deer skins and crowns of ivy, carry the thyrsus wand and fennel stalk, drink, dance, and sing hymns—or ‘‘dithyrambs’’—in honor of the god of wine and revelry. They watch all the action of the play, never becoming direct participants but providing, through their songs, important background information about the life and worship of Dionysus. As with most choruses in Greek tragedies, they often address the audience directly, moralizing about the actions of the play’s characters, as when these Bacchae warn the onlookers that the gods punish mortals who do not honor them properly. Their pure spirit and beneficent actions contrast with the view Pentheus has of Dionysus and his cult.
The Greek god of wine and revelry, Dionysus was also known as Bacchus to the Romans. In Greek myth, he is said to have been the son of the immortal king of the gods, Zeus, and Semele, the mortal daughter of Cadmus, founder of Thebes. When jealous Hera, Zeus’s Olympian wife, tricked Semele into asking Zeus to show her his real identity, the hapless woman caught only a glimpse of the god in his glory before she perished in his divine fire. Zeus plucked the unborn baby Dionysus from her womb and concealed him in his thigh, until his proper birth.
As a young god, Dionysus did not receive the recognition he deserved in Greece, so he left for Asia, where he gathered his power and his followers before returning to conquer his homeland and spread the worship of the vine. It is at this point in the god’s life where the play begins. He has returned to Thebes, the home of his mother, Semele, leading a chorus of ‘‘Bacchae,’’ his female followers. He wants the Thebans to be the first among the Greeks to learn the songs, dances, and rites of the Dionysian cult. He has encountered difficulty, however: While the old founder and ruler of Thebes, Cadmus, and the wise seer Tiresias have chosen to honor him, the people of Thebes, and especially their new king, Pentheus, deny his name and refuse his worship.
A jealous but patient god, Dionysus has driven the women of Thebes mad and sent them into the hills where they have been dancing and singing his praises. Disguising himself as a mortal, a priest of his own cult, he tries to convince King Pentheus to accept the new god into Thebes. Pentheus, however, doubts Dionysus’s existence and finds the drinking and dancing associated with his worship immoral, especially among women. He orders the Stranger (Dionysus) placed in chains and led off to prison to await his death. Dionysus escapes, wreaking havoc on the king and his court. Unable to reason with Pentheus, he finally devises a gruesome punishment for the prideful mortal: He places Pentheus in a trance, then convinces him to dress as a woman and spy on the Bacchae dancing Dionysus’s rites in the hills. When the women discover him, they tear Pentheus limb from limb, and his own mother carries his head back into the city. In the end, Dionysus banishes what is left of the royal family of Thebes and declares his cult newly established in Greece.
Messengers in Greek drama are typically minor characters whose principal function is to relay important information about plot developments offstage, so the action of the play can continue unabated. The First Messenger in The Bacchae is a herdsman from Mount Cithaeron, who appears halfway through the play to describe a terrible battle he witnessed between the ‘‘maenads’’ (another name for Dionysus’s female followers) and the villagers of the mountain. During the battle, he claims, the women were impervious to the villagers’ weapons but were themselves able to wreak terrible havoc with simple branches and reeds. Furthermore, they tore cattle apart with their bare hands and caused wine to flow from the earth. Like others before him, the First Messenger encourages King Pentheus to accept Dionysus and his cult before it is too late.
Pentheus is the son of Agave and grandson of Cadmus, making him cousin to the god, Dionysus. He has inherited the throne of Thebes from Cadmus, and early in the play he is abroad on business of his realm. He returns quickly, however, after hearing that the women of his city have been driven mad and are cavorting in the hills around Thebes, dressed in the manner of Dionysian priestesses. Though Cadmus and Tiresias each try to convince him to accept the new god and his rituals, Pentheus is, in the manner of all Greek tragic protagonists, too filled with pride and blind to his errors to see the folly of his ways.
Even when he is confronted with the god himself, disguised as a priest of his cult, Pentheus calls Dionysus a false divinity, sends him off to prison, and orders soldiers to attack his Bacchae in the hills. As punishments for his crime, Pentheus is entranced by Dionysus, who convinces him to don women’s clothes and suffer humiliation walking through the streets of his city out to the forest, to spy on the women worshiping the god. He is placed atop a tall tree to see the women dancing and singing but once there they see him and, in their frenzy, pull the tree up from the roots, tumbling the ill-fated king to the ground. The women fall on him, led by his own mother, Agave. They tear him limb from limb, and Agave, thinking he is a mountain lion, claims his head as a prize.
For the most part, scenes of death and destruction in Greek tragedy occur offstage. It is usually left to messengers to report the bloody deeds to the other characters and the audience, using words that often describe the scene as vividly as if it were taking place before their eyes. The Second Messenger in The Bacchae is given the task of reporting the grisly death of Pentheus. He was part of Pentheus’s retinue of soldiers who followed the king to the forest and witnessed him being torn to pieces by the maenads. Near the end of the play, he arrives back in Thebes just ahead of Agave and tells the Chorus about the tragic events on Mount Cithaeron.
Playing only a small part in the play, the Servant is one of King Pentheus’s men. He leads the group that captures the Stranger (actually Dionysus in disguise), and he reports the escape of the captured Bacchae from their jail cells.
In Greek mythology, Tiresias was the famous blind prophet of Thebes, and he appears in many stories, including Homer’s Odyssey, Sophocles’s Oedipus cycle, and another play by Euripides, The Phoenician Women. He was a descendant of the Spartoi sown by Cadmus, and he was given the gifts of prophecy and long life by Zeus, after being struck blind by the goddess Hera.
In The Bacchae, Tiresias appears briefly at the beginning of the play, as the voice of wisdom and experience. Along with Cadmus, he tries to persuade the headstrong Pentheus to accept Dionysus and his worship, telling him he is wrong to rationalize about the gods, whose ways cannot be known by mere mortals such as himself.
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