The Bacchae, written in Macedonia after the author’s voluntary exile from Athens and produced posthumously, is one of Euripides’ most poetically beautiful as well as thematically difficult dramas. The play abounds in passages of nature description unsurpassed in any of the playwright’s other works, and the lyrics of the chorus in praise of Dionysus and his gifts of wine and sensuality are particularly fine. The vivid descriptions of landscape and the hymns to bacchanalian pleasure in the first part of the play are so intriguing, in fact, that Pentheus seems a combined brute and prude for opposing the spread of the Dionysian cult in Thebes. In the second half of the play, Euripides’ descriptive talent turns, with equal effectiveness, to a different purpose as he presents the grisly scene of Pentheus’s slaughter by the revelers, terrifying in their mindless, maddened frenzy.
The fact that The Bacchae has been alternately interpreted as Euripides’ approval of the Dionysian nature-worship cult and as his condemnation of religious excess attests to the play’s thematic complexity. Critics of the first persuasion cite the undeniable fact that the chorus, which traditionally functions as the upholder of moral values and as the mouthpiece of social standards, aligns itself with Dionysus and supports his attempt to introduce his cult into Thebes. Another follower of the god-man is Tiresias, the familiar blind prophet of Greek tragedy, who vehemently exhorts Pentheus to accept the new cult and accompany him—along with Pentheus’s grandfather, Cadmus—to the worship rites. Perhaps the strongest evidence that can be used to support this interpretation is that the doom foretold by the chorus for Pentheus, if he persists in opposing what they view as the unquestionable right of the gods to demand worship, comes true: The king of Thebes is killed by his own mother in a most savage and gruesome manner. However, critics who feel that the play is Euripides’ condemnation of excessive emotionalism and religious fanaticism can interpret the same event, Pentheus’s cruel death, as the author’s portrayal of the king as a victim of an unnecessary, unreasoning frenzy. This reading is also supported by the fact that Pentheus is not an evil character but a king who feels it is his duty to protect the city from disruptive social influences. This second interpretation would explain Agave’s sentence of lifelong exile at the close of the play.
In view of Euripides’ rational and humanistic stance in all his dramas, it would seem most likely that each interpretation contains some amount of truth but that both are oversimplified. It is true, for example, that Pentheus is not an evil king, but he is certainly unwise in his rejection of advice from his elders and in his total reliance on his own reason. His insistence that the cult be destroyed is a denial of one powerful aspect of human nature; Dionysus represents the animal nature in human beings, which is a strong force and must be reckoned with. It is also true that Agave is banished, but she is banished by Dionysus himself, against whom she sinned not in worshiping him but in perverting her worship to such excessive lengths as to kill her own son. It would seem that in The Bacchae, as elsewhere, Euripides is arguing for moderation in all things: Pure reason that denies the animal element in human beings leads to destruction just as surely as does pure sensuality unleashed without reasonable control.