The play emphasizes Pentheus’ youth, his insecurity as heir to Cadmus, and his sexual insecurity. It parodies Dionysian ritual, for the maenads (frenzied female worshipers of Dionysus) turn the sparagmos (tearing to pieces) of the victim into human sacrifice. This establishes Euripides’ intention: to show that if deities exist at all, they are essentially demonic enemies of humanity.
Cadmus has accepted his grandson Dionysus as a god, comically ironic considering Cadmus’ age and Dionysus’ association with fertility. By contrast Pentheus, Cadmus’ very young grandson, is shocked at Greek worship of his effeminate first cousin, whose divinity he denies. Just as Pentheus is about to stop the orgia, his men appear with a “priest of Dionysus,” actually the god himself. Dionysus’ strange appearance fascinates the virile Pentheus, and the young man agrees to go to Cithaeron dressed as a maenad to spy on their secret ritual.
The audience learns through a messenger that once at the revels, Dionysus sat the “maenad” Pentheus on a pine tree, then revealed him to the ecstatic women. Pentheus’ mother Agave, his aunts Ino and Autonoe, as well as the other women, uproot the tree with superhuman strength and tear Pentheus apart. Agave appears on stage with her son’s head in her hands. In Dionysian ecstasy, they had believed him to be a lion.
The Bacchae is a vivid, though distorted, portrait of Asiatic ritual in Greece. It reveals Euripides’ own agnosticism, and stands as a psychological portrait of a young man who irrationally maintains supremacy of Apollonian order over Dionysian ecstasy.
Euripides. The Bacchae of Euripides. Translated by Geoffrey S. Kirk. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Provides a translation and notes that are useful to anyone new to Euripides’ last complete play. Kirk provides a notable comparative text to other classic and ground-breaking versions of Euripides’ play.
Euripides. The Bacchae of Euripides. Translated by C. K. Williams. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990. This version of the play is useful primarily for Martha Nussbaum’s introduction, which presents an alternative view of the play and sets it in relief against another Greek tragedy.
Grene, David, and Richmond Lattimore, ed. Greek Tragedies. Vol. 3. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Richmond Lattimore is a scholar known for his work on Euripides. Arguably the most faithful translation and introduction to The Bacchae published to date. Includes contextual notes and a clear view to an understanding of Euripides at the end of his career.
Segal, Charles. Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ “Bacchae.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Provides contextual background for The Bacchae and explains why it is such a radical text. Also discusses other works that deal with Dionysus and speculates on Euripides’ response to those texts.
Soyinka, Wole. The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974. Nobel Prize-winning African author Wole Soyinka provides a new interpretation of The Bacchae, which brings to the fore important questions in the original text. Soyinka uses a communion rite to explain the death of Pentheus and the need to strew his body across the countryside.