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...
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