Euripides's Ambiguous Treatment of Dionysus as a God

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For half a century, Euripides was known as a playwright unafraid to speak his mind. Very often what he had to say disturbed his audiences. In plays like Medea, Hippolytus, and Alcestis, he recalled stories and myths familiar to ancient Greek audiences. Yet, viewed from the perspective of their respective protagonists, they also function as harsh criticisms of the Athenian society they inhabited. These plays show the Greeks’ utter disregard for women, bastards, and foreigners. In addition, they lampoon some of the culture’s most cherished heroes and even call into question the wisdom of the gods. Euripides was not one to follow rules of literature, pander to audience tastes, or shy away from public controversy. Plot and character were usually subverted by the themes in his plays, and he was as likely to indict his audiences as his villainous characters for crimes against humanity.

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Euripides’s reputation as a hard-nosed, cynical critic of contemporary society makes the ambiguous thematic statements of The Bacchae all the more puzzling. Was he, true to earlier form, questioning the motives of the gods and condemning the damaging effects of religious excess? Or as an old man, well into his seventies when the play was written, did he finally choose to accept the Dionysian rites that might make him youthful again? Was he making an appeal to the great god of wine, revelry, and the theatre? Critics have disagreed for centuries over this fundamental question raised by The Bacchae, and, confoundingly, the play itself offers evidence to support either view.

To begin with, Dionysus has the largest speaking role and controls the play from start to finish, suggesting his order is the order of the day, and perhaps the playwright meant to justify his ways and glorify his godhead. It is the god, rather than the Chorus or some secondary figure, who appears at the beginning of the play to deliver the prologue, describing how he has developed his worship abroad and only recently returned to his homeland, the land of his dead mother, Semele, to teach the Greeks the glory of the vine and provide for them his bounty. Very likely, he raises sympathy from the audience when he recalls the tragic circumstances of his birth. His mother was seduced by Zeus, impregnated, then tricked by Hera into asking to see Zeus’s real identity. He obliged, and in an instant she was burned to ashes by the lightning flash of Zeus’s divinity. ‘‘Close by the palace here I mark the monument of my mother, the thunderblasted,’’ the orphaned Dionysus tells the audience, ‘‘The ruins of her home, I see, are smoldering still; the divine fire is still alive—Hera’s undying insult to my mother.’’

Dionysus has brought with him a Chorus of Bacchae, Asian women followers from the North, who recount his history and sing his praises at every opportunity. In fact, while the choruses of most Greek tragedies sound a variety of themes between the episodes of their plays, from beautiful paeans honoring nature to moral judgments on the actions of characters, the Bacchae Chorus sings each of their five choral odes—four stasima and the parados—in honor of Dionysus. They know no other theme, and in Greek tragedy this may be an indication of the author’s intent. As John Edwin Sandys noted in The Bacchae of Euripides, ‘‘The chorus in Greek tragedy is, again and again, the interpreter to the audience of the inner meaning of the action of the play; and the moral reflections which are to be found in the lyrical portions of The Bacchae seem in several instances to be all the more likely to be meant to express the poet’s own opinions, when we observe that they are not entirely in keeping with the sentiments which might naturally have been expected from a band of Asiatic women.’’

Sandys may be right. Throughout the play, this Chorus provides sage bits of wit and wisdom that sound decidedly like a classically educated scholar— or playwright. ‘‘If man, in his brief moment, goes after things too great for him, he may lose the joys within his reach,’’ the Bacchae lecture in their first choral ode. More important to the stature of the god within the play, however, is the passion and poetry the Bacchae display for Dionysus. In their opening song, the parados, they rejoice:

My love is in the mountains. He sinks to the ground from the racing revel-band. He wears the holy habit of fawn-skin; he hunts the goat and kills it and delights in the raw flesh. He rushes to the mountains of Phrygia, of Lydia. He is Bromius, the leader of our dance. Evoe! The ground flows with milk, flows with wine, flows with the nectar of bees. Fragrant as Syrian frankincense is the fume of the pine-torch which our bacchic leader holds aloft.

The spirit of the Bacchae is contagious, and, while it has been unable to move Pentheus, the new king of Thebes, it has reached the wise in the upper echelons of Theban society. Cadmus, the city’s original founder, and Tiresias, the famous blind prophet of Thebes, have both discovered the joys of Dionysus’s worship. As the Chorus completes their ode, Tiresias appears at the city gate, calling for his friend and fellow cultist to ‘‘dress the thyrsus and put on skins of fawns and wreathe our heads with shoots of ivy.’’ Unlike the women of Thebes, they do not need to be compelled, or driven mad, to find the spirit in their hearts to worship a god who makes them feel young again. In a voice that could be that of the aged (and reformed) Euripides himself, Tiresias lectures, ‘‘We do not rationalize about the gods. We have the traditions of our fathers, old as time itself. No argument can knock them down, however clever the sophistry, however keen the wit.’’ If Tiresias’s sentiment does indeed mirror Euripides’s at the time he wrote the play, then the author had certainly come a long way from his earlier work, which typically criticized, satirized, or simply ignored the gods.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence to suggest Dionysus was meant to be the hero, and not the villain, of The Bacchae is the personality of his nemesis, Pentheus. The new king of Thebes, though descended from the wise and noble Cadmus, is immature, headstrong, and puritanically conservative. The fault common to each of these flaws is the Greek concept of hubris, or excessive pride. He is convinced he is right, and he simply will not be told what to do. Encountering Tiresias and Cadmus on their way to the hills and the bacchic rites, Pentheus rails, ‘‘This is your instigation, Tiresias. This is another device of yours to make money out of your bird-gazing and burnt sacrifices—introducing a new god to men.’’ He threatens the old, blind prophet with imprisonment and complains, ‘‘When the sparkle of wine finds a place at women’s feasts, there is something rotten about such celebrations, I tell you.’’

Pentheus’s position on the moral high ground makes him unsympathetic to audience members who have very likely experienced lapses in ethical behavior, as most humans have. Pentheus’s hubris is that he claims to be something more than human, something perfect. Like Hippolytus, who wears his virginity like a badge of honor and refuses to worship Aphrodite, the goddess of love, Pentheus is heading for a fall from the moment he appears on the stage.

Taking only these elements into account— Dionysus’s supremacy, the recommendations of the Bacchae, and the wise instincts of the Theban elders—it seems likely that Euripides intended The Bacchae as a moral lesson on the proper worship of the gods. As German scholar K. O. Muller suggested in his History of the Literature of Ancient Greece, ‘‘This tragedy furnishes us with remarkable conclusions in regard to the religious opinions of Euripides at the close of his life. In this play he appears, as it were, converted into a positive believer, or, in other words, convinced that religion should not be ex posed to the subtleties of reasoning; that the understanding of man cannot subvert ancestral traditions which are as old as time, that the philosophy which attacks religion is but a poor philosophy, and so forth.’’

With Cadmus and Tiresias, two of Thebes’ most distinguished and respected elders, shuffling off the infirmities of age to toss their heads and beat the earth and Dionysus’s chorus of devotees dancing and singing his praises between each episode of the play, it is difficult to find sympathy with Pentheus, the lone abstention from the merriment of the bacchic rites; he’s the lone square at a hipster ball. Still, Dionysus has his devilish side, and there is enough in the play to also suggest that Euripides may have been less interested in appeasing the god in his old age and more determined to chastise the drunken deity for his reckless, damaging behavior. To establish his cult in Thebes, Dionysus has had to drive the women to madness, a state of artificial religious frenzy. In spite of the bounty he offers those who worship him, he can be jealous and petty, and even his most devoted followers may suffer terrible fates.

If Dionysus were held to the same standard of hubris as his mortal adversary, Pentheus, he would likely have to suffer a fate worse than the king’s for his outrageous, unreasonable pride. After boasting of his success establishing his Asian cult, he threatens, ominously, ‘‘This city must learn, whether it likes it or not, that it still wants initiation into my Bacchic rites.’’ God or no, his tactless, overbearing rant detracts from the dignity his divinity should afford. While Pentheus is overreaching for the status of a god on earth, Dionysus is cutting himself down to the stature of a mere man through his bullying and hypersensitivity.

Then there is the matter of the justice the god dispenses at the end of the play. While it is true he gave Pentheus many opportunities to change his mind and accept the bacchic rites as part of the Theban rituals, does the errant king’s punishment really fit his crime? For denying Dionysus’s rightful place in the pantheon of gods and for imprisoning his servant (actually the god himself in disguise), Pentheus is hypnotized, fooled into donning women’s clothes and walking through the town, and led to the forest to spy on the maenads. The crazed women, led by his own mother, Agave, shake him down from atop a tree and tear him limb from limb. Agave herself carries her unfortunate son’s head back to the city as a trophy, thinking it is the head of a lion she has helped to kill.

Pentheus’s destruction is gruesome enough, but how bad was Agave’s crime that she must suffer this way—with the knowledge that she murdered her own son and carried his head aloft through town. Then, to make matters even worse, Dionysus decrees exile for Agave, her sisters, and their father, Cadmus. While Agave and her sisters insulted the god directly, by claiming he was not the son of Zeus, Cadmus’s ‘‘crime’’ was far less malevolent. He is punished simply for allowing Pentheus, a nonbeliever, to ascend to the throne in Thebes, once he himself had finally become too old to rule.

The Bacchae is a play tantalizingly filled with contradictions. Whether Euripides intended his audiences to become more devout worshipers or hone their cynicism, however, may be beside the point. There is more to the play than whether or not Dionysus’s claim to divinity is a legitimate cause for disrupting the life of a city. As G. M. A. Grube noted in The Drama of Euripides, ‘‘The tragic beauty of The Bacchae does not arise from a purely external conflict between a ruthless god and a mortal who defies him; it arises from a conflict within the nature of the god himself.’’

It is worth remembering that Dionysus is the god of wine and revelry. Wine sets free inhibition and releases passions that are locked inside every one of us. The Greeks adored balance and order and recognized the need for each thing, as well as its opposite. Laws, civility, and propriety govern the day-to-day world, but passion is the essence of life and fighting against passion destroys the soul, as surely as Pentheus was flung from his tree and torn limb from limb. Dionysus is also the god of passion, and, Grube continued, ‘‘It is this god, and this worship, that Euripides has dramatized in all its aspects, its beauty and its joy, its ugliness and terror; he has even included the disgusting and the merely silly. Few will deny that it is from the very completeness of the picture that the play derives its power and its greatness.’’ Source: Lane A. Glenn, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

The Plot and Historical Significance of The Bacchae

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The god Dionysus returns in disguise to Thebes where he was born. Rejected by his family, he is now set on punishing his cousin Pentheus, king of Thebes, for denying his divinity. Pentheus has Dionysus imprisoned but he escapes and persuades the king to dress up as a woman so as to witness the Dionysiac rites. Pentheus’s mother, Agave, and the other women tear Pentheus to pieces believing him to be a lion. Cadmus, the grandfather of both Pentheus and Dionysus, restores Agave to sanity while Dionysus looks on unrepentant.

Euripides went to live in Macedon for the final years of his life. The Bacchae was written there and performed posthumously in Athens in 405 B.C. The play revolves around the clash between a traditional culture in the person of Pentheus, and a foreign invasion in the figure of Dionysus, the god intent on introducing his religion to Thebes. Dionysus opens the play with a prologue, disguised as a man, in which he outlines his progress through Asia with his chorus of Bacchae before returning to his birthplace. The son of Zeus and Semele, he is both an individual and a representative of a religion of freedom and mystical powers. Introduced primarily as a religion for the women of Thebes, this religion has claimed Cadmus, founder of Thebes, and the prophet Teiresias among its converts. The young Pentheus sees his authority under threat when, under the influence of the god, the women of Thebes abandon the city and roam the mountains, apparently performing miracles.

Whether or not such miracles occur in the play is an open question. When Dionysus and Pentheus meet face to face, it soon becomes apparent that Dionysus’s power is related to his ability to confuse and delude. This is how he escapes from imprisonment. It is never quite clear whether an earthquake, which the chorus ‘‘see’’ destroy the palace, really takes place. When Dionysus begins to exert his influence over Pentheus he persuades him to dress in women’s clothes, believing these will serve as a disguise. He is torn apart by women who think he is a lion, his head returned on a Bacchic wand brandished by his mother. Cadmus, now freed from Dionysus’s influence, has the task of bringing his daughter to see what she has done. At the end of the play Dionysus reveals himself as a god and Cadmus and Agave depart into exile.

A bloodthirsty enough story, the play is pervaded by a sense of theatrical power. For the Greeks, Dionysus was the god of ecstasy, as well as the god of wine. He was also the god of illusion and the god of the theatre. The play is full illusions: Dionysus is in disguise; Cadmus and Teiresias deck themselves out as Bacchants; Pentheus dresses up; a messenger reports remarkable events he claims to have witnessed— milk pouring from the earth, women unharmed by weapons that bounce off them, superhuman strength, snakes licking blood off human faces.

This world beyond reason is one with which Pentheus is ill-equipped to cope, but his clash with Dionysus is not a simple meeting of rational and irrational. Pentheus is no Apollo-figure for all his claims that he stands for order in a world that threatens to become chaotic. Dionysus destroys Pentheus by locating the Dionysiac elements in him: his conceit, his childishness, his prurience, turning him into a voyeur who contributes to his own destruction. Dionysus does so in the name of his religion which he claims as benign and benefi- cial except when opposed. Yet his motives are personal. Half-god, but from a mortal mother, he resents as a human being that he is excluded from his human family. As a god he has divine power to execute a revenge that is fearsome in its callousness. This ambiguity about where an audience’s, or indeed the author’s, sympathies may lie, has led to widely divergent interpretations and productions. For some, Dionysus is a destructive force whose cat-and-mouse cruelty disqualifies him from any claims to approval. At least one rationalist critic refused to believe him a god at all, but a sinister conman with skill as a hypnotist. His defenders regard Pentheus as a ‘‘fascist’’ dictator in opposition to the life-force. Popular in the 1960’s, this view led to bizarre adaptations like the Performance Group’s Dionysus in’69.

The play can stand a variety of treatments but functions best as a warning against excess of any kind, thus linking it to Euripides’ earlier Hippolytus. The power that Dionysus represents, and of which the Chorus of Bacchae serve as a living manifesta tion, is both formidable and mysterious. It exists and, whether the story is seen primarily at a literal or at a figurative level, the implications are the same. There are aspects of the individual and of the collective which transcend reason and should be recognised. Pentheus, in trying to maintain order in Thebes, is suppressing not only the instinctive desire of the women to escape from the constant drudgery of their everyday lives, but also those aspects of himself which are part of the feminine side to his nature. Dionysus, who wins all the arguments and all the battles, does so at the expense of both humanity and compassion. To an audience of any age such a sacrifice is likely to seem too great.

Source: J. Michael Walton, ‘‘ The Bacchae ’’ in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 39–41.

Review of The Bacchae

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Cambridge has broken new ground in producing the Bacchae. Of Euripides the Ion was produced forty years ago and the Iphigenia in Tauris a little later, and now with admirable enterprise the finest, to many minds, and assuredly the most difficult of his plays to appraise and explain has been performed, for the first time, so far as we know, for many centuries. The executors of Euripides produced it just after his death, and it was acted in Athens and elsewhere for a time. Pagan and Christian writers have borrowed from it at all times since then. There is little here of ‘‘Euripides the human’’ or of ‘‘the touches of things common till they rose to touch the spheres,’’ that Mrs. Browning found in other plays. The play has its passages of wild grandeur that are almost Aeschylean, and a solemn, dreadful treatment of madness inflicted by divine power, in which the audience is spared nothing of horror and pity. The more ghastly scene of Agave with her son’s head is scarcely more weird than the ‘‘fascination’’ scene in which Dionysus gradually asserts his power over Pentheus until he has a crazy victim at his bidding.

Very wisely and mercifully the production last week attempted no indication of controversial interpretations. There were no laboured hints of matriarchal legends, of women’s rights, or of Dr. Verrall’s theories, whose delightful ingenuity would have puzzled Euripides. The play was not one of the Euripidean series written in Athens for competition at the Dionysia. It was the work of his old age at the Court of Archelaus, and seems to us to be the teaching of his disillusion over human intelligence, summed up in . . . the Second Chorus; ‘‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men’’. . . . The lesson of thankfulness for the good and pleasant things that Dionysus brought to man as against a stark puritanism is simpler and is rarer in tragedy. No tricks were played with the text, but the last scene, where the god pronounces the doom of Cadmus and Agave, was sensibly and substantially cut on account of the well-known mutilations and imperfections.

The scenery was novel and effective, with departures from antiquarian correctness. There was no pretence of reproducing the altar of Dionysus which was invariably the central object at Athens, but the play, none the less, kept that ultimate sense of worship which prevails in other plays in which Dionysus himself does not appear. The royal palace was placed to the right instead of in the centre of the stage, to give that honour to the shrine of Semele. The dresses of the Chorus were original rather than beautiful, but their merit appeared in the colour schemes of the dances, though they did not lend the grace of line which could be seen, for instance, in the robes of the Bacchantes on a beautiful little altar which was in Lansdowne House. The figure of Dionysus himself had the right effeminate charm of the dispenser of pleasure. Pentheus was the handsome blusterer that we expect until he is undone by the ‘‘fascination.’’ All the acting was good except at two points. To our mind the ‘‘fascination’’ was taken too abruptly and lost the gradual growth of horror. Secondly, the comic sporting of Cadmus and in a less degree of Tiresias (whose blindness the actor seemed to forget), when they set out for the revels, was out of place. They were following a divine instinct, not a ‘‘lark,’’ and the Cadmus of that scene could never have been the infinitely tender father of the last, when he brings Agave to her senses. The elocution was admirable. The two long narrative speeches were so delivered that every word could be followed and the two actors without any labouring spoke with great feeling. The music was a surprise to many. It was not, as is usual, composed for the play, but entirely adapted from operas of Handel that are known only to musical scholars. The ingenuity expended must have been great, but was not apparent. All the necessary dignity was there. . . .

These plays, carefully mounted and performed at Oxford, Cambridge, Bradfield or elsewhere in England, revived, too, abroad in ancient Sicilian or other theatres, are classics, and a classic work is one upon which time has no effect. The spirit survives through the ages. Even the Roman comedies, Greek at second hand, as played at Westminster, are alive to-day: and great passages can be spoken by Eton boys in knee-breeches and silk stockings without seeming absurd. Pedantry may have a hand in preparation: mere antiquarianism may prevail over art or intelligence on a small point here or there. But the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes are immortal classics. Time after time the man who vaunts himself to be ‘‘practical’’ has come to mock and always he has remained to pray. He has thought that his emotions (if he had any) were proof against the purging by pity and fear as threatened by ‘‘an old tag,’’ until he has suffered the experience and felt a better man therefore. So, too, it seemed a joke to call a classical education ‘‘fortifying.’’ Yet the man who has learnt the lessons of the Bible (we do not speak here of its sacred side as well) and of the Greek tragedians, lessons of beauty, nobility and awe, is fortified for the struggles of life as other men are not All round us we hear complaints of the results of a narrow education that is no education, but a futile specializing aimed at securing quick material returns. The War opened the eyes of many to the effects of that materialism. Since the Peace we have heard of the gradually but steadily growing appreciation of a classical education It holds its own in the Universities and Public Schools and is spreading healthily into the schools provided from our rates and taxes, where scholars have until now had little chance of its blessings. This performance of the Bacchæ last week is not an action isolated from the movement, but it has been a vivid, stimulating and delightful event within that movement.

Source: Anonymous. Review of The Bacchae in the Spectator, Vol. 144, no. 5307, March 15, 1930, pp. 421–22.

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Critical Overview