Plot : The lately come God Dionysus (Bacchus), the bull-horned “spirit of revel and rapture” is angered with the people of Thebes, particularly the young King Pentheus who refuses to acknowledge or worship him, and his mother Agave and her sisters who slandered their own sister Semele and refused to believe her son Dionysus was the son of Zeus.
Dionysus drives all the Theban women mad and they run off to the mountain wilderness to dance and partake of Bacchic rituals, such as breast feeding wild animals and caressing snakes. Dionysus then appears back in human form in Thebes and first enrages Pentheus to such fits of anger that he loses his sense and is easily led (dressed in women’s clothing) to the mountains where his mother and the other women tear him to pieces with their bare hands, believing him to be a young lion.
Agave and her sisters are now banished from Thebes, along with the old King Cadmus, while Dionysus moves onto another Hellenic city to see how they treat him.
This was the last play in the Penguin classic edition The Bacchae and other plays (ISBN 0140440445) translated by Philip Vellacott.
Firstly I must say how shocked and sickened the violence in this play left me. I had the idea that Bacchic rites were all wine-drinking and amorous frolicking in the woods. Even the gory dismemberment of cattle did not prepare me quite for the horrendous fate in store for Pentheus. He is described as mad by Dionysus and his Chorus of Oriental women, but until he falls under the direct spell of the God, I felt he is understandably angry and disbelieving of this new God, and is too cruelly repaid. His mother Agave is made the scapegoat of Dionysus’ revenge for her part in slandering Semele, but even poor Cadmus who was willing to recognise Dionysus is punished by being turned into a serpent and destined to lead a foreign army against his home city (figuratively a serpent – turning on his homeland – or literally transformed??)
Dionysus’ self proclaimed migration across the Asian regions to reach Thebes and then other parts of Greece personifies how I believe many scholars imagine religions to migrate from country to country.
Euripides himself left war-tired Athens to retire to the mountain region of Macedon in 407 BC, and died the following year, not seeing The Bacchae go forward to win first prize in the Dionysia festival competition of 405 BC. With Sophocles also dying in 406 BC, Greek tragedy, at least that which remains for us to read today, comes to a fairly abrupt halt, and the spotlight will soon move away from the theatre for a while to science, history and philosophy instead. Did the defeat of Athens and the resulting brief rule of the Thirty Tyrants discourage playwrights? Aristophanes has a few comedies left in him yet, but more serious thoughts seem to occupy the next authors.
Personal rating: 5
Next: Iphigenia in Aulis, also by Euripides