The setting of the Bacchae,
as in the case of most Greek tragedies, does not require a change
of scene. Throughout the play the skene with at least
one door represents the facade of the royal palace of Thebes.
Even when the poet shifts the audience's attention from the
palace to events in the woods, there is no shift of scene.
These events are described in two speeches delivered by messengers
and one by an attendant rather than enacted before the audience
(434-450;677-774; 1043-1152).1 Even when action takes
place inside the palace, as in the case of Dionysus'
humiliation of Pentheus
(610-641), there is no shift of scene, but the god himself narrates
this interior action to the Chorus. The Messenger speech
eliminates the need for scene changes, which, due to the limited
resources of the ancient theater, would have been difficult and
awkward. In addition, these four speeches describe actions
which could not be effectively portrayed on-stage. Euripides,
however, like Aeschylus
made a virtue of the necessity of this convention of the ancient
theater by writing elaborate Messenger speeches which provide
a vivid word picture of the offstage action.
refer to lines in the Bacchae.
At the beginning of the third
episode (576 ff.), Dionysus's words indicate the occurrence of
various physical manifestations of his power: earthquake and
partial collapse of the palace, lightning and a burst of flame
grave. It is difficult to say whether there was any attempt,
or whether it was even possible, to present these events realistically.
Perhaps offstage noises could have been used to represent
the earthquake, but it is likely that the audience for the most
part was expected to use its imagination.
Dionysus in his last appearance
in the play (1330 ff.) is a deus ex machina 'god from
the machine', although, due to the lack of stage directions in
the Greek text, we cannot be certain that he arrived by means
of the mechane.
The divinity who appears at the end of a tragedy to provide
a solution for the plot or to prophecy what will happen to the
characters is conventionally called a deus ex machina.
Dionysus and Dionysiac Ritual
The parados is in essence
a hymn sung by the Chorus2 to Dionysus, which reveals
various aspects of his divine personality and his ritual.
Dionysus, especially under the Lydian name of Bacchus, became
known as primarily a god of wine in later tradition, but in the
fifth century B.C. this was only one of his functions.
He is a god of nature in all its vegetable and animal abundance.
Dionysus is associated with ivy (106) and also with the oak
and fir tree (110). One of his animal manifestations is
that of a bull (619;920) and Bromios 'roaring', a cult
title used frequently in the Bacchae, may refer to his
association with the bull and also the lion, although some connect
this title with his lightning-struck mother.3 Snakes,
which were entwined in the hair of Dionysus's maenads
(104), are another example of his connection with the animal
world as is his own and his maenads' attire made of fawnskin
(136). The maenads' involvement with nature was also symbolized
by a cane of fennel (a plant with a firm stalk) called a thyrsos,
which they carried.
consists of female worshipers of Dionysus called Bacchae, whose
name is derived from Bacchus, the Lydian name of the god.
Female devotees of the god are often referred to as maenads
(from the Greek verb mainesthai 'to be mad') and also
3In the Bacchae there are references to the
story of Semele's death by Zeus's
lightning, his rescue of the baby Dionysus from his mother's
womb, and the sewing of the baby into his own thigh in place
of a womb to conceal Dionysus from Hera
The primary rite of Dionysiac
religion4 is that of ecstatic mountain dancing.
The culmination of this rite was an ecstatic frenzy in which
the dancers tore apart and devoured raw an animal such as a goat
or a fawn (136-137). These two acts are called sparagmos
'tearing' and omophagia 'act of eating raw flesh'.
The rite of omophagia was seen as a communion with
the god in that the worshiper consumed a part of raw nature which
was identified with Dionysus himself. The primitive rites
of sparagmos and omophagia were still practiced
in various areas in the fifth century and even down into Roman
times, but at Athens Dionysus was a much tamer god. His
worship was there channeled into more civilized forms, such as
the Anthesteria, a spring wine festival, and, of course,
Dionysia. The Athenians seem to have concentrated
on the pleasanter and more civilized aspects of Dionysus as a
god of wine and of dramatic performances.
worship was one of the mystery cults which flourished in ancient
Greece alongside state religion. The word "mystery"
refers to the fact that these cults required that their rites
be kept secret from outsiders (see 1108-1109). The Greeks
called the rites of mystery cults orgia 'orgies', but
this word did not have the connotation of sexual license which
the word carries today. There were some, however, like
Pentheus, who suspected that the ecstatic Dionysiac rites led
to sexual immorality.
In the Bacchae Dionysiac
ritual is consistently connected with joy and freedom. The
Chorus sings of the happiness of Dionysiac worship on the mountainside
(64-82). The celebration of the freedom from all the constraints
of civilization is summed up in the Chorus's wild Dionysiac cry
"Evohe" and also represented in the simile at the end
of the parados which compares the dancing of a maenad
to the leaping of a colt (166-167).
One more aspect of Dionysus
should be discussed here. He is a also a god of illusion.
He demonstrates vividly his powers of illusion in the Bacchae.
He deludes Pentheus by making the king, 1) see him
as a bull, 2) think that the palace was in flames, and
3) think that a phantom Dionysus he was trying to stab
was the god himself (616-632). The god's ability to create
illusions is one of Dionysus's traditional powers in myth and
helps explain his connection with tragedy and comedy. Drama
is based on illusion: dramatic action and characters are artificial
creations of the dramatist presented in order to give the illusion
of reality. Thus, it is appropriate that the god of illusion
presided over the City Dionysia, Athens' dramatic festival.5
of Dionysus owes much to E.R. Dodds' edition of the play
EXERCISE FOR READING COMPREHENSION
Prologue (1-63) - Dionysus
The play begins with
a prologue consisting of Dionysus's monologue addressed directly
to the audience. What is the dramatic purpose of this
prologue? Where was Dionysus born (2)? From what part of the
world has he come to Thebes (13-14)? What is his purpose in coming
back to Thebes (25-26)? What grudge does Dionysus hold against
his aunts and the city of Thebes itself (27-31; 39-42)? How has
Pentheus offended Dionysus (44-48)? What will Dionysus do after
he leaves Thebes (48-50)? How will Dionysus appear in the play
(54)? What is the main theme of the Bacchae as indicated
by the prologue?
Next the Chorus enters
and the parados begins. Who make up the Chorus
of the Bacchae? What relationship does it have with Dionysus?
From what geographical area does the Chorus come (64)? What is
its attitude toward Dionysus (66-70)? What aspect of Dionysiac
ritual does the Chorus emphasize throughout the parados
First Episode (170-369) -
Teiresias, Cadmus, Pentheus and Chorus
The first episode introduces
us to Teiresias,
and Pentheus. How are Teiresias and Cadmus dressed (176-177)?
Why are they dressed this way? What reasons do these two give
for accepting the worship of Dionysus (181-183;200-204)? What
is unusual about Teiresias and Cadmus behaving as they do (184-188)?
What is Pentheus's general attitude toward the worship of Dionysus
(215-248)? What does he suspect about Dionysiac rites (221-225)?
What imagery does Pentheus use when he announces his intention
to capture the worshipers of Dionysus in the mountains (227-232)?
What relationship between man and nature does this imagery imply?
What does Pentheus intend to do about he stranger from Lydia
What is Pentheus's reaction
to Teiresias and Cadmus in Dionysiac dress (249-254)? What criticism
does Teiresias make of Pentheus (266-271)? What explanation does
Teiresias give of the nature of Demeter and Dionysus and of the
myth about Dionysus being sewn into the thigh of Zeus (275-297)?
In your opinion, does Teiresias's theorizing present an adequate
representation of Dionysus? Explain your answer. What
warning does Teiresias give to Pentheus (310-312)?
What reason does Cadmus give
for accepting Dionysus as a god (333-336)? Do you find this a
proper reason for accepting Dionysus as a god? Explain your answer.
What does the fate of Actaeon (337-340) foreshadow with regard
to the manner of Pentheus's death?
First Stasimon (370-433)
The first stasimon begins
with an appeal to `Holiness.6 What warning and recommendation
does the Chorus make (387-401)? To whom do these words apply?
Explain your answer. What is the Chorus's view of wisdom
in this same stanza?
a poetic personification.
Second Episode (434-519)
- Attendant, Pentheus and Dionysus
According to the Attendant
how did Dionysus behave when captured (436-440)? What miracle
does he describe (447-450)? What imagery does he use to describe
the arrest of Dionysus (435-436)? What unmasculine characteristics
does Pentheus find in Dionysus (455-457)? What attitude does
Pentheus express with regard to the acceptance of Dionysiac worship
among non-Greeks (483)? Explain the dramatic irony in 493-505).
What flaw in Pentheus's character is especially evident throughout
Second Stasimon (520-575)
In the first stanza
(520-536) of the this stasimon the Chorus expresses its alarm
at Pentheus's blasphemous rejection and arrest of the god.
It asks Dirce, the name of a famous Theban spring (here used
symbolically for Thebes itself), why Dionysus and his worshipers
have been rejected. Note that the Chorus uses the first
person singular pronoun of itself as choruses often do, referring
to themselves as a collective "I". In the following
stanza Pentheus is called a wild beast by the hostile Chorus
(543). How is this another foreshadowing of Pentheus's
Third Episode (576-861) -
Dionysus, Chorus, Pentheus and Messenger
What evidence of Dionysus's
power is manifested at the beginning of the this episode (576-603)?
How does Dionysus humiliate Pentheus inside the palace (616-641)?
What does Dionysus prove by this humiliation?
The description of the Theban
maenads in the woods presented in the Messenger's speech (677-774)
reveals two very different aspects of the Dionysiac experience.
Explain briefly what these two aspects are. In your
opinion why are the Theban maenads, once aroused, so violent
and destructive in their behavior? Is this normal Dionysiac behavior?
How does the view of the Dionysiac experience presented by the
Chorus in the parados and the first stasimon compare with
the violent behavior of the Theban maenads? Does the Messenger's
report support Pentheus's suspicions of promiscuity and drunkenness
in Dionysiac rites (686-688)?
How does Dionysus tempt Pentheus
to go to the woods (811-820)? What is the significance of Pentheus's
dressing as a female worshiper of Dionysus (821-846)?
Third Stasimon (862-911)
The third stasimon begins
with an almost Homeric extended simile of the fawn (866-876).
What comment does this simile make on the relationship between
man and nature? between Pentheus and Dionysus?
What is the Chorus's final definition
of wisdom (877-881)? Has its definition of wisdom changed at
all since the beginning of the play (386-401)? What does the
image which depicts the gods as hunters of the unholy (890) foreshadow?
Fourth Episode (912-976)
- Dionysus and Pentheus
In the fourth episode
what effect does Dionysiac possession have on Pentheus (918-922)?
What does Dionysus's appearance to Pentheus as a bull tell us
about his nature as a god? What is different about Pentheus's
behavior in this scene as compared with earlier in the play?
What is the irony in Dionysus's words in 963-966?
Fourth Stasimon (977-1023)
The fourth stasimon
moves in its themes from the specific to the general. Try
to identify the important themes of this ode. To whom
does the Chorus refer in the first stanza (977-990)? What is
the relationship between man and the gods depicted in this ode
(1000-1010)? What virtue does the Chorus stress (1004-1010)?
How does it define this virtue? What is the Chorus's view of
Justice in the refrain (991-995 and 1011-1015)? How do the important
themes of this ode connect with the action of the play?
Fifth Episode (1024-1152)
- Messenger and Chorus
What is the attitude
of the Messenger toward the events on Mt. Cithaeron and
the words of the Coryphaeus (1024-1040)? Compare the behavior
of the Theban maenads as described in the Messenger speech (1043
ff.) with that related in the earlier Messenger speech (677).
What are the specific similarities? What imagery is both
implicit and explicit in reference to Pentheus, his position
in the tree and the attack by Theban maenads (1095-1113)? What
is ironical about this imagery?
What attitude does Pentheus
express toward his behavior earlier in the play as he is about
to be attacked by his mother (1118-1121)? In keeping with dominant
imagery of the play, under what delusion does Agave
labor at this point(1140-1147) and in the following scene, in
which she appears in person (1168 ff.)? What virtue does the
Messenger stress at the end of his speech (1150-1152)?
In the fifth episode (1022-1152),
both Pentheus and Agave suffer horrible discoveries and sudden
peripeties.7 What discoveries do they make and what
peripeties do they suffer?
and peripety (reversal of fortune) are terms of literary criticism
derived from Aristotle's
analysis of tragedy in his Poetics.
Fifth Stasimon (1153-1164)
What is the main theme
of this brief choral song? What emotional effect do you think
that it was designed to produce on the audience?
Exodos (1165 to end) - Agave,
Chorus, Cadmus, and Dionysus
Explain the dramatic
irony of the exodos. How does Cadmus bring Agave to her
senses (1264 ff.)? Is Dionysus's revenge against Pentheus and
Agave seen in the exodos as entirely justified? What is
Agave's view in this regard (1301)? Cadmus's view (1249-1250;1302-1308;1346-1348)?
What punishments are imposed by Dionysus on Cadmus and his wife
(1330-1339)? In your opinion, why is Cadmus punished? What feelings
does Euripides want to arouse in the audience by ending the play
as he does? How do the closing lines of the play chanted by the
Chorus (1388-1392) apply to the action of the Bacchae?