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Bacchae

Production

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 and Sophocles, 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.

1The numbers refer to lines in the Bacchae.

To learn more about ancient Greek Theater, see the Greek Theater Knowledge Builder.

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 from Semele's 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.

2The Chorus 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 as bacchant[e]s.
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 (88-99;242-246).

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, the City 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.

4Dionysiac 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

5This discussion of Dionysus owes much to E.R. Dodds' edition of the play (Oxford, 1960).

EXERCISE FOR READING COMPREHENSION AND INTERPRETATION

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?

Parados (64-167)
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 (76-77;111;132)?

First Episode (170-369) - Teiresias, Cadmus, Pentheus and Chorus
The first episode introduces us to Teiresias, Cadmus 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 (239-248)?

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?

6This is 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 this scene?

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 fate?

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?

7 Discovery 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?

Table of Contents > Next Section: Aristotle's Poetics

 

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Bacchae, Loeb translation

Bacchae translation

Global Glossary Terms
- Dionysus
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Pentheus
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Semele
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Euripides
- maenads
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thyrsos

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