The Bacchantes by Euripides
Background: Euripides (c. 485-c. 406 BC) was the third of the great Athenian playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles), who apparently was not very popular in his own day, evident from the merciless satire in Aristophanes. He is accused of being a misogynist; yet his characterizations of women offer shrewd psychological insights, usually surpassing his male characters. In some respects, he was ahead of his time, challenging some of the old beliefs on religion, morality, and war.
Background information on major characters:
Dionysus — God of vegetation, wine, and religious ecstasy. Hardly mentioned in Homer. Worshipped by women with rites of an orgiastic nature, which included tearing an animal to pieces. His other names include Bacchus, Zagreus, Bromius, and Iacchus. His festival, the Dionysia, was the scene of the dramatic presentations at Athens. His devotees, the Maenads, were commonly clad in fawn-skins and carried the sacred wand or thyrsus. His worship is believed to have come from Phrygia.
Cadmus — The mythological founder of Thebes. He killed a dragon and sowed its teeth behind him. These turned into armed warriors whom he then set to fighting against each other. The five survivors were the ancestors of the Theban nobility. His children were Ino, Semele, Autonoe, and Agave.
Pentheus — The grandson of Cadmus and son of Agave. Because he denied Dionysus, the god caused him to be torn to pieces by his own mother.
Agave — (also Agaue) Mother of Pentheus. In a Bacchanalian frenzy, she tears her son to pieces, believing him to be a lion.
Teiresias — (also Tiresias) The famous blind Theban soothsayer. Many traditions account for his condition: e.g., Zeus and Hera asked him which sex enjoyed love more; he answered the female; whereupon Hera blinded him and Zeus gave him the gift of prophecy as compensation.
Bacchantes — the female worshippers of Dionysus; in the play the chorus represents the rapturous aspects of the dionysiac religion.
Read the play with an eye toward being able to provide an outline of the “action” that takes place within it. Try to mark what you consider crucial “turning points” or “pivotal events” that lead toward the conclusion.
How would you characterize Pentheus? Does he appear to you to be a “normal” person? How do you understand the way in which Dionysus is able to manipulate him? Can you imagine any set of circumstances within which a young man today would do something like what Pentheus did? Why or why not?
Notice how Teiresias and the chorus provide clues concerning the meaning or direction of events in the story. Why is Teiresias able to perform such a role? Can you identify who or what the chorus might represent?
What do you make of the scene (described later by a messenger) where Pentheus sees the rites of the Bacchae and the events that transpire?
How does Agave discover what she had done to her son? Why does it take her so long to perceive what she did? What is her reaction?
Why is this ancient play included in this section? What does it have to do with the “joy of discovery”? Explain.