Dionysus (or Bacchus) is known as the god of wine. In the text Euripides: Ten Plays, Paul Roche explains that this play is on one level about bringing the grape to Greece from the East.
Dionysus, son of Zeus and Semele, is born out of Zeus' thigh after Semele is destroyed by the mating with Zeus. Dionysus exemplifies the more chaotic sense of life--when we are seized with doubt, and our current beliefs are shattered, even from the very depths of our convictions, then we are in a position to apprehend the rapture of Dionysus. The chariot of Dionysus is bedecked with garlands, and panthers stride beneath the yoke. The power of the universe is manifest in his transport, to the glorious satisfaction of the primordial man. Dionysus attends to the supreme significance of musical dissonance which shatters the teeming beliefs of individuals with physical intoxication and narcotic potions, and with the powerful approach of spring which penetrates with joy that whole frame of nature. So stirred an individual forgets himself completely.
Dionysiac Man might be said to resemble Hamlet. The truth once seen, man is aware everywhere of the ghastly absurdity of existence; we comprehend the symbolism in Ophelia's face. Apollo rescues us from a direct identification with the Dionysiac music and allows us a way to understand that which is, in fact, beyond Apollo's realm, per se.
Nietzsche writes, "Whenever the Dionysiac forces become too unruly . . . we are safe in assuming that Apollo is close at hand, though wrapped in a cloud, and that the rich effects of his beauty will be witnessed by a later generation. . . .
For these reasons, however, Dionysus was persecuted by those who refused to recognize his divinity. This is perhaps most visible in Pentheus, King of Thebes. Dionysus has another aspect that undoubtedly frightened Pentheus. The god's worshippers would eat wild animals raw to incorporate the power of the god.
If we push this primordial/ wildness ecstasy, we can see connections to other writers, among them the American writer Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was not satisfied merely to announce his passion for wilderness. He wanted to understand its value. The 1851 talk to the Concord Lyceum offered an opportunity to defend the proposition that "the forest and wilderness" furnish "the tonics and barks which brace mankind." Thoreau grounded his argument on the idea that wildness was the source of vigor, inspiration, and strength. It was, in fact, the essential "raw-material of life.'' Human greatness of any kind depended on tapping this primordial vitality. Thoreau believed that to the extent a culture, or an individual, lost contact with wildness it became weak and dull.
For Roderick Nash's essay on Thoreau click here. The story of Thoreau (as Nash presents it), epitomizes the theme of the Bacchae, almost coming at the resolution from the opposite direction. In the play, King Pentheus believes that law-and-order is paramount, the absolute duty of the state. Thus any freedom of spirit leads to anarchy. In the process of upholding this belief he becomes a fanatic. Dionysus tries to save him by showing him that there are many aspects to living, law-and-order among them.
Thoreau learned a similar lesson in the wilderness in Maine, an experience that sharpened Thoreau's thinking about the savage and civilized conditions of man. The ideal man occupied such a middling position, drawing on both the wild and the refined.
However, it is not so easy to say that Euripides provides an achieved balance; in fact, he discounts the possibilty. This play seems to underscore the crucial problems facing humans: Ignoramus et ignorabimus, a slogan proclaiming the impossibility of certain knowledge: "We do not know and we will not know." This is the wilderness outpost of Dionysus, a place where the mystery of Dionysus, by Euripides' design, may be beyond human schemes and formulas of order and justice, carried out only in the expectation of fulfillment. The values and meanings lose all substance. Whether this is the destiny of humans or not, it is no less vague and obscure for the chorus points out in the last stanza of the play: "that which was expected is not brought to pass."
Dionysus aims his opening monologue directly to the audience, telling us his heritage, expressing his sentiments for his mother Semele, blasted in a bolt of light. It seems Hera has sent a ruinous present to Semele.
What is the purpose of the prologue?
Dionysus underscores King Pentheus' loathing of the deity. Therefore Dionysus has entered the city of Thebes in disguise much like Odysseus enters his home in disguise years after the Trojan War.
Dionysus travels with his Maenads, mad women under the intoxicating influence of the god.
The opening choral song; the Chorus praises Dionysus. True to the convention of the parados, we get the story of the past including Dionysus' birth. A "dance" is coming. It implies celebration and more, perhaps to "rave with Bacchus." In one sense, anarchy is inevitable.
First Episode: enter Tiresias
Tiresias is in Thebes to see Cadmus, the founder of the city. They are two old men lamenting the loss of their youth: yet they are discussing a kind of rejuvenation made feasible by participating in the mountain dance of Bacchus.
Pentheus shows up straight away from abroad to deal with rumors of women leaving their homes--in ecstasy--gadding to the mountains to dance in honor of the new god Dionysus. The sexual conduct of the women is suspect and Pentheus plans to put an end to the celebration and pending anarchy, as he sees it. A relationship between nature and certain aspects of human behavior is implied. Explain.
The visitor from Lydia--What does Pentheus plan for him?
Pentheus sees Tiersias and his grandfather Cadmus. He asks the old men to discard the Thyrsus, a wand carried by worshippers of Dionysus. It has a pine cone on top.
What does Tiresias tell Pentheus? Explain the meaning of his words.
So, listen to me, Pentheus:
do not imagine men are molded by sheer force,
or mistake your sick conceits for insights.
It's not for Dionysus to make women modest.
Fullproof chastity depends on character,
and in the Corybantic celebrations
no decent woman is seduced.
We may take issue with Tiresias here. Or we may not. In your opinion does Tiresias accurately describe human behavior?
Of course Pentheus will rage against the seer and anything having to do with the bacchanals and thus we have the dramatic tension of the play simplified in one sense, established early on as the will of power against the spirit of freedom. However this is an oversimplification for law-and-order are necessary in a civilized society. The drama gets at the reasons power becomes corrupt.
What orders does Pentheus give almost immediately.
Cadmus and Tiersias leave to go speak with the god and ask him to be merciful with Thebes and the boorish King, Pentheus. Tiresias says to Cadmus that Dionysus must be served. What reason does he give?
The opening song is to Holiness, a poetic personification. What does the chorus ask of Holiness? The song exalts joy over sorrow as Pentheus listens. The name Pentheus comes from penthos, meaning grief or sorrow.
What is the meaning of wisdom according to the Chorus?
Second Episode: soldiers enter with Dionysus disguised as a priest.
How does he behave? What miracle has occurred?
Pentheus walks around the captive Dionysus commenting on the god's physical features. What unmasculine features does Pentheus describe?
Pentheus interrogates the god--Dionysus' responses are witty and appear evasive to Pentheus, an acrobat with words. Pentheus does not know or see that the priest is indeed Dionysus himself, even though Dionysus basically tells him that he is the god.
What does Pentheus say about foreigners?
What does this episode reveal about Pentheus' character?
The Chorus is hostile because of the arrest of Dionysus. Pentheus is vilified basically in the song. He is called a butchering earth-born giant, a freak and a monster.
The scene turns chaotic as lightning strikes and the soldiers are scattered. Dionysus is speaking to the women in a mysterious over-voice. An earthquake> Dionysus obviously has power to destroy and he unleashes his destructive power against the palace. His female follows fall to the ground in fear. Dionysus seems to have the talents of magic. The proliferation of miracles strengthens the faith in Dionysus while increasing resistance from Pentheus.
Dionysus has made Pentheus look foolish. What has Dionysus proved by this humiliation?
Pentheus enters in a rage.
Pentheus is amazed that Dionysus has shed his chains and now stands in front of him.
A herdsman enters as messenger from the mountains. He tells of women raving. But first, before he will report he needs assurances that Pentheus will hold his temper.
The speech about the Maenads in the woods reveals two different aspects of Dionysian experience. The scene described by the herdsman is horrific and destructive. And yet the women also share a kindred connection to wild creatures and nature as the land of milk and honey.
When the men decide to capture Agave, Pentheus' mother, what happens? Does the messenger's story confirm Pentheus' fears of the unrestrained libido of women?
Pentheus prepares for war against the women, taking Bronze weapons against the Thyrsus. Dionysus asks him to wait and offers to show Pentheus the mountain seances as a form of reconnoiter before going to bloody war against the Bacchanals. Pentheus is curiously interested in this idea. Is it a temptation? Dionysus says that the King must go dressed as a woman. How is this significant?
They prepare to depart. Dionysus is merciless it seems, planning the worst for Pentheus--humiliation and then death.
We open with an extended simile of the fawn. What comment does the song make on the relationship between humans and Nature? Between Pentheus and Dionysus?
It seems that Pentheus is transformed by the clothing in say the same way Achilles' armor transforms Patroclus. Yet Pentheus is non-heroic as his transformation is based on ridicule and the idiotic, yet he is more sinister than an idiot.
The image of the bull.
Pentheus behaves differently that is certain. What is different about him compared with earlier in the drama?
Hurry you hounds of hell to the mountains where
the daughters of Cadmus hold their wild seance.
Worry them into a frantic trance
Against the man disguised in the dress of a woman:
A roaring one who comes to spy on the Maenads.
Pentheus is in dire straights here. He is called the ruthless and lawless man. Do you have any empathy for Pentheus? The imagery suggests that Pentheus is snared in a net. Is it a net of his own making? Is this justice as the Chorus suggests?
What virtue does the Chorus stress?
The messenger tells the leader back in the city that Pentheus is no more. What is the leader's attitude?
The scene of Pentheus in the tree is interesting. He is conspicuous. His mother--Agave--fulfills her son's deepest fears; her possession by the god proves fatal to Pentheus and she rips his arm from his shoulder with the strength given by Bacchus. And then the whole rabid pack is on him; his body lies in pieces.
Except for his head. Where is his head?
What is the point of this song? And Lyric dialogue? does Agave realize the head is the head of her son?
This is a recognition scene where Agave comes to her senses. Cadmus calls the deed murder. Agave realization that she is carrying Pentheus' severed head is a powerful recognition scene. With her sanity returning, what does she say about Bacchus?
Cadmus says that Dionysus has brought down the house--no heirs survive. In what ways do Pentheus and Dionysus change places--reversal--in the play?
The triumphant Dionysus is incapable of pity. Why? Does Dionysus revenge against pentheus seem entirely justified?
What punishment does Dionysus give to Cadmus? Why is Cadmus punished?
Agave observes that gods should be ethically superior to humans. Does this apply to Dionysian passions? Why not?
How are the closing lines applicable to the play? What emotional effect do you think the play produced in the audience?