The Bacchae

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The Bacchae
Death Pentheus Louvre G445.jpg
Pentheus being torn apart by Agave and Ino, Attic red-figure vase.
Written by Euripides
Chorus Bacchae, female followers of Dionysus
Characters Dionysus
Second Messenger
Date premiered 405 BC
Place premiered Athens
Original language Ancient Greek
Genre Tragedy
Setting Thebes

The Bacchae (Ancient Greek: Βάκχαι, Bakchai; also known as The Bacchantes) is an ancient Greek tragedy by the Athenian playwright Euripides, during his final years in Macedonia, at the court of Archelaus I of Macedon. It premièred posthumously at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 BC as part of a tetralogy that also included Iphigeneia at Aulis and Alcmaeon in Corinth, and which Euripides' son or nephew probably directed.[1] It won first prize in the City Dionysia festival competition.

The tragedy is based on the mythological story of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave, and their punishment by the god Dionysus (who is Pentheus' cousin) because he refuses to worship him.


The Dionysus in Euripides' tale is a young god, angry that his mortal family, the royal house of Cadmus, has denied him a place of honor as a deity. His mortal mother, Semele, was a mistress of Zeus, and while pregnant she was killed, through trickery, by Hera, jealous of her husband's affair. When she died, her sisters said it was the will of Zeus that she should die, accusing her of lying about her son's paternity and accusing their father Cadmus of using Zeus as a cover up. Most of Semele's family, including her sisters Ino, Autonoe, and Agave, refuse to believe that Dionysus is the son of Zeus, and the young god is spurned in his home. He has traveled throughout Asia and other foreign lands, gathering a cult of female worshipers (Bacchantes), and at the start of the play has returned to take revenge on the house of Cadmus, disguised as a stranger. He has driven the women of Thebes, including his aunts, into an ecstatic frenzy, sending them dancing and hunting on Mount Kithaeron, much to the horror of their families. Complicating matters, his cousin, the young king Pentheus, has declared a ban on the worship of Dionysus throughout Thebes.


Dionysus first comes on stage to tell the audience who he is and why he decided to come to Thebes. He explains the story of his birth, how his mother Semele had enamoured the god Zeus, who had come down from Mount Olympus to lie with her. She becomes pregnant with a divine son; however none of her family believe her, thinking the illicit pregnancy of the more usual sort. Hera, angry at her husband Zeus' betrayal, disguises herself as an old nurse and convinces Semele to ask Zeus to appear to her in his true form. Zeus appears to Semele as a lightning bolt and kills her instantly. At the moment of her death however, Hermes swoops down and saves the unborn Dionysus. To hide the baby from Hera, Zeus has the fetus sewn up in his thigh until the baby is ready to be born. However, Semele's family—her sisters Agave, Autonoe, and Ino, and her father, Cadmus—still believe that Semele blasphemously lied about the identity of the baby's father and that she died as a result. Dionysus comes to Thebes to vindicate his mother Semele and establish his cult.

The old men Cadmus and Tiresias, though not under the same spell as the Theban women (who include Cadmus' daughters Ino, Autonoe and Agave, Pentheus' mother), have become enamored of the Bacchic rituals and are about to go out celebrating when Pentheus returns to the city and finds them dressed in festive garb. He scolds them harshly and orders his soldiers to arrest anyone else engaging in Dionysian worship.

The guards return with Dionysus himself, disguised as his priest and the leader of the Asian maenads. Pentheus questions him, still not believing that Dionysus is a god. However, his questions reveal that he is deeply interested in the Dionysiac rites, which the stranger refuses to reveal fully to him. This greatly angers Pentheus, who has Dionysus locked up. However, being a god, he is quickly able to break free and creates more havoc, razing the palace of Pentheus to the ground in a giant earthquake and fire. Word arrives via a herdsman that the Bacchae on Cithaeron are behaving especially strangely and performing incredible feats, putting snakes in their hair in reverie of their god, suckling wild wolves and gazelle, and making wine, milk, honey and water spring up from the ground. He tells that when they tried to capture the women, the women descended on a herd of cows, ripping them to shreds with their bare hands. Those guards who attacked the women were unable to harm them with their weapons, while the women could defeat them with only sticks. Dionysus wishes to punish Pentheus for not worshipping him or paying him libations. He uses Pentheus' clear desire to see the ecstatic women to convince the king to dress as a female Maenad to avoid detection and go to the rites:

Stranger: Ah! Would you like to see them in their gatherings upon the mountain?
Pentheus: Very much. Ay, and pay uncounted gold for the pleasure.
Stranger: Why have you conceived so strong a desire?
Pentheus: Though it would pain me to see them drunk with wine-
Stranger: Yet you would like to see them, pain and all.[2]

Dionysus dresses Pentheus as a woman and gives him a thyrsus and fawn skins, then leads him out of the house. A mist engulfs the king and Pentheus sees horns coming out of the god's head (Dionysus often took the form of a bull) as Dionysus leads him to the women.

A messenger arrives at the palace to report that once they reached Cithaeron, Pentheus wanted to climb up an evergreen tree to get a better view of the Bacchants. The blond stranger used his divine power to bend the tall tree and place the king at its highest branches. However, once he was safely at the top, Dionysus called out to his followers and showed the man sitting atop the tree. This, of course, drove the Bacchants wild, and they tore the trapped Pentheus down and ripped his body apart piece by piece, Pentheus' own mother ripping off his head.

After the messenger has relayed this news, Pentheus' mother, Agave, arrives carrying the head of her son. In her possessed state she believed it was the head of a mountain lion. She proudly displays her son's head to her father, believing it to be a hunting trophy. She is confused when Cadmus does not delight in her trophy, his face contorting in horror. Agave begins calling out for her son, wanting him to come marvel at her feat and nail her prize above her door so she could show all of Thebes. By that time, however, Dionysus' possession is beginning to wear off, and as Cadmus reels from the horror of his grandson's death, Agave slowly realizes what she has done. The family is destroyed, with Agave and her sisters sent into exile. Cadmus and his wife Harmonia were actually honored by Dionysus when he turns them into snakes. Tiresias, the old, blind Theban prophet, is the only one not to suffer.

Modern interpretations[edit]

Dramatic versions[edit]

  • Joe Orton's play The Erpingham Camp (television broadcast 27 June 1966; opened at the Royal Court Theatre on 6 June 1967) relocates The Bacchae to a British Butlin's-style holiday camp. An author's note at the beginning of the text of the play states: "No attempt must be made to reproduce the various locales in a naturalistic manner. A small, permanent set of Erpingham's office is set on a high level. The rest of the stage is an unlocalised area. Changes of scene are suggested by lighting and banners after the manner of the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions of Shakespeare's histories."[3]
  • Wole Soyinka adapted the play as The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite with the British Royal National Theatre in London in 1973, incorporating a second chorus of slaves to mirror the civil unrest in his native Nigeria.[5]
  • Famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman directed the Bacchae three times: as an opera (1991) for the Royal Swedish Opera, as a TV-film (1993) for Sveriges Television and as a staged play (1996) for the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. These three versions received great acclaim amidst some mixed reviews.[6]
Ramona Reeves and Lynn Odell (as Agave) in director Brad Mays' stage production of Euripides' The Bacchae, 1997, Los Angeles.
  • Luigi Lo Cascio's multimedia adaptation La Caccia (The Hunt) won the Biglietto d' Oro del Teatro prize in 2008. The free adaptation combines live theater with animations by Nicola Console and Desideria Rayner's video projections. A revised 2009 version is currently on tour and features original music by Andrea Rocca.
  • In 2010 The Bacchae was performed at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. The play was performed from 10 November until 4 December. This performance of The Bacchae was a different version by Mike Poulton.
  • In March 2011 a liberal adaption of The Bacchae, written by Aaron Caleb, was performed by Trinity Western University's School of the Arts, Media and Culture.[15]
  • in 2013, the play was reinterpreted in a one-man musical show "The God That Comes" featuring Canadian Musician Hawksley Workman and also freely adapted by Che Walker as The Lightning Child, a play with songs by Arthur Darvill.

Operatic versions[edit]

  • Giorgio Federico Ghedini composed an opera in Italian based on The Bacchae and called Le Baccanti. The libretto was by playwright and screenwriter Tullio Pinelli. The opera was composed in 1941–1944 and first performed at La Scala opera house in Milan on February 22, 1948. It was revived in Milan in 1972.[16]
  • John Buller composed an opera Bakxai (The Bacchae) which was produced at the English National Opera in London in 1992.[17]

Musical versions[edit]

In Summer 2009, the Public Theater (of New York City) produced a version of The Bacchae' with music by Philip Glass.

  • Gustav Holst's "Hymn to Dionysus" (Op. 31, No.2) is a setting for female voices and orchestra of the parodos from The Bacchae in the translation by Gilbert Murray. It was composed in 1913 and premiered in 1914.[18]

Significant quotations[edit]

Dionysus: "It's a wise man's part to practise a smooth-tempered self-control."
Dionysus: "Your [Pentheus'] name points to calamity. It fits you well." (The name "Pentheus" derives from πένθος, pénthos, grief)
Messenger: "Dionysus' powers are manifold; he gave to men the vine to cure their sorrows."
Dionysus: "Can you, a mortal, measure your strength against a god?"

Religious significance[edit]

Plays such as The Bacchae existed primarily for the purpose of religious practice and worship. Religion was connected closely with everyday life, and cities and local communities would come together to celebrate the worship of different deities.[19] Through plays, gods such as Dionysus could be celebrated. The Bacchae re-enacts how Dionysus had come to be a god and in ancient Greek theatre, "role-playing is a well-known feature of ritual liminality." [20] The Bacchae is a tribute to Dionysus and it is written in a way that favours him. It is a common understanding that worship is the play's main function. Deities were found in every locality of everyday life.[21] The play also highlights what Dionysus represents; he is the god of wine, and creative nature.[22] With this in mind, the play incorporates these aspects to depict how Dionysus is present in ancient Greek life. As an actor, religious worship is a direct experience. The actor would have experienced a "stepping out" of himself to become a representation of Dionysus. As a spectator, the experience comes from what is acted onstage, arousing emotions that sympathize with Dionysus. Collectively, through Dionysiac acting, there is a reintegration of the "other" into the "self," that is to say that Dionysus has been accepted and will be worshipped by the Greek people.[20]

Dramatic structure[edit]

In a play that follows a climactic plot construction, Dionysus the Protagonist, instigates the unfolding action by simultaneously emulating the play's author, costume designer, choreographer and artistic director.[23] Helen P. Foley wrote of the links between the importance of Dionysus as the central character and his effect on the play's structure, she writes: "the poet uses the ritual crisis to explore simultaneously god, man, society, and his own tragic art. In this protodrama Dionysus, the god of the theatre, stage-directs the play."[24]

At the start of the play, Dionysus gives us the exposition and from which we can highlight the play's central conflict; the invasion of Greece by an Asian religion.[25]

Critical review[edit]

Up until the late 19th century, the play's themes were considered far too gruesome to be studied and appreciated. It was Nietzsche's "Birth of Tragedy" in 1872 that re-posed the question of Dionysus's relation with the theatre that elevated interest in The Bacchae. In the 20th century, performances of The Bacchae had become quite fashionable, particularly so in the opera due to the dramatic choruses found throughout the story.[26] R.P Winnington-Ingram's review in 1948 praises the work of Euripides, he writes: "On its poetical and dramatic beauties he writes with charm and insight; on more complex themes he shows equal mastery."[27]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rehm (1992, 23).
  2. ^ Euripides. Ten Plays by Euripides. Trans. Moses Hadas and John Mclean. New York: Bantam Books, 1981, p.299
  3. ^ Orton, Joe. 1976. The Complete Plays. London: Methuen. p.278. ISBN 0-413-34610-2.
  4. ^ Dionysus in 69 at the Internet Movie Database
  5. ^ "Performing the Bacchae", The Open University.
  6. ^ See: Rolandsson, Ottiliana, Pure Artistry: Ingmar Bergman, the Face as Portal and the Performance of the Soul, PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2010; especially Chapter 4: "The Embodiment of Ritual and Myth as Text and as Performance."
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ The Bacchae 2.1 on the web.
  13. ^ "A Greek God and His Groupies are Dressed to Kill", New York Times theater review by Charles Isherwood, July 5, 2008
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Pop icons and techno-fads invade", Langley Advance by Roxanne Hooper, March 18, 2011
  16. ^ Waterhouse, John C.G. "Baccanti, Le". Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved February 28, 2011. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ Taylor, Kenric. "Compositions: The Music of Gustav Holst". The Gustav Holst Website. Kenric Taylor. Retrieved March 1, 2011. 
  19. ^ "Religion." Oxford University Press, 2011. Web. 25 October 2011. <
  20. ^ a b Lada-Richards, Ismene. Initiating Dionysus: Ritual and Theatre in Aristophanes' Frogs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 159-164. Print.
  21. ^ "Religion." Oxford University Press, 2011. Web. 25 October 2011. <
  22. ^ Henrichs, Albert. Dionysus. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford University Press, 1998. Web. 25 October 2011. <
  23. ^ Teevan (2001, 4)
  24. ^ Scully (1987, 321)
  25. ^ Johnston (2001)
  26. ^ Morwood (2008, x-xi)
  27. ^ Norwood (1949, 317)
  28. ^ Bryn Mawr Classical Review