The Bacchae

Maddeningly Irreverent

“Dionysus has destroyed us all” (Norton 210). This is a simple and yet key statement made by Agave in The Bacchae. At this point all of the unbelievers of Dionysus realize that their fate is sealed. In fact, in true tragedy fashion, no one is spared death or hardship save the god Dionysus. Euripides final form of tragedy is an attempt to balance between what German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche called “Apollonian and Dionysian” (19) art forms. Euripides fails to reach a complete balance. By the end of the play one may conclude that he either favors Dionysus or wishes to disrespect him. However, there is proof within the play itself that demonstrates how Euripides shows irreverence towards Dionysus and the gods in general. Also, one should note that Nietzsche alleged that “both of these artistic drives are compelled to develop forces in strict proportion to one another” (131).

Nietzsche described art as Apollonian, representing structure and sculpture, and Dionysian, expressed by chaos and music. Through this chaotic culture Euripides paints Dionysus as a selfish and vengeful god and rightfully so. The gods were the embodiment of good and evil and hardly able to realize the difference. Therefore, when Euripides portrays Dionysus in this way he is painting a more realistic view of the gods however, he manages to go too far and paints a picture of a truly mad and barbaric god. This is because he wishes to show his derision for the gods. Literature critic, Golder, describes the actions of the god in the play as a “theater of cruelty” (11). In fact, one can see that Dionysus is seeking more than justice. He is seeking revenge and satisfaction and “does so with a sinister relish that turns savage” (10). He is so concerned with his own satisfaction that the punishment no longer fits the crime. This appears uncharacteristic of a god seeking justice.

Contrary to Golder’s views, the critic Richardson writes “to see the play as an attack on Dionysus…..seems….misguided” (Richardson 125). This view, held by Richardson, is incomplete at best. The fact that the god was preoccupied with his own self-worth and has a sadistic sense of revenge is proof of Euripides’ disrespect for him. However, the critic admits that Pentheus is uncharacteristic of the typical tragedy hero as he “shares some features of the tyrant, but also one who is weak” (123). Richardson believes that the hero of the story is inconsistent and at some point loses control of his actions to Dionysus adding further to Euripides contempt for the gods. This indicates that he wants to make a mockery of the gods by giving them an unworthy opponent.

The first clue that Euripides is, in fact, showing contempt toward Dionysus is that he “dominates the play, playing an active part in the events” (Richardson 121). Generally the gods of tragedies play a small, inactive roll, and is usually lifted up in a godlike position. In the Bacchae, Dionysus is on stage for a great portion of the time. He remains disguised, “a god incognito” (Line 6), even to his followers. Euripides fails to give Dionysus a divine place until the ending scene. Also, the god is called by many names, which further conceals his true identity. Although the god appears powerful, this should not lead the audience to believe that it equates with respect. This causes one to think of the god as more human-like, disrespecting him further. The fact that Euripides fails to give the god a more respected and divine position until the end of the play is proof that he has irreverence for him.

In addition to his divine place, Dionysus is disrespected further by the attempted ridicule of him. Euripides adds to the god’s humiliation when Pentheus cuts off his “girlish curls” and takes his belongings (Line 530). Here Euripides wants to take away the god’s beauty and his thyrsus. This is significant because the thyrsus was carried as an instrument of religious rituals. Taking such a sacred item shows disrespect toward Dionysus. Pentheus gives the order to “chain his hands” (548), yet another humiliating action toward the god. Also, Dionysus is made to look as if he still had weaker, mortal emotions when Cadmus exclaims, “Gods should be exempt from human passions” (1451). An additional note should be taken regarding the chorus. They are on the side of the god throughout the play, however, at the end even they question the god’s motives and choice of punishment saying, “what was most expected has not been accomplished” (1490-1491). These demonstrations of humiliation and ridicule serve as additional proof that Euripides wishes to show his contempt for the gods.

One final display of irreverence Euripides gives is the cruelty with which Dionysus punishes his victims. While Nietzsche felt that there should be a balance between chaotic barbarianism and organized structure saying “Apollo was unable to live without Dionysus,” Euripides fails to provide this harmony (32). In fact, he does the opposite with the level of horror he inflicts on the audience as they are made to watch the ending massacre. However, Euripides’ clear disregard for balance allows Dionysus to run mad with his vengeance. In fact, Pentheus’ death at the hands of his mother is particularly both cruel and barbaric. A messenger witnessing the murder recalls:

but she was foaming at the mouth, and her crazed eyes rolling with

frenzy. She was mad, stark mad, possessed by Bacchus. Ignoring his

cries of pity, she seized his left arm at the wrist; then, planting her foot

upon his chest, she pulled, wrenching away his arm at the shoulder-

not by her own strength, for the god had put inhuman power in her

hands”(Lines 1172-1178).

As can be seen, Dionysus was brutal in his punishment of Pentheus and Agave causing her to exact such a horrible death on her own son. In addition, Euripides has the god banish Agave for the murder in which he caused her to commit, thus punishing her twice; once with the knowledge that she killed her own son in such a manner and then her exile from Thebes. Also, on a lesser scale than murder, Dionysus not only exacts revenge but he toys with his victims, manipulating them with his “illusion” of being a “god of joy, conferring bliss upon the chaste and humble” (Golder 11). In this way, Euripides’ disdain for the gods can be seen.

The Bacchae was the last tragedy written by Euripides and is recognized by many as his masterpiece. He was, without question, an innovative and daring playwright. Perhaps he wished, as a final gesture, to reveal his irreverence for the gods. His disrespect for them was “notorious” in previous plays, although not to the extent evident in the Bacchae (Gainer,Garner Jr., Puchner 171). Thoughts of his irreverence become clear when one looks at the evidence in the play itself. The humiliation heaped upon Dionysus, the mortal comparisons, and the barbarianism he displayed all point to one conclusion. Euripides was in complete disdain for the gods and wished to use Dionysus as an example in the Bacchae. This is important because it gives us insight to the author’s thoughts on the eve of his life, when he wrote the Bacchae. We are also forced to look at the play in terms of other interpretations. Perhaps one can come to his own conclusion as to why the author was so irreverent toward the gods. However, one thing remains clear, Euripides portrayed the god Dionysus in such a way that the audience is forced to contemplate whether or not he was worthy of worship at all.