“The Bacchae” won the first prize in the City Dionysia festival in Athens in 405 BC, for good reason I suppose. The structure, plot, and character development are among the best of Euripides. William Arrowsmith, the translator, compared it to “Oedipus the King”, “Agamemnon” and “King Lear”, as one of the greatest tragedies.
Truth be told, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. For example, is there anything more horrific and bizarre than the sight of a mother singing and dancing while holding in her hand as a trophy the severed head of her own son?
The Descent into Madness
On the surface, the plot of the play seems to be the power struggle between the young god Dionysus and King Pentheus of Thebes. Dionysus was intent on avenging himself on the Thebans, his kinsmen according to the flesh, for denying that he was a god born of Zeus; Pentheus was determined on banning the worship of Dionysus, which he regarded as wanton and ludicrous. Dionysus proved his power by gaining control over Pentheus, and led the latter into a trap. Pentheus was then torn apart by his own mother and aunts who were possessed by Dionysus.
What is most intriguing or ironic, to me, is the way Dionysus gained possession of Pentheus. It’s not so much Dionysus’ manipulation but Pentheus himself that caused his descent into madness. IOW, he wasn’t of a sound mind to begin with. Dionysus simply exploited his follies and impetuosity. The Stoics say that everyone who is not wise is mad. If so, then most of us are susceptible to madness, in which state we would regard evil as good, folly as wisdom, and self-destruction as victory.
Euripides, who died just before the end of the Peloponnesian War and the fall and near total destruction of Athens, was perhaps suggesting indirectly that the whole of Athens had gone insane, although the Athenians believed themselves to be victorious, as Pentheus and his mother did in their madness. The Athenians were either magnanimous or foolish enough to posthumously award him first prize, one year after the playwright’s death (406 BC) and before the fall of Athens (404 BC).
[Note: The University of Chicago Press, again, uses a cover image that is irrelevant to the content of the book. Two of the three figures in the painting “Bacchus, Ceres and Amor” do not appear anywhere in the plays. The joyful expression is also incongruent with the themes of murder.]