This paper discusses Euripides’ play, and the ways in which Dionysus’ actions can be considered theatrical. (4 pages; 1 source; MLA citation style)
Like most classic Greek tragedy, The Bacchae is relevant today, millennia after Euripides wrote it. Its relevance stems from its consideration of the consequences of blindly following a god, and the evils that result from religious frenzy.
Dionysus (often called Bacchus) is the god of wine, but he is also the patron god of theater. This paper will explore the theatrical aspects of the play.
The inherent theatricality of the play is apparent from the beginning. The first character to appear is Dionysus himself, who does not reveal his true identity; he is, in effect, in disguise—an old theatrical trick. From the first it’s apparent that Dionysus cannot be trusted. Like all actors, he will present illusion rather than truth if doing so serves his purpose.
Then he tells the audience of the terrible things he’s done, driving women mad and sending them into the mountains where they dance in a sort of divine rage in his honor. His description is theatrical in the extreme: “I’ve made them put on costumes, outfits appropriate for my mysteries.” (Line 41).
“Costumes” and “outfits” indicate that the women are playing the role that Dionysus has devised for them. They are completely unaware of the way in which he is using them, as we see when Agave fails to recognize her son. They move as they are “inspired” to do by Dionysus, and they bear a strong resemblance to the actors in a play immersing themselves in their roles as they respond to the director’s commands.
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As part of their outfits, the women carry a plant stalk known as a “thyrsus”. Often decorated with ivy, it completes the outfit and resembles nothing so much as a theatrical prop. In addition, the outfits are very specifically described as being made of deerskin, which again designates them as costumes, rather than ordinary attire.
Then too, the Bacchae live together in the mountains, rather than remaining in the city. The mountains thus become a sort of “stage”—a place set apart for the purpose of giving a performance. Dionysus underscores the importance of the mountains as a special arena reserved for his worship when he says he will fight the Thebans if they try to drive the women out of the hills: “But if Thebans in this city, in their anger, try to make those Bacchic women leave, to drive them from the mountains forcibly, then I … will fight them”. (Lines 66-70).
In this long speech, Dionysus refers to “Dionysian rites.” (Line 52).
The use of the word “rites” is important, since it suggests something ritualistic, rehearsed, and planned rather than a spontaneous outburst. Once again, it suggests the theater.
There are two events in the play that are unashamedly theatrical: the earthquake, and the scene in which Dionysus convinces Pentheus to dress as a woman in order to spy on the Bacchae.
Pentheus is King of Thebes, and has angered the god (demi-god, really, his mother was mortal) by refusing to worship him. Even worse, he is trying to stop the spread of Dionysus’ worship. He has his soldiers arrest Dionysus (still not knowing who he is), but Dionysus boasts that his god, meaning himself, will set him free. Shortly after he is led away, there is a terrible earthquake and Dionysus is set at liberty. (Lines 715-741).
He confronts Pentheus again.
They are interrupted by a messenger who says he wants to tell the king about what he’s seen the Bacchae doing, but doesn’t want to be punished for bring such a terrible message. (Lines 827-832).
When Pentheus assures him he won’t “shoot the messenger,” the man describes the hideous things he’s seen. At first the women were calm, even beautiful, though there were a great many unnatural things about them, such as suckling wolf cubs and twining snakes about their necks. But the peaceful scene changed, and the women became violent, screaming and running, tearing animals apart with their bare hands, and finally defeating armed men with their thyrsoi; the plant stalks. It’s clear that they have the power of the god in them. (Lines 839-947).
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Hearing all this, Pentheus decides he must see these women for himself. Dionysus offers to help him do so, by disguising him as a woman. It’s not clear exactly why he falls in with Dionysus’ idea so quickly and easily, but he does, and therein is another truly theatrical moment.
Dionysus describes exactly what Pentheus must wear, and offers to help the other man put on the women’s clothes. He is to wear “a dress … of eastern linen” (line 1006); Dionysus will fix “a long hair piece” for his head (line 1019); and he will provide a thyrsus for Pentheus to hold and a “dappled fawn skin” to put around his shoulders. (Line 1024).
Despite misgivings, Pentheus agrees, and Dionysus leads him through the streets of Thebes, a humiliating procedure, even though no one recognizes the king. He reaches the women, but is discovered and killed by his own mother—which Dionysus planned all along.
The end of the play finds the self-satisfied god getting ready to leave Thebes, presumably to wreak havoc on others who dare to defy him.
As we’ve seen, there is a great deal of theatricality in The Bacchae. From disguises and costumes, to deception and illusion, Dionysus uses the conventions of the theater to achieve his goal: punishing those who displeased him.
Euripides. The Bacchae. [E-text}. July 2003. Accessed: 1 Oct 2003. http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/euripides/euripides.htm
Please note: I couldn’t find The Bacchae in any library (which is surprising), so I used an on-line text. This particular text has two sets of line numbers, one for the e-text itself, and one for the original Greek. Although it seems very modern, even “slangy” in some spots (after Pentheus asks Dionysus how he escaped, the latter says ‘did you miss that part?’), it is clear and very readable.
... when he persuaded Pentheus to dress like a woman in order to infiltrate the women's mountain. When Dionysus was walking Pentheus to the mountain ... Greece's tragic plays in entitled 'The Bacchae'; , written by Euripides. Many larger and deeper philosophical views are expressed in the ... are not present in other Greek tragedies. On page 21, lines 506-7, the comment 'How do you live? What are ...