Roughly halfway through Euripides' The Bacchae, a messenger describes to Thebes' bewildered king his encounter with the women who have left the city to practice their religious rites in the forest. His account cogently presents the basic opposition between nature and civilization that is inherent in the work by formalizing the interconnections between these crazed women, the god Dionysus, and nature. Though Agave later becomes Dionysus' victim, this scene takes place in a separate context where she parallels his role in relation to Thebes. Foreshadowing the city's eventual fate at the hands of the angry god, it encapsulates the play as a whole.
Within this passage the women shift dramatically in character from languorous, peaceful creatures in harmony with their environment to frenzied bringers of destruction. Their metamorphosis mirrors the dual nature of Dionysus himself, the god who is "most terrible, and yet most gentle, to mankind (861)." Before they detect the threatening presence of men, the women drowse in the wilderness, adorn themselves with "writhing snakes" and leaves, and suckle untamed beasts. They seem to know the secrets of nature, enjoying its benevolence by only tapping their...
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