Beginning of the play to the exit of Teiresias and Cadmus. (Lines 1-369):
We are before the royal palace of Thebes. On the left there is the path the wilderness of Cithaeron, and on the right the road leads to the city. Downstage (downstage: the part of the stage closer to the audience) is the tomb of Semele, the mother of Dionysus. Dionysus enters. He is a pretty young man, effeminate and beardless. He carries a thyrsus (stalk capped by ivy leaves) and wears fawn-skin, and on his face he wears a smiling mask.
He announces to the audience that he is Dionysus (also called Bromius, Bacchus, or Evius), a god and the son of Zeus (King of the gods). He has returned to Thebes, land where he was born, and he has come disguised as a mortal man. His mother Semele, a mortal woman and the daughter of Cadmus, was struck dead by lightning as she gave birth to Dionysus. The supernatural death was forced by Hera, Zeus's jealous wife and Queen of the gods; because Dionysus is Zeus's son, Zeus saved him and spirited him away. Dionysus has been in Asia. There, he has established his cult and given his gifts to mankind. He has returned to Thebes and possessed its women; they dress themselves in fawn-skin, carry the thyrsus, and cry out in divine ecstasy. The women have all run into the hills, leaving the city behind. Dionysus means to punish Semele's sisters: after her death, they spread the rumor that she was not pregnant with the child of Zeus. They claimed the lighting was punishment for Semele's lies. Now, Semele's sisters, though they are the daughters of Cadmus and princesses of Thebes, wander in the wilderness. They, too, are possessed by the Dionysian ecstasy.
Dionysus means to show the world that he is a god. In Thebes, old Cadmus has abdicated, and his young grandson Pentheus sits on the throne. Pentheus has denied the validity of the cult of Dionysus. He does not give offerings or prayers to the new god. Dionysus has come to establish his worship in Thebes; if Pentheus tries to retrieve the Maenads (the possessed women of Dionysus), then Dionysus will respond with force.
Dionysus has brought with him the Bacchae, Asian women devoted to him and his cult. They are not possessed, but they are fervent followers of the god. (Remember that "Asian" for the Greeks was not synonymous with the contemporary racial category. "Asian" in this case refers to anyone from the continent of Asia, and Dionysus has been attracting worshippers from the Southwestern regions of the continent, mainly the Near East, the Middle East, and South Asia. It must also be remembered that although modern travel makes these regions seem like neighbors of Greece, in ancient times these regions were incredibly remote and exotic for the Greeks.) As Dionysus exits, the Bacchae enter, dressed in fawn-skins and carrying thyrsi and musical instruments. The Bacchae are the Chorus of the play (see "About The Bacchae" for an explanation of the Chorus and its role in Greek drama). They sing a beautiful ode praising the glory of their god. They describe how he was delivered and raised by Zeus himself; they sing of their god's wild and rustic nature. He is of the hills and the wilderness, and he is a hunter who loves the taste of raw flesh. He is a god of dances and ecstasy.
Teiresias, the immortal blind sage of Thebes, enters. He, too, is dressed in fawn-skin and carrying a thyrsus. Teiresias is old and blind, and he moves very slowly. He calls for Cadmus. Cadmus enters, dressed likewise. He is a very old man. They too, are going to dance. Cadmus believes the story that Dionysus is Semele's son, delivered from the lightning blast. That makes the new god his grandson. They will go up the mountain and engage in the rituals to show respect the god. Cadmus will lead the blind Teiresias. They alone of all the men of Athens are going to dance. They speak with disapproval of the other men, who scorn the god. The two men agree that to worship a god is man's place, and they will do Dionysus' bidding.
Pentheus enters, accompanied by attendants. He speaks angrily about the religious fervor that has possessed the women of Thebes. He claims that the women engage in orgies in the mountains, giving themselves to any passing man; his troops have captured some of them, and Pentheus hopes to capture them all and put an end to this new cult. He has also heard that a foreign man has come from Lydia, with long curly blond hair, soft and pretty in appearance. This man is at the center of the revelry, and he claims Bacchus is a god, the divine child of the mortal Semele and the immortal Zeus. Pentheus will have this man captured, and perhaps executed. Pentheus believes that Semele lied about her child's parentage; the lightning, Pentheus says, was Zeus's punishment, and the child must have died with her. Coryphaeus, leader of the Chorus, warns Pentheus that he blasphemes.
Pentheus then notices that Cadmus and Teiresias are both dressed like worshippers of the god, and he becomes even more angry. He accuses Teiresias of opportunistically championing the new religion out of greed; with a popular new cult, profits for seers will be on the rise. Teiresias tells Pentheus that the new god will be great throughout Hellas (the lands of the Greeks). He has already given mankind the gift of wine. Men have begun to use wine to pour libations to the gods; therefore Dionysus has become an intermediary between mortals and the divine. Dionysus is a god of prophecy, and he has also taken over some of the functions of Ares, god of war. The new god is already powerful, and he will become more powerful still; it would be madness to oppose him. Teiresias denies Pentheus' claims about the orgies in the mountains, although admittedly Dionysus does not compel a woman to be chaste. Coryphaeus, leader of the Chorus, approves of Teiresias' words.
Cadmus tells Pentheus that even if Dionysus is not a true god, Pentheus should think of the prestige that will come of having a god in the family. He also reminds Pentheus of Actaeon, Pentheus' own cousin, who was devoured by his own hounds after he offended the goddess Artemis. To defy the gods is dangerous.
Pentheus is furious. He rejects the new religion as foolishness, and he orders his attendants to find Dionysus' shrine of prophecy and destroy it. He sends other attendants to scour the city for the blond foreigner; he demands that the man (who is, remember, Dionysus disguised as a mortal) be brought to him in chains.
Teiresias is horrified. He and Cadmus continue slowly on their trek, resolving to pray for mercy; Teiresias fears that Dionysus will punish Thebes and Cadmus' house because of Pentheus' blasphemy. The two old men exit, and Pentheus goes into the palace.
Dionysus is a complicated and powerful deity. He is a young god, but he is primal: his element is wilderness, the world of beasts and the hunt. He "delights in the raw flesh" (ll. 136-8). The image is frightening, and it hints at the violence and savagery of which Bacchus is capable. But the Bacchae speak of his generosity as well: the abundance of nature is at his command. He is a god of wild ecstasies, dancing and revelry. He is also, Teiresias tells us, a god of war.
His nature is as ambivalent as the nature of his greatest gift. Wine is the product of civilization and the abundance of the earth. It is a part of celebration, and helps men to lose inhibitions. It is also a potentially dangerous substance, capable of making men lose control, even to the point of violence. Bacchus is as complicated, as beneficial and potentially dangerous, as his gift to mankind. He is the symbol and embodiment of the irrational, the religious, the popular, the primal, the very force (destructive and creative) of nature. His androgyny reflects his dual nature.
Some notes on Dionysiac rituals will be helpful. The rites of Dionysus involved ecstatic, divine possession. The rituals, most suitably taking place in wild and natural settings, involved drinking, frenzied dances, and flesh-eating rituals. In a ritual similar to the Christian Eucharist, an animal (or, in this play, a man) would be infused with the spirit of the god Dionysus and then killed. The worshippers of the god, called Bacchae, would eat the flesh, transformed by the ritual into the flesh of their god, and thereby share Bacchus' divine nature.
This play is extremely complex, and any attempt to boil it down to basic themes will oversimplify the depth and richness of the work. Many of the themes examined in this study guide will involve opposing forces: rationality versus irrationality, the Greek versus the foreign, skepticism versus piety, nature versus civilization, and so on. The reader must not mistake any one of these oppositions as being adequate in explaining the whole work. The Bacchae is about all of these forces, and more.
The Other is a central theme of The Bacchae. The god, though native born of Thebes, is in many ways not of Greece. Note the stage set up: we are at the palace. One exit leads to the city, symbol of Hellas and civilization. The other exit is into the wilderness, the world of the Bacchae, and beyond that, the far reaches of Asia. We are about to witness a clash between the familiar and the mysterious. The Other is everything that we are not: Bacchus is, in many ways, a mystery. He is symbol of the unknown, the alien, the aspects of God or the cosmos hidden from and terrifying to us. Although the Greek characterization of Asia as being barbaric or uncivilized is in many ways inaccurate, and at the least is an incredible overgeneralization, Euripides is not attempting to work with a factual Asia but with the idea of Asia. The Greeks had some concept of Asia's vastness, and in many ways it was natural to them to look to Asia as a great frontier. They knew the Mediterranean well, but the vast expanses of Asia were much harder to explore. Asia and Egypt were the source of many inventions and ideas adapted by Greek civilization; the people of Greece had benefited from the older civilizations on the larger continent. Dionysus hails from this larger world, one that was the source of both benefit and danger for the Greeks. The Chorus of the play is composed of a group of foreign women, devoted wholly to the god. The exotic elements contribute to an atmosphere of fear and unfamiliarity. Pentheus, a Greek man, stands in opposition to a vast world full of more mysteries and terrors than he can possible comprehend.
In the midst of the youthful, strong, foreign women of the Chorus, Teiresias and Cadmus seem pathetic and out of place. The sage Teiresias, often depicted in Greek drama as awe-inspiring and infallibly wise, is here depicted as vulnerable, a somewhat pathetic blind old man who needs to be led by another pathetic old man. He is right about Bacchus, but his authority seems undermined by his shrewdness. He predicts future greatness for Bacchus, and there is something calculating in his tone, suggesting that Pentheus' accusations might be true: Teiresias favors the god because new religious fervor will stuff a seer's pockets. Cadmus' calculating nature is more explicit: he argues to Pentheus that having a god in the family will confer great honor on their house. These old men, with their pragmatic approach, reveal an alternative reaction to the unknown. They are somewhere between Pentheus' violent antagonism and the Maenad's ecstasy. Wisdom (in Greek, sophia), in a huge variety of forms, is another important theme of the play. These men have an unambitious wisdom that comes with old age. They know that they must submit humbly to the new god; perhaps the submission is only for practical reasons, but it must come nonetheless.
In Sophocles' plays, a common theme is that though fate may seem capricious, gods' reasons are beyond man, and the justice of men does not apply to them. Deities need not justify themselves to mortals, and for mortals obedience to the gods is a virtue. This faith means that in Sophocles' plays there is a guideline for behavior, a sense, albeit often a complicated one, that there is a definite right and wrong. In Sophocles' plays (for example, Oedipus the King or Antigone), Teiresias is an awe-inspiring figure. He is authoritative and fearsome, never wrong, though often ignored or misunderstood. Teiresias is the mouthpiece of the gods and of a strongly defined ethical system. In both Oedipus the King and Antigone, he is a source of infallible truth. The use of Teiresias reflects Sophocles' vision; note the differences in how Euripides uses the same character. While the Teiresias of Sophocles is always right, providing characters with solid advice that could help them if only they would listen to it, the Teiresias in The Bacchae is a vulnerable and calculating old man. He speaks no prophecies, and his arguments resemble those of a lawyer. We are missing our link to the gods, our mouthpiece for moral order. Our only link to the gods is Bacchus himself. The result is that the gods and divine will become muddied, unknowable, and the kind of ultimate order envisioned by Sophocles is revealed to be a mask for something else. As Euripides depicts it, this "something else" is far more hostile, far more chaotic and destructive, something that does not respond to or care about humanity.
Another important theme is amathia, the opposite of sophia (Arrowsmith 144-5). In his excellent introductory essay, William Arrowsmith argues that Pentheus is the embodiment of amathia, the failure of a man to recognize his own nature. Prone to brutality and ignorance, Pentheus dooms himself by failing to recognize that Bacchus is a part of Truth and a part of himself. Bacchus as part of Pentheus is true on several different levels: remember that Pentheus is Bacchus' cousin. They are of the same blood; metaphorically, when Pentheus denies Bacchus, he denies himself.
The clash between order and chaos is an important theme of the play. Pentheus speaks of the need to restore order to Thebes; he wants to root out this new religion because it threatens established norms. But the foundations of Pentheus' order are fragile, which brings us to the theme of reason and the irrational. Although Pentheus denounces the Dionysiac rites as foolery and tries to claim the rational position, we see very quickly that he is far from rational (Arrowsmith 147). Teiresias denounces Pentheus' actions as lunacy (l. 359), and, however diminished the sage's status is in Euripides, Teiresias is right. Pentheus is violent, disrespectful to the age and position of his grandfather and Teiresias. Pentheus' orders are not considered choices: his commands are never spoken without anger. His orders are the uncontrolled outbursts of an immature and arrogant man.
If Pentheus cannot be said to truly embody reason, then it must also be said that "irrational" is an inadequate term for Dionysus (if "irrational" means "against reason"). Submitting fully to Dionysus' mystery means giving up rationality, but that is because Dionysus' necessity is something beyond reason. Logic is not part of its consideration. Dionysus is no more rational or irrational than a hurricane or an earthquake. He is a force of nature, and he will destroy, with indifference, anything that stands in his way. Note that he promised to meet with force any attempt to restrain or capture his Maenads; almost immediately after his entrance, Pentheus has promised to track down and lock up all of the possessed women (ll. 226-30). From their first entrances, the clash between Pentheus and Dionysus becomes inevitable.