The Bacchae

The Bacchae Themes

Opposing forces

skepticism versus piety, reason versus irrationality, Greek versus foreign, male versus female/androgynous, civilization versus savagery

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, civilization versus savagery or nature, and so on. Critics have, in various interpretations, tried to make Pentheus and Dionysus into symbols for the two forces in any one of these binaries, with Pentheus representing the first half of each pair and Dionysus representing the second half. 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. Another danger of analyzing the play through the lens of these oppositions is that Euripides tends to show how these binaries are inadequate. Seemingly opposite forces tend to dissolve into each other, and powers we thought were neatly separated turn out to be part of the same order (or chaos).

Wisdom (Sophia)

Wisdom takes many different forms in the play, and in Euripides truth has many faces. There is the wisdom of the seer, of the old king, of the divinely possessed Maenads, of the devout Bacchae, and finally of the god himself. All of these characters command a different form of wisdom, each with its own set of limitations, and from these different perspectives we gain insights into the god's mysteries and the events of the play.

Acceptance and Compassion

There is another sacred form of sophia in Euripides, and that is the wisdom that comes from suffering (Arrowsmith 152-3). Its distinguishing characteristics are acceptance and compassion, and this is the wisdom gained by Agave and Cadmus at the end of the play. It is a form of wisdom reserved for human beings: for the invulnerable gods, it is completely out of reach.


A difficult word to translate, it is roughly wisdom's opposite. It means recklessness, deep ignorance about oneself and the nature of the universe. It leads to excess, impatience. It is a trait possessed by many of the old and almost all of the young. Pentheus is the prime example of a man inflicted with this trait. He is impatient, bullying, and at times brutal. He irrationally rejects Dionysus and the new religion; his unthinking and uncompromising scorn for popular piety and the new teachings is neither rational nor open-minded. But he is also very young, and his youth in part excuses his crimes. Gods, too, exhibit amathia; Dionysus' excessive revenge is hardly the act of a wise man. Religion can become just as brutal and oppressive as a tyrant like Pentheus.

The Other

The unknown, the exotic, the foreign. In the case of this play, also the divine. Wherever the boundaries of the familiar end, the Other begins. Dionysus is a mystery, a complex and difficult figure whose nature is difficult to pin down and describe. His group of foreign followers creates an exotic and sinister atmosphere; his new rites, his origins, and his followers are all unfamiliar. He is the unknown and the unknowable, but he is also a part of truth. He invades the familiar world of civilization and order, and he represents everything that Pentheus would rather ignore or reject. Pentheus tries to oppose mysteries he cannot begin to comprehend, and he fails to see the connection between himself and the forces represented by Dionysus.

Order and Chaos

One of the binaries, deserving its own entry, but again the reader should not take this opposition as adequate for explaining the whole play. Pentheus seeks to preserve order and control; Dionysus comes with a new religion. He takes the women from Thebes and gives them powers beyond those of mortal men; his presence is a threat to the very foundations of ordered society. Pentheus seeks to preserve order, the male dominated order with which he is familiar. But there is a fine line between acting out of the common good and acting out of self-interest. As a free male, Pentheus is the prime beneficiary of Greek civilization. Dionysus, with his androgynous nature, female-dominated rites, and barbarian culture, represents everything that Hellenic civilization despises. His presence means chaos.

Women and social order

Closely connected to the theme listed above. Euripides had an enduring fascination with woman and their social position. In this play, his use of the Maenads shows canny perceptions about his society. Greek order, as Euripides often depicts it, is based on certain oppressive hierarchies: free above slave, rich above poor, Greek above barbarian, men above women. Greek civilization is linked, part and parcel, to the oppression of women. By giving the Maenads supernatural powers and taking them from their domestic chores and childrearing, Dionysus attacks the foundation of Greek civilization itself. Notice also that his rites are for all women, of all ages and ranks, and that he has brought with him a host of foreign followers; note also that the god, with his androgynous appearance, stands against Greek conceptions and social standards about gender. Pentheus cannot stand for this threat to order; he says repeatedly that men should not allow women to triumph over them.

Wilderness and the primal

The Bacchae is full of rich imagery of women rejoined with nature. Dionysus, though young, is a primal god; he represents forces that are ancient and undeniable. Cithaeron's wilderness, though never seen onstage, is the setting for many of the play's most important events: the triumph of the Maenad's over the villagers, the brutal murder of Pentheus. Wilderness is seen as essential to human nature and survival; it is also destructive and ominous. It is ambivalent, just as Dionysus is: capable of sustaining man, but also of destroying him.

The hunt

Closely connected to the above theme. Dionysus is a hunter. Though humans tend to think of the hunt as an act in which a human hunter tracks and kills animals, Dionysus shows that the relationship between man and animal, hunter and hunted, is not always so stable. Pentheus, who originally intended to go with his troops and track down the Bacchae, becomes their prey. Man can be hunted by man (or in this case, woman), and also by primal animal god. No longer safe within the confines of Greek civilization, Pentheus is hunted and killed because of the god he denied.