The Bacchae

A summary and analysis of the play by Euripides

In the Bacchae, Pentheus, king of Thebes, seeks to put down the new worship of Dionysus, which is turning the heads of his female subjects. The offended god persuades him to dress himself in the garb of a Bacchante, that he may pry into the sacred mysteries. Then, disguised as a stranger, he leads him to the mountains, and placing him on the topmost branch of a tall pine, delivers him into the hands of the Maenads, the female devotees of Bacchus, who tear him limb from limb. A slave, who had accompanied the king, thus in part tells the story:

A voice,
The voice of Dionysus, seemingly,
Was heard from heaven: "Lo, I have brought," he said,
"Maidens, the man who mocks at you and me
And at my mysteries; take your revenge."
Thus as he spake, he made o'er earth and sky
To spread a fiery blaze of awful light.
Silence was in the heavens, in the green glen
Not a leaf whispered, and all beasts were still.
The women, that had scarcely heard the voice,
All started to their feet and gazed around;
Again the call was uttered. Knowing, then,
That Bacchus summoned them, the Theban maids,
As swift as is the flight of fleetest dove,
Agave, the king's mother, at their head,
With both her sisters and the Maenads all,
Came coursing on along the torrent's bed.
Beneath the crags they bounded, frenzy-driven.
When, sitting on the tree, my lord they spied,
They first climbed up on a commanding rock,
And from that vantage cast huge stones at him
Or pelted him with branches from torn pines,
While others hurled their wands like javelins
At their doomed quarry; but they struck him not,
Fain as they were, for high above their reach
In desperate plight sat the ill-fated king.
At last with branches torn from oaks in place
Of crow-bars, they the roots strove to upheave.
But when they found their efforts all in vain,
Agave cried, "Come close around the tree
And pull, ye Maenads; let us catch the beast
Mounted thereon, that he may ne'er divulge
Our mysteries." Then with countless hands they grasped
The pine, and with main force uprooted it.
Pentheus, from where he sat on high, fell down,
A parlous fall, and fast his piteous cries
Poured forth; too well he knew destruction near.
His priestess mother led the murderous work,
Falling upon him.

The following is the song of the Bacchae as they proceed to the revels in which Pentheus is to meet his death:

O, when through the long night,
With fleet foot dancing white,
Shall I go dancing in my revelry,
My neck cast back, and bare
Unto the dewy air,
Like sportive fawn in the green meadow's glee?
Lo, in her fear she springs
Over th'encircling rings,
Over the well-woven nets far and fast,
While swift along her track
The huntsman cheers his pack,
With panting toil, and fiery storm-wind haste.
Where down the river-bank spreads the wide meadow,
Rejoices she in the untrod solitude;
Couches at length beneath the silent shadow
Of the old hospitable wood.
What is wisest, what is fairest,
Of gods' boons to man the rarest?
With the conscious conquering hand
Above the foeman's head to stand.
What is fairest still is dearest.
Slow come, but come at length,
In their majestic strength,
Faithful and true, the avenging deities;
And chastening human folly,
And the made pride unholy,
Of those who to the gods bow not their knees.
For hidden still and mute,
As glides their printless foot,
The impious on their winding way they hound.
For it is ill to know,
And it is ill to do,
Beyond the law's inexorable bound.
'Tis but light cost in his power sublime
To array the godhead, whosoe'er he be;
And law is old, even as the oldest time,
Nature's own unrepealed decree.
What is wisest, what is fairest,
Of gods' boons to man the rarest?
With the conscious conquering hand
Above the foeman's head to stand.
What is fairest still is rarest.
Who hath 'scaped the turbulent sea
And reached the haven, happy he!
Happy he whose toils are o'er,
In the race of wealth and power!
This one here and that one there
Passes by, and everywhere
Still expectant thousands over
Thousand hopes are seen to hover,
Some to mortals end in bliss;
Some have already fled away.
Happiness alone is his
That happy is to-day.

The play exhibits the tumultuous enthusiasm of the Bacchanalian worship with great impressiveness and realism. The stubborn unbelief of Pentheus, his infatuation and fearful punishment by the hand of his own mother, form a daring picture. The stage-effect must have been extraordinary. Imagine the chorus with flying hair and garments, tamborines and cymbals in their hands, as the Bacchae are represented on bas-reliefs, storming into the orchestra, and executing their inspired dance amidst the din of music, which in other cases was quite unusual, as the choral odes were performed with no other accompaniment than that of a flute, and with a solemn step. On this occassion, indeed, such luxuriance of ornament, which Euripides everywhere seeks, was quite in place. When, therefore, certain critics rank this piece very low, they do not seem rightly to know what they would have. Wild as the play is, it exhibits a certain harmony and unity of composition, qualities of rare occurrence in Euripides, together with abstinence from all foreign matter, so that the effects and motives all flow from one source and tend to one purpose.

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¹ This essay was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1 ed. Alfred Bates. (New York: Historical Publishing Company, 1906), pp. 215-219.

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