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The Bacchae | Context

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Euripides was an innovator of stage plays, concerning himself with a number of timeless perplexities: the extent of human freedom and its relation to the constraints of society and religion; moral norms; the demands of the passions; human weakness; and the plight of women whose domestic roles severely restricted their lives.

Features of Greek Tragedies

Greek tragedies were typically performed during significant religious festivals, such as the Dionysia festival in Athens, Greece. Playwrights each wrote three tragedies and one satyr-play —a coarse tragicomedy—for the competition. Each tragedy had to conform to prescribed specifications:

  • The theme had to be mythological, involving familial and religious elements.
  • The actors had to be male and wear masks.
  • The speaking roles had to be limited to three, although an actor could play multiple parts.
  • The chorus had to consist of no more than 15 performers.

Tragedies were performed in open-air theaters. Depictions of violence and death were not permitted on stage, nor were political comments. In its earliest iterations, one actor in costume and wearing a mask performed the play. Later, the form evolved so that more actors appeared on stage. The chorus could grow to a group of up to 15 actors who sang and danced but did not speak.

Most tragedies, including The Bacchae, follow this dramatic structure:

  • Prologos (PRŌH-lōh-goss): Usually called the prologue in English texts, the prologos opens the play with dialogue revealing the topic, setting, and themes.
  • Parodos (PAIR-uh-doss): The chorus makes its first appearance in this section, without the other actors.
  • Episode(s): These scenes involve the actors in dialogue with each other and the chorus.
  • Stasimon(s) (STASS-uh-monz): Stasimons are choral odes, one of which follows each episode; the chorus sings a song, commenting on the action in the previous episode.
  • Exodos (EX-uh-doss): The exodos, or exit scene, is the final chorus chant, in which the moral of the play is revealed or discussed.

Dionysus and Ancient Greek Theater

It is no coincidence that Dionysus is the god of the theater: Many scholars believe this dramatic genre is linked to Dionysian ritual, specifically the song ritual, tragōidia, which includes the sacrificing of goats and the wearing of masks. Still another connection to Dionysus is ritual drinking, during which worshippers lose control of their emotions, effectively becoming other people. Actors hoped to transform themselves in their performances as well.

The Great Dionysia, also called the City Dionysia, was the ancient Athenian festival devoted to tragedy, comedy, and drama. Indeed, it was this festival in which these artistic forms originated. Men—and likely women—from all over Greece attended.

Greek tragedy has its origins in choral songs sung to divinities and local heroes. The chorus, which means "dance" in ancient Greek, consisted of a large group of people who sang and danced in honor of a divinity. The performance occurred in a large, open-air dancing area, and the physical focal point was an altar to Dionysus.

Intellectual Influences

Euripides was a product of his time, but that does not mean he simply followed tradition. That's because, in part, some Greeks were already turning against traditional beliefs—and it didn't always make members of the community happy. Greek thinkers were beginning to question the nature and source of truth. Fifth-century Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (c. 500–c. 428 BCE), for example, was particularly interested in the cosmos. He speculated about the nature of the heavens and the earth using observation and reason, not traditional religious beliefs. One of his followers, the Athenian philosopher Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE), later abandoned the study of nature to focus on ethics. Socrates was one of Euripides's contemporaries and influenced the playwright. Euripides drew on Socrates's ideas and blended elements of Socratic thought into his plays, earning him the nickname "the stage philosopher."

Euripides would have been in his late 20s, or perhaps very early 30s, when he competed in his first Great Dionysia. Socrates would have been about age 14. Both were iconoclasts, or people who attack firmly held social beliefs: Socrates challenged Athens's traditional ethical norms, and Euripides innovated traditional drama.

Euripides was also influenced by the Greek philosopher Protagoras (486 BCE–411 BCE). Protagoras was a sophist—a teacher of rhetoric. Sophists generally valued and taught skepticism about knowledge and reality. Euripides applied skepticism by questioning traditional Greek religion, a feature he incorporated into a number of his plays, including The Bacchae. In Euripedian plays, the gods "cannot be appealed to in the name of justice." Humans are simply at the mercy of the gods' whims.

Another of Euripides's famous Greek contemporaries was the tragedian Sophocles (c. 496–406 BCE). A successful dramatist, Sophocles wrote such tragedies as Oedipus Rex (c. 430–426 BCE) and Antigone (c. 442–441 BCE). His works were popular, earning him at least 20 festival awards, including the City Dionysia. Although they often competed at festivals, Sophocles admired Euripides and dressed his actors and chorus in mourning out of respect after the latter's death. When Euripides died, his son staged a production of The Bacchae in Athens, earning the deceased playwright the prize that year, even though Sophocles was still alive. In life, Euripides was never as popular as his contemporaries Aeschylus and Sophocles, but in death, his reputation soared, and his plays were performed in the courts of the Roman and Parthian (modern-day Iran) Empires.

Mythological Influences

The Greek myths that inspired the tragedies were the stories that, in Euripides's time, Greeks took as true accounts. Even a cursory glance at the Greek myths reveals a robust, fully realized world of gods, heroes, and their exploits. There are copious genealogies that, among other things, provide sources of long-standing feuds, passionate love affairs, and power struggles. These stories were, in short, intimately tied to religious belief. Although there were some—such as Greek philosophers and playwrights Socrates, Plato, and Euripides—who questioned the veracity of these legends, they were the repositories of firmly held beliefs about the nature of the universe and the place of humans in it. The gods and heroes depicted in these accounts often served as justification for social and political practices and institutions.

The works of the Greek poet Hesiod, Works and Days (c. 700 BCE) and Theogony (c. 700 BCE), along with the Greek poet Homer's Iliad (c. 750–650 BCE), Odyssey (c. 725–675 BCE), and shorter poems—known as Homeric Hymns—served as the main repositories of the religious accounts. This connection explains why, when tragedies were performed, the atmosphere mimicked religious ceremony more than entertainment.

In Euripides's The Bacchae, Dionysus, Pentheus, Cadmus, and Tiresias are all characters with whom the audience would already have been familiar. Dionysus was already known as the god of wine, fertility, fruitfulness and vegetation, ecstasy, and theater. It was also known that he was the son of a mortal woman, Semele, and the great god, Zeus.

Semele was one of four Theban princesses. Zeus was the chief deity among the pantheon of Olympic gods. The god of thunder controlled the weather, guaranteed order, and dispensed justice. His story is central to Greek mythology. The youngest son of the king of the Titans, Cronos, and Rhea, Zeus would have been eaten by his father, were it not for his mother's intervention. Cronos had eaten all of his other children because he was worried they would do to him what he had done to his own father, Uranus—usurped his power. When Zeus grew up, he forced his father to disgorge his siblings and counterparts in the Greek pantheon: Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia, and Poseidon. He then married Hera.

Cadmus, the son of Phoenix (king of Phoenicia), was sent to find his sister, Europa, who had been carried off by Zeus. He was unsuccessful, and consulted Apollo's Oracle at Delphi, who instructed him to cease his efforts, follow a cow, and then build a town on the spot where she lay down. This he did. Sometime later, he sowed the teeth of a dragon he had slain, which eventually produced the Sparti, fierce armed men, who fought with each other until only five remained. These men helped Cadmus build Thebes. Cadmus also had four daughters, Ino, Autonoe, Agave, and Semele. It is Agave's son, Pentheus, who succeeds Cadmus as king of Thebes.

Twenty years prior to the events in the play, Semele, Cadmus's daughter, fell in love with Zeus. She became pregnant, much to the distress of Zeus's wife, Hera. Determined to seek revenge, Hera disguised herself as Semele's nurse. She tricked Semele, now six-months pregnant, to ask Zeus to appear in his true form. In doing so, his lightning bolt destroyed her. Zeus then removed Dionysus from Semele's womb, sewing him into his thigh to grow until ready for birth.

No one believed Semele had an affair with Zeus, let alone bore the god a son. Semele's sisters —Ino, Autonoe, and mostly Agave—tarnished her name not only by denying her story, but also by claiming she'd had an affair with a mortal man, and made up the affair with Zeus only to trick their father, Cadmus, the king of Thebes. Worse yet, they insisted Zeus killed Semele because she lied about the real affair. It is in this context that Dionysus's grandfather, Cadmus, has stepped down from the throne and installed Dionysus's cousin, Pentheus, as king of Thebes.

Tiresias would also have been well known to Greek theatergoers. He was a blind seer, the son of Chariclo, a favorite nymph of the goddess Athena, and he is featured in several Greek legends, including the tragedy of Oedipus, which serves as the basis of Sophocles's tragedy, Oedipus Rex. He is even featured in the underworld of Homer's Odyssey, where Odysseus consulted him for his gift of prophesy. His blindness is accounted for in two different ways. One story has it that Hera struck him blind after he sided with Zeus over the question of whether men or women experience more pleasure during sex. In return for this support, Zeus is said to have given Tiresias the gift of second sight. Another story holds that Athena struck him blind after he saw her bathing naked.

Euripides's The Bacchae also considers the dangerous consequences of seeing what shouldn't be seen. This theme echoes another myth familiar to ancient Greeks, one to which Euripides alludes more than once in his play. Artemis, daughter of Zeus and the Titan Leto and twin sister of Apollo, was the Greek goddess of wild animals, the hunt, and vegetation. Legend has it she turned Acteon into a stag after he accidentally saw her bathing naked at Mount Cithaeron. His own hounds then hunted and killed him. Not coincidentally, for The Bacchae, Acteon was the son of Autonoe, and grandson of Cadmus.

Bacchic Rites

Worshippers of Dionysus (Roman Bacchus) practiced rites to initiate followers and to celebrate the god. These practices flourished in the third and second centuries BCE but were banned as immoral by the Roman Senate in about 186 BCE. Based in the Greek mystery religions, a festival of rebirth called the Bacchanalia developed as well. The Bacchic rites were a largely private form of worship practiced by those who had been initiated into the cult of Dionysus, including slaves, women, and young people. The rites included such practices as

  • sexual liaisons
  • consumption of alcohol and hallucinogenic drugs
  • secret meetings and signs
  • feasting
  • artistic expression
  • general revelry
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