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The Bacchae | Study Guide


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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of the prologos of Euripides's play The Bacchae.

The Bacchae | Prologos | Summary


Euripides does not designate acts or scene breaks in The Bacchae. The play has been arranged according to the basic dramatic structure for Greek Tragedies: Prologos, Parados, Episodes 1–6, Stasimons 1–5, and the Exodos.


Dionysus, son of Zeus, enters. He stands before the royal palace at Thebes, disguised as a mortal, girlishly attractive without a beard and with soft features, wearing a fawn skin and carrying a thyrsus (fennel staff covered in ivy and leaves and topped with a pine cone). Dionysus addresses the audience directly. He then relates the story of his birth: his mother, Semele, was pregnant with him when she was struck by Zeus's lightning bolt.

The location of Semele's house—next to the palace—still smolders, and Dionysus praises his grandfather, Cadmus, for having erected a monument on the spot where she died. Nevertheless, he is angry that his aunts, Semele's sisters, discounted her story of having become pregnant by Zeus, the king of the gods. Led by Agave, the sisters maintained that Zeus punished Semele for lying. They insist she made up the story to cover up an affair with a mortal man. In fact, Dionysus relates to the audience, it was actually Zeus's wife, the goddess Hera, who arranged for Semele's death.

Since his arrival in Thebes, Dionysus has begun to seek his revenge by turning the sisters into Maenads, who then dance and cavort on the mountainside. He also plans to incite all the women of Thebes to join them. Having become immensely popular in Asia, where he initiated followers into his Dionysian rites and gave gifts to the faithful, Dionysus now turns his attention to Greece, and Thebes is the first city he visits. Not only is Dionysus angry with his aunts for their poor judgment, he is also angry with his cousin, Pentheus, the newly installed king of Thebes. Pentheus has ignored Dionysus in his prayers and has prohibited Thebans from making offerings to the god. Dionysus plans to make him pay. Should they resist, he will fight. He is determined they will recognize him as a rightful god.

Dionysus calls on his followers, the Bacchae, to sing and dance around the city. The devotees enter as the chorus, and Dionysus leaves to join the Maenads already in the wilderness. This group is composed of the Theban women he has possessed—including his aunts, Agave, Autonoe, and Ino.


In traditional Greek theater, the first address provides important background information to provide context for the audience. It also gets the story started, providing the general arc of what is to come.

Although the audience would already be familiar with Dionysus (also known as Bromius and Bacchus), Euripides was an innovator. In this play, Dionysus appears to his followers and Thebans as a mortal character, not a mysterious divinity. He presents himself as a mortal who appeals to the god, but there are also moments when he seems to morph into the divine. This ambiguity allows Euripides to play directly with the idea that people wear masks, disguising who they really are to further their own ends. The audience is privy to Dionysus's disguise, but none of the other characters are. Because of this, the audience can anticipate, at least to some extent, the downfall of those against whom Dionysus seeks revenge.

The Maenads are somewhat pitiful creatures. While the audience can sympathize with Dionysus's anger with his aunts, it is clear they have not willingly followed the god into the forest. Instead, Dionysus himself has driven them mad. Why should he possess them, rather than try to gain their reverence through the power of his divine status? Perhaps Euripides wants the audience to question Dionysus's anger toward the Theban princesses, who accused their sister of lying about her affair with a god; this would reflect the theme of rationality, law, and social order. Their behavior as Maenads provides an important contrast to social order: the divine, spiritual, and eternal, although also irrational, violent, and destructive nature of religious beliefs—the other major theme in the play.

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