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The Bacchae | Study Guide


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The Bacchae | Quotes


My mother's sisters have ... boasted ... that I ... was no child of Zeus, claiming Semele ... attributed her bad luck in bed to Zeus ... Those sisters state that's why Zeus killed her.

Dionysus, Prologos

Dionysus's opening words, combined with his attractive appearance as an effeminate young mortal, inspire sympathy. Dionysus's own aunts have lied about and spoken ill of his mother, who has been unjustly murdered by the gods. He is surely justified in his anger, and some form of punishment and recognition from his family is apparently in order. What the audience will find, however, is his thirst for revenge seems outsized. This leads the audience to wonder about the nature of justice—is it associated with revenge, and if so, what is the best way to judge its proper proportions?


To the gods we mortals are all ignorant.

Tiresias, Episode 1

Tiresias reflects the fundamental inequality between gods and men. Gods are immortal; men are not. Gods are all powerful; men are not. Gods can control events; men cannot. Even the sharpest of mortal minds is no match for divine forces.


I hear about disgusting things going on, / here in the city—women leaving home /... honouring some upstart god.

Pentheus, Episode 1

Pentheus, who has been away from Thebes, has already heard about the invasion of the Bacchants from Asia. Here the audience learns the young king does not even know who the new god is, but suspects the Theban women who have run off to the forest are using this new religion as an excuse to engage in drunken depravity.

In this same episode, Tiresias says Dionysus "will not force restraint" on women. The women find freedom of expression through the god; Pentheus, representative of social norms, conveys the opposite attitude.


If I catch him in this city ... / I'll chop off his head, / slice it right from his body.

Pentheus, Episode 1

Pentheus unwittingly foreshadows the manner of his own death.


I see this body of yours / is not unsuitable for women's pleasure ... As for your hair, / it's long ... It flows across your cheeks. That's most seductive.

Pentheus, Episode 2

In The Bacchae, Dionysus is a young god. He appears, in human form, as a lovely, delicately featured young man, which Pentheus takes as a sign of weakness.

At the same time, this form also awakens Pentheus's repressed desires, suggesting the duality of his own sexuality. Dionysus's sexual fluidity in mortal form is mirrored in Pentheus's responses.


A man can seem totally ignorant / when speaking to a fool.

Dionysus, Episode 2

Pentheus questions the stranger about the new religion but does not like his responses. For example, when Pentheus asks in what form the god has appeared to the stranger, the young man replies Dionysus can appear in any form he wishes. Pentheus accuses the stranger of evading his questions, but the audience, not Pentheus, knows the god has responded truthfully. Because the young king does not recognize that it is, in fact, the god he questions, Dionysus declares him a fool.


A suitable name. It suggests misfortune.

Dionysus, Episode 2

Pentheus's name means sorrow or misfortune, which foreshadows his fate. Pentheus does not react to Dionysus's remark. Perhaps it is intended instead for the audience as an instance of dramatic irony: the audience knows what is to come, but Pentheus does not.


He's descended from a snake, / that Pentheus, a savage beast, / not a normal mortal man.

Chorus, Stasimon 2

The chorus derides Pentheus's ancestry. Although Cadmus's line is divine, his daughter, Agave, married Echion, one of the Sparti who sprung from the dragon's teeth Cadmus had sown into the earth. The chorus considers Echion something of a mutant.


What is wisdom? ... / Ah yes, what's good is always loved.

Chorus, Stasimon 3

The chorus queries the nature of wisdom and decides that what the gods decree is good is, in fact, what is good. It is not for mere mortals to disregard or attempt to usurp the gods. Doing so will end only in disaster. Instead, humans should appreciate and enjoy what the gods have given them. These are the timeless goods, and as such, are always loved.

The chorus advocates a simple life, which is one lived day-by-day. Humans are, ultimately, capable of little more than this.


What is finer / than the rights men get from gods— / to hold their powerful hands / over the heads of their enemies?

Chorus, Stasimon 3

The chorus's words come just after the moment Dionysus has cast his net around Pentheus, who has agreed to disguise himself in order to spy upon the Maenads. The chorus members know Dionysus plans a bloody revenge upon Pentheus and Agave, and they recognize the gods have all the power, while men have little to none. Not recognizing this inequality is part of what has gotten Pentheus into trouble. For this and more, he will be punished, and the chorus endorses it.


Pentheus, come out here now ... / where I can see you / dressed up as a raving Bacchic female.

Dionysus, Episode 4

A reversal has been effected: Pentheus has been transformed from Theban ruler to, at least in appearance, a Bacchant. Dionysus commands Pentheus to emerge in his new form, as a Maenad, warning his cousin he is not prepared for what is about to happen. Already, Dionysus has attempted to convince Pentheus to recognize him as a god (which, interestingly enough, the god did not do for his aunts and the rest of the Theban women he possessed). It is only after Pentheus transforms himself into a young woman that Dionysus begins to infect his mind.


I can picture them right now, / in the woods, going at it like rutting birds, / clutching each other as they make sweet love.

Pentheus, Episode 4

Pentheus breathlessly describes the orgiastic scene he expects to find when he is able to get to the mountain to spy on the Maenads. As an authoritarian figure, he is disgusted by the thought. He is conflicted because he is both an authoritarian leader and a young man.


The best thing is to keep one's mind controlled, / and worship all that comes down from the gods.

Second messenger, Episode 5

There is no beating the gods. It is far better to be obedient. Perhaps this is sage advice from the Second messenger, who delivers the core message in The Bacchae, yet the audience may recoil from it. Dionysus has meted out intense punishment, perhaps too harsh for the crime. Furthermore, both Dionysus and Pentheus accuse each other of being mad throughout the play. Euripides shows both extremes—Pentheus's authoritarian political style and Dionysus's over-the-top divine wrath—ultimately to advise moderation and thankfulness.


Pity me, mother— / don't kill your child because I've made mistakes.

Pentheus, Episode 5

The one primal source of a feeling of protection should come from the family—particularly parents. Here, as Pentheus pleads for his life, terrified of the woman whose demented frenzy is impenetrable to familial love, he realizes his fundamental error.

For her part, Agave is incapable of recognizing her own son, such is the power of the god's hold over her. Perhaps this is her punishment: not having protected her own sister, she is doomed to destroy her own son.


Angry gods should not act just like humans.

Cadmus, Episode 6

In the last line of dialogue addressed to Dionysus, Cadmus criticizes his grandson for exhibiting the petty emotions of humans. Greek gods always behave like humans, however. What Euripides is suggesting is that the gods should, in fact, hold themselves to a higher standard of conduct.

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