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The Bacchae | Stasimon 5 | Summary

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Summary

The chorus is ebullient over both the fact and the manner of Pentheus's death. They declare they should dance to "honor Bacchus," and "shout to celebrate what's happened here." Both Pentheus and his mother, Agave, have now been punished, even if Agave does not yet know what she has done. They extol the horrible dread and grief to come: "A noble undertaking this, / to drench one's hands in blood, / life blood dripping from one's only son." The chorus leader spots Agave's return and proposes they "welcome her."

Analysis

The Bacchants—the women of Thebes—have "won glorious victory," but it is also "one which ends in tears, / which ends in lamentation." It is not their victory, to be sure, but Dionysus's alone. The chorus leader continues the tone when she proposes welcoming Agave home. Still deeply under Dionysus's spell, she does not know what she has done. The chorus leader, however, considers it "the happy revels of our god of joy!"

Despite the chorus's joy, the audience will likely be left reeling from the excessive brutality of Dionysus's punishment—and likely part ways with the chorus's viewpoint. Pentheus cannot learn from his experience, dead as he is. Agave will never recover from hers. One modern view of punishment is that it should be rehabilitative. In other words, punishment is intended to educate and reintegrate the wrongdoer into society. It's unlikely, given his actions, that Dionysus holds such a view. He is a god, after all, and does not need to conform to social norms. Yet this could be problematic for the audience. Justice of the sort meted out by Dionysus is destructive, vicious, and vengeful. In this way Dionysus embodies traits humans fear the most: the unknown, irrational, savage, and vicious.

At the same time, if Dionysus is a god, then human morality does not apply. There is no making sense of a divine will in human terms. The nature of the gods requires humans to accept and submit, not to question and resist. Indeed, the existence of divinity presupposes a morally arbitrary universe, because a god-created morality means morality is dependent on what the gods love. The chorus has previously declared the good is what is always loved. What's loved, in turn, is what the god dictates. Should the god change his mind, something else could be loved. The original Greek audience would be quite familiar with the fickleness of Olympus's residents.

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