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The Bacchae | Themes


Social Order

Conforming to social norms is essential for the continuance of any civilization. When these norms are flouted, as happens when Dionysus drives Agave and other Theban women to the forest, social fabric begins to unravel. At the same time, the iron grip—authoritarian rule—Pentheus has on Thebes, is bound to be met with resistance.

Social order is contrasted with the wild of nature in The Bacchae. Dionysus's followers disappear into the forest at the foothills of Mount Cithaeron, where they sleep on blankets of pine needles, suckle wild animals, hunt, and perform their rites. Dionysus crumbles Pentheus's palace, symbolically crumbling feeble mortal authority, and reflecting how the gods are more powerful than human constructs.

Religious Beliefs

Conflicting religious beliefs are at the core of much strife in human history. While Dionysus achieved great success in Asia, his first foray into Greece was met with rejection. The accepted gods, like a city's traditions, become associated with the "right" beliefs. Once ingrained in a society, these are difficult to adjust.

The Bacchae taken in regard to its overall message, even if not intended by Euripides, is a powerful argument for the separation of church and state. However, Cadmus, Tiresias, and the chorus, within the play, strongly urge Pentheus to believe as the Theban citizens believe, for the purpose of harmony and community. In this sense, Euripides is commenting on how Pentheus has let power separate him from the community. Distanced from the common citizen's religious beliefs by his own puffed-up sense of power, Pentheus clearly should have let the people believe what they wanted; he dies because he tried to interfere with what is sacred to the common people.

The heart of this theme comes in Stasimon 3 when the chorus declares that men get their rights from the gods, and those men who "honour their own ruthless wills," rather than revere the gods from whom they receive their gifts, must be punished. The community was valued over the individual in Ancient Greece, and it is clear the chorus—and Dionysus—believe Pentheus is insane to think he is more powerful or important than the gods or the community. Pentheus believes Dionysus and his Bacchae are just as crazy. Euripides is showing how beliefs can be all-consuming for the believers—each believing they are the ones who see the truth, have wisdom, and possess a sound mind, while seeing the "other" as mad. Because each side argues so forcefully, fully convinced they know the true nature of reality, reality itself is called into question. Perhaps Euripides shows the "gods" winning because, if they are real, they are immortal—and human beings are mortal, which is a fact. Accepting the gods means humbly accepting mortality and the human condition.

Similarly, Euripides shows extreme violence stemming from beliefs, but ultimately to make his main point: He pits Pentheus's narrow-minded rigidity and adherence to social order against Dionysus's violence—even though the god claims to be gentle—and the Bacchae's uncontrolled murder spree. Then the second messenger in Episode 5 flits in and quietly urges moderation between the two, saying, "The best thing is to keep one's mind controlled, / And worship all that comes down from the gods. / ... the wisest custom, / for those who can conduct their lives that way." As for Pentheus and Dionysus, neither makes an exemplary role model for goodness or happiness, leaving the appropriately named "messenger" to deliver the most important message in the play.

Duality and Disguise

There are several dualities throughout the play. For example, Dionysus is a dual personality. When he is in his full form as a divinity, he is ferocious and powerful. When he is in his human guise, he is gentle and delicate. Each individual also has a dual nature—driven by primal impulses, but also rational beings. People wear disguises in order to meet certain expectations. Pentheus, for example, disguises his immaturity with the trappings of royal authority. Dionysus disguises his divinity in human form, but he also disguises his quest for vengeance in the guise of religious conversion.

Dionysus exhibits duality in his feminine and masculine sides. As the stranger, he appears and acts feminine, and as himself, the god, he appears as the masculine bull, complete with horns. Indeed, he is something of a composite, just as he and Pentheus reflect the dualities of social order and religious ecstasy. These competing dualities eventually blur identity.

Additionally, there are the dualities between the divine and the bestial, the real and the imagined, and reason and madness. For example, Dionysus is a god and also a bull, and religious worship is also a bestial frenzy. The reality of the Dionysian rites contrasts with Pentheus's imagination of it. Both Pentheus and his mother experience the dualities of reason and madness.

Madness permeates The Bacchae. From the possessed women on Mount Cithaeron, to Pentheus's disintegrating psyche, to Dionysus's outsized need for revenge, there are myriad ways in which madness is exhibited. In the play, it is often a symptom of a repressed nature.


Classics scholar Albert Henrichs says Greek tragedy "reeks of blood and is strewn with corpses." True to form, The Bacchae is not short on gruesome violence. Just thinking about body parts being ripped off by bare hands is nauseating. Here, the violence is the expression of passion unleashed, of the primal side of humanity running rampant, either because too much pressure has been building without any relief, or because reason has been rejected altogether.

Greek tragedy is immersed in violence and death as central themes. The audience's emotional response to Pentheus's vicious murder is likely heightened by the prohibition against presenting violence and death onstage. Instead, the audience imagines the frenzied attack in which Pentheus's body is torn apart, fueled by the messenger's deep distress over what he has witnessed—and his gruesomely detailed account. When, later, they see the dazed Agave carrying her son's severed head, they are reminded of the horrific scene hidden from view.

Human beings are both attracted to, and repulsed by, violence. It is the antithesis of rationality, fueled as it is either by pure passion or by a calculated effort to inspire fear. Civilization itself may be an attempted bulwark against the violence permeating nature. Still, civilization cannot protect people completely. There are still earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, avalanches, and tsunamis. The ancient Greeks accounted for these natural occurrences in divine terms: Zeus or Poseidon, for example, was angry with another god or a mortal. Biological life is also violent: there are predators and prey, and death is often vicious and agonizing.

In keeping with the theme of natural violence, two instances of wild violence are relayed by messenger—a literary device that not only preserves the admonition against depicting such acts onstage, but also draws the audience ever closer to the action. Messengers carry vital information for everyone to hear; they are not simply one character relaying information to another, for that other's exclusive ears. The first messenger, the herder, is in awe of what he sees—the women's transformation from languid resting to vicious attacking. The second messenger is stunned by the carnage. The first essentially corrects Pentheus's erroneous belief about what he imagined the Maenads' activities to be. The second relates the consequences of that error: Pentheus should have understood Dionysus's power and capacity for violence, but instead entertained only more prurient fantasies. It is apparently only by experiencing such violence firsthand, in the form of his own murder, that the young king learns his grave mistake.

In Pentheus's murder, the audience sees the expression of divine violence. Dionysus destroys the palace, punishes humans in horrific ways, despite the fact that some (Tiresias and Cadmus) have made attempts to accept him. By the end of the play, Thebes is in utter ruins, its royal family completely destroyed. Pentheus's body parts are scattered and unburied, which does violence to customary burial practice and robs him of his dignity.


Regardless of how and why the Maenads ended up in the forest, the fact that original audiences—and perhaps even contemporary ones—are likely distressed to see these women abandon their expected domestic roles and live uncensored and unfettered, says something significant about traditional views of women. Euripides prompts his audience to ask whether the women have rebelled against these constraints, or if they are merely pawns in a god's grand plan. In so doing, he calls into question women's roles in society. Whether he celebrates a female rebellion against a patriarchy is an open question, but it is not unreasonable to interpret The Bacchae as at least partly critical of traditional views of women.

While serving as Maenads, Dionysian women utterly reject the restrictive mores of society. Their worship is unabashed and uninhibited—vulgar, even. Pentheus clearly sees their activities as direct threats to Thebes and his power. "Call out the troops," he commands his men. "We'll march out against these Bacchae ... we will lose control, if we have to put up with what we've suffered." In their religious ecstasy, Dionysus's followers—all women—have no need of men. The chorus asks the audience, "O when will I be dancing ... like a playful fawn ... in places where no hunters lurk." A sisterhood free of men surely must be frightening to those who wish to maintain the current social order. When they return to Thebes, covered in blood from their hunt, from men's work, they are thought to have contaminated the city. Yet all the while, do not forget, they are under Dionysus's control. Moreover, it is Dionysus, not Agave, who triumphs by Pentheus's death.

Dionysus himself seems somewhat ambivalent toward women. He does not engage with them rationally, as Pentheus does. Under Dionysus's instruction, their behavior is entirely irrational, practically inhuman—as in the scene in which Pentheus is murdered by his mother, Agave, and her sisters, which seems to imply rational interaction is impossible. If correct, this interpretation reflects a fairly standard view of women as irrational and impulsive, subdued not by reason but coercion. On the other hand, as the stranger, Dionysus appears effeminate; certainly, in contrast to Pentheus' sturdy build and demeanor, Dionysus favors the feminine.

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