Bacchae of Euripides
"Many are the shapes of things divine;
much the gods achieve beyond expectation;
and what seems probable is not accomplished,
whereas for the improbable, god finds a way.
Such was the result of this affair.
- Euripdes, Bacchae (lines 1388-1392)
This is Euripides' last and best play. The setting of Mount Cithaeron with its maenads, animals and more helps make this macabre and haunting tale unique among the authors works. I found the story bizarre, mysterious, and ultimately terrifying in the savagery of the group worshiping the god Dionysus.
The Bacchae reflects a far more traditional view of humankind and the gods than do many of Euripides’ plays. Dionysus in The Bacchae is still seen as a psychological force or as a state of mind (in this case, irrationality), like Aphrodite and Artemis in the Hippolytus. In this play, however, it is Pentheus, the “modern man” who uses reason to challenge the authority of the gods, who suffers most. At the end of the tragedy, Cadmus cites the fate of Pentheus as proof that the gods exist and that they punish those who resist them (lines 1325-1326).
The final words of The Bacchae are a restatement of the traditional Greek view that the gods act in ways that humankind does not expect and that human knowledge is therefore limited (lines 1388-1392). Not only is it a conclusion that would be appropriate for nearly any Greek tragedy, it resembles the endings of both Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. This traditional Greek belief that moderation is best because humankind’s knowledge is limited is central to the entire structure of The Bacchae. While Pentheus is punished for his stubborn resistance to the god Dionysus, his mother, Agave, who accepted the god, also suffers. I found this development to be a troubling aspect of the work; at the end of the play, Dionysus seems to be punishing both his enemies and his own followers. We need to remember that, for Euripides, Dionysus symbolizes irrationality. Those who exclude irrationality totally from their lives become stolid, unimaginative, and dull; when their carefully reasoned worlds collapse, they may be “torn apart” by irrationality, as literally happens to Pentheus in this play. Yet those who succumb to irrationality entirely are playing with madness, and they may eventually destroy what is most dear to them. With irrationality, as with everything, Euripides is saying, the middle way is best.
In dramatic terms, Euripides accomplishes a difficult task in The Bacchae. He manages to change the audience’s opinion about both Dionysus and Pentheus as the drama unfolds. When Dionysus first appears, he wins the audience’s favor: They are told that Pentheus is resisting the god unjustly and that Dionysus has come to Thebes in person to reward the just and to punish the guilty. By the end of the drama, however, Dionysus seems a fearful figure whose penalties are extreme and whose power destroys even those who embrace his cult. Pentheus, on the other hand, first appears as a brash, skeptical, and thoroughly unlikable individual. Yet by the end of the drama, the audience is likely to pity him because of the degree to which he has been punished. This ability to change an audience’s perspective in such a short time is one of Euripides’ finest accomplishments in this play.
The irrationality on display in this drama is something that I have had difficulty understanding. Not that I intend to deny the irrational, that is impossible as demonstrated by Euripides and many since, but I am unwilling to surrender to the enemies of rationality --ecstasy, infatuation, and unbridled nature. Somehow there must be a way to find what Aristotle would call a "golden mean". This play demonstrates the difficulty of that task was just as great in Ancient Greece as it is today.