The Bacchae by Euripides: Summary, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn all about The Bacchae, written by Euripides and one of the greatest dramas ever composed. When you're finished, take the quiz and see what you've learned.

Dionysius and The Bacchae

Dionysius is arrested and brought before King Pentheus
Dionysius Arrested

Dionysius, the main character in The Bacchae, is the one god in Greek Mythology that most people can get behind. As the God of Wine and Revelry, he was fun-loving. He traveled with a group of women, the maenads or the bacchae, giving them as much wine as they wanted. The festivals for Dionysius often involved drunken orgies. Think of the wildest college party you have ever heard of and you have a good idea of what was going on. Now think about the person organizing it and you have a good picture of Dionysius.

What's It About?

The Bacchae uses that general perception of Dionysius by having him act exactly the opposite of how he normally behaves. The play gives him a great motive too, revenge and the establishment of his cult in his home city of Thebes. Semele, his mortal mother, had told her family that she was pregnant with the son of Zeus. But then she was killed by a bolt of lightning. Her sisters believed that she had lied about Zeus being his father and that was why she had been killed. Dionysius has come to Thebes to get even with his aunts and demonstrate his divinity.

Part of the Bacchic Ceremonies
Bacchic Ritual

Dionysius arrives in Thebes as a peasant but enchants all its women into going up to the mountains as part of a bacchic orgy. The king, Pentheus, has him arrested and chained. Dionysius shrugs himself free and razes the royal palace and is confronting Pentheus when word of the Theban women comes to him. Pentheus wants to kill the women, but Dionysius convinces him to spy on them first. When the pair find them, Dionysius reveals him to the women. They are still in the middle of their enchantment and rip him to shreds.

Pentheus' mother comes back to Thebes with her son's head but believing it is a mountain lion's head. When she realizes what she has done, she and her sisters are sent into exile. We also learn that Cadmus, Dionysius' grandfather, will be turned into a snake. Along with his wife, they will lead a horde of barbarians into the other Greek city-states.

Themes

In Euripides' plays, he often used the gods to represent various aspects of human personalities. In The Bacchae, Dionysius represents man's instinctive nature, while his cousin Pentheus represents the more civilized side. In that respect, the moral of the story is that a person who gives in to his instincts can find a connection to the gods, while those who don't or don't allow others to will lose all control of their urges. His Bacchae are closer to the gods, but the Thebans kill their own king.

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