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Theatre / Bacchae

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"ἥκω Διὸς παῖς τήνδε Θηβαίων χθόνα
Διόνυσος, ὃν τίκτει ποθ᾽ ἡ Κάδμου κόρη
Σεμέλη λοχευθεῖσ᾽ ἀστραπηφόρῳ πυρί"
Opening linesTranslation 

Bacchae is a Greek tragedy composed by Euripides and performed posthumously at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 BC, where it and the accompanying tragedies won first prize.

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The play follows the young god of wine and ecstasy Dionysus' return to Thebes, where most of his mortal family — his grandfather Cadmus, his aunts (Ino, Agave, and Autonoe) and his cousin Pentheus — have openly denied his divinity, claiming instead that Semele was killed by Zeus for pretending he was the father of her illegitimate child, who in reality Zeus rescued, raised and deified. Dionysus is enraged by this insult to him and his mother, and seeks revenge against the whole city.

As a result, he drives his aunts and the rest of the Theban women mad, causing them to desert their homes and dwell in the mountains with his own followers, the maenads/bacchants. He then turns his attention upon Pentheus, the present king of Thebes, who dares to θεομαχεῖν (make war against a god) — not a wise thing to do.

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Pentheus soon captures Dionysus, who is disguised as a mortal priest, and questions him. Frustrated by his evasive replies, the king has him imprisoned. However, Dionysus quickly escapes, destroying Pentheus' palace with an earthquake.

The god then takes advantage of Pentheus' desire to see the secret orgiastic rites of his followers, convincing him to dress as one of the women and spy upon them. Soon the doomed king is disguised and led from the safety of Thebes into the mountains, where Dionysus enacts his punishment upon both his cousin and his aunts.

The play is available online here... if you're not in the mood to translate ancient Greek, you could look here or here.


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Bacchae provides examples of:

  • Abdicate the Throne: Cadmus gave over the rule of Thebes to young Pentheus, his grandchild.
  • Above Good and Evil: Dionysus, being a god.
  • Amazon Brigade: Though not all the time, the maenads fit this trope when hunting or fighting with their thyrsoi.
  • Angel Unaware: Dionysus takes the appearance of a mortal throughout the play.
  • Animal Motifs: As Dionysus guides Pentheus to the maenads, the king thinks that the god has taken on the appearance of a bull.
  • Baleful Polymorph: At the end, Cadmus and his wife Harmonia are turned into serpents by Dionysus.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Pentheus and Dionysus are cousins. Pentheus also mentions another cousin, Actaeon, in the play.
    • The whole royal house of Thebes is one big screwed up family. Virtually none of them have a happy ending.
  • Blind Seer: Tiresias.
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution: Semele's sisters claim that her death was the result of this.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: The Bacchae tend to fill this role, mostly because of their Dionysus inspired ecstasy.
  • Disguised in Drag: Dionysus convinces Pentheus to disguise himself as a maenad in order to spy on them.
  • Downer Ending: It is a tragedy...
  • Dramatic Irony: The audience knows from the prologue that the "Bacchant" is Dionysus himself. Pentheus isn't so lucky.
  • Driven to Madness: Dionysus drives all the women of Thebes mad from their homes.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Dionysus's morality is arguable for a number of reasons, but he's at the very least flippant. However he takes his mother's reputation very seriously.
  • Exact Words: Dionysus promises Pentheus he will return to the city in his mother's arms. Pentheus does...in several pieces.
  • Foreshadowing: Pentheus himself mentions his cousin, Actaeon, and Cadmus reminds his grandson of Actaeon's horrible fate for challenging a goddess.
  • God in Human Form: Zeus in the backstory and Dionysus for most of the play.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Pentheus wants to keep his city orderly to the point where he basically runs a fascist state and is so blinded by his orthodoxy, he doesn't recognize a god in his presence. Dionysus wants to be rightly recognized as a god and clear his mother's name, to the point where he is willing to cross the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Greek Chorus: Composed of the Bacchantes.
  • Human Mom Nonhuman Dad: Dionysus.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: Is foreshadowed a few times in the play by mentions of Actaeon, and finally happens to Pentheus.
  • Important Haircut: Pentheus starts to punish the "Bacchant" he caught (Dionysus in disguise) by cutting off his hair.
  • Insane Equals Violent: Agave is driven mad... with some tragic results.
  • Oblivious to Hints: Multiple characters try to convince the king to accept Dionysus — none succeed.
  • Offing the Offspring: Agave does to to Pentheus, though unknowingly.
  • Off with His Head!
  • Order Versus Chaos: Pentheus wants to keep the traditional, established society of Thebes, and Dionysus wants to set it on its head.
  • Parental Incest: Pentheus is really interested in seeing all the immoral things the women of Thebes are up to, with a very particular emphasis on his mother.
  • Pretty Boy/Dude Looks Like a Lady: Dionysus is very very pretty. Pentheus describes his feminine beauty at great length.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Discussed; Pentheus says he really hopes his mother isn't doing anything too outrageous, or he'll "have" to kill her for the honor of his house. Of course, the maenads don't actually do any of the things Pentheus assumes a bunch of women hanging out alone in the wilderness would do, so that's not how things go.
  • Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: Pentheus pretty quickly convinces himself sexual misconduct is going on among the women of Thebes, and despite constantly decrying it, is very interested in seeing it for himself.
  • Too Dumb to Live: It's a very bad idea to deny the gods...
  • Tragedy
  • Tragic Mistake: Faced with a palace Dionysus struck down as a warning, the unruly "Bacchant" who had miraculously escaped from his prison, and the messenger who reccounts the wonders of Dionysus and his maenads, Pentheus makes the wrong choice: to continue waging his war against the god.
  • Weapon of Choice: The maenads fight with their thyrsoi.
  • Wig, Dress, Accent: Dionysus convinces Pentheus to disguise himself as one of the maenads with long hair, a dress, a fawnskin, and a thyrsus.

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