Follow TV Tropes


Theatre / Bacchae

Go To

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

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.

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.

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's palace with an earthquake.

The god then takes advantage of Pentheus's 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. Note: There is a massive gap in the text near the end.

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.
  • Agent Scully: Pentheus thinks Dionysus isn't a real god and is just someone lying to form a cult. The Bacchae themselves felt the same way, which is why Dionysus decides to drive them mad and send them to the mountains as punishment.
  • Amazon Brigade: Though not all the time, the maenads fit this trope when hunting or fighting with their thyrsoi.
  • Ambiguously Bi: As translator Anne Carson notes, Pentheus spends rather a lot of time describing Dionysus' androgynous beauty.
  • 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.
  • Awful Truth: For Agave, that she didn't kill an animal but her own son. Cadmus has to slowly break the news to her...
  • 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.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Pentheus is openly scathing about Dionysus's Otherworldly and Sexually Ambiguous appearance, but as soon as he succumbs to Bacchic frenzy, he is only too keen to dress as a woman.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: The Bacchae tend to fill this role, mostly because of their Dionysus-inspired ecstasy.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Pentheus persecutes the Bacchae because their wild and subversive behavior undermines his power as king, but he ultimately can't do anything to them. However weird and girly, Dionysus is a god.
  • Decapitation Presentation: All that's left on Pentheus is his head, which Agave presents to Cadmus, thinking it's the head of a mountain lion.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Pentheus decides to deny the existence of a god, then accompany a suspicious man into the mountains to watch a group of Ax-Crazy women perform secret rites because the suspicious man cleverly appeals to Pentheus’s sexual curiosity about the Maenads.
  • 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 several pieces.
  • Forced Transformation: At the end, Cadmus and his wife Harmonia are turned into serpents by Dionysus.
  • Foreshadowing: Pentheus himself mentions his cousin, Actaeon, and Cadmus reminds his grandson of Actaeon's horrible fate for challenging a goddess.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: Dionysus enters Thebes disguised as a human priest of himself. Pentheus doesn't recognize him as a god because, in Dionysus' words, he's too impious. He appears in a more obviously divine form at the end of the play, which could be interpreted as more eldritch.
  • 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.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Dionysus has a human mother and divine father, but he's technically a full-blown Physical God and not a demigod like other half-human half-god figures in Greek mythology.
  • Homage: Pentheus' death is Call-Back to both Orpheus' dismemberment at the hands of maenads, and Dionysus (as Zagreus) being similarly dismembered by Titans.
  • Horned Humanoid: When Pentheus starts to hallucinate after being dressed up like a bacchante, he perceives Dionysus as having bull's horns. (Older myths, especially those connected to the Orphic Mysteries, described Dionysus/Zagreus as having horns.)
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: Is foreshadowed a few times in the play by mentions of Actaeon, and finally happens to Pentheus.
  • Hypocrite: Pentheus spends a lot of the first act ranting about how Dionysus' cult is corrupting women sexually... but he jumps at the opportunity to spy on them naked himself.
  • 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.
  • Killed Offscreen: As per usual in Greek theater, the gruesome death of Pentheus is exposited by a witness after the fact.
  • Made of Plasticine: The maenads rip apart people and animals rather easily. It is noted that this is not normal and it is a sign that Dionysus is influencing the flesh they attack to make it easier to rip apart.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Agave is horrified when she realizes that she killed Pentheus.
  • Never Accepted in His Hometown: Dionysus comes from Thebes and is the son of a Theban princess, but he was rejected there and gains followers in Asia instead. By the time the play starts he has come back to Thebes to prove himself as a god and be worshipped by them too, by force if he has to.
  • Non Violent Initial Confrontation: Pentheus angrily confronts a disguised Dionysus verbally, and Dionysus ultimately convinces him to dress as a woman to spy on the Bacchae, luring Pentheus to his (offstage) violent death.
  • Not Enough to Bury: Pentheus’ body parts are scattered all over Mt. Cithaeron. Only his head makes it back to Thebes.
  • Nude Nature Dance: The Bacchae love to do this, complete with suckling baby animals on their own breasts.
  • Oblivious to Hints: Multiple characters try to convince the king to accept Dionysus — none succeed.
  • Offing the Offspring: Agave does this to Pentheus, though unknowingly.
  • 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.
  • Play-Along Prisoner: Dionysus, being a god, is perfectly capable of escaping when he is captured by Pentheus, but chooses to not reveal himself for a long time.
  • 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...
  • Torn Apart by the Mob: This is how Pentheus dies. He's torn to pieces by the Bacchantes, including his own mother. This is actually a reference to Dionysus' (Zagreus) own death at the hands of the Titans.
  • 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 recounts the wonders of Dionysus and his maenads, Pentheus makes the wrong choice: to continue waging his war against the god.
  • Wig, Dress, Accent: Dionysus convinces Pentheus to disguise himself as one of the maenads with long hair, a dress, a fawnskin, and a thyrsus.
  • You Cannot Grasp the True Form: Semele died from asking to see Zeus in his true form, and was burned to cinders as a result.