Two Euripides plays in a row! See what happens when the library book is due tomorrow? But before I get to the play, here is a little comical interlude.
This guy walks into a Greek tailor shop with a torn pair of pants. He hands them to the tailor who says “Euripides?” “Yes,” replies the guy, “Eumenides?”
*Snort* Good one, eh? No, I did not make that up, if I made it up, the joke would be even worse. Now, The Bacchae.
Probably written in 407 BCE, the play was not produced until 406 or 405, a year or two after Euripides’ death. Like Phoenician Women, there are parts of this play that are not by Euripides but we have to take what we can get.
Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, is now an old man and has abdicated his throne to his son Pentheus who is probably only about 18 or so. Dionysus has come to town from Asia with Bacchae in tow – and this is a bit of real history since the cult of Dionysus did come to Greece from Asia. The people of Thebes refused to accept Dionysus as a god (He is the son of Cadmus’ daughter Semele and Zeus) and so Dionysus sent the women of Thebes into a frenzy. At the opening of the play the women are wandering the hills around Thebes, tearing cattle apart with their bare hands, and purportedly having wild orgies. I say purportedly because men can’t get close enough to find out exactly what the women are up to or they risk being torn apart themselves. The thought that the women are having orgies without there being any men involved angers Pentheus to no end. He says he is concerned for the women’s honor but really, he’s just pissed that the ladies are doin’ it for themselves. Women need to be at home and under the control of the menfolk!
It doesn’t take much for the golden-haired stranger who came into town with the Bacchae to goad Pentheus. The golden-haired man is, of course, Dionysus, he even says so several times. But no one believes him probably because he is also mocking them all at the same time and getting them to dig themselves into even bigger trouble.
Pentheus tries to lock Dionysus up in prison but the god escapes easily. Such a feat should have been a major giveaway but they all refuse to see. At this point Dionysus has Pentheus so worked up it doesn’t take much to convince him to dress up like a woman to go spy on the women in the hills. Pentheus’ own mother is up there after all and he has to see what she is doing.
Dionysus leads him up to the hills where the women are lolling about but Pentheus can’t see the whole scene well enough. So Dionysus bends down a big pine tree for Pentheus to climb up for a bird’s-eye view. Now, if someone bent down a big tree and said, here, climb up, I would probably realize something’s up. Not Pentheus, he’s still obsessed over the orgy he thinks is going on. So up the tree goes and he gets a marvelous view, but so do all the women who can now see him up in the tree. Needless to say the tree doesn’t stay standing for long and Pentheus gets torn apart. His own mother, Agave, is the first to leap on him.
The women head back to Thebes, Agave in the lead with Pentheus’ head on a stick:
You citizens of this towered city,
men of Thebes, behold the trophy of your women’s
hunting! This is the quarry of our chase, taken
not with nets nor spears of bronze but by the white
and delicate hands of women. What are they worth,
your boasting now and all that uselessness
your amor is, since we, with our bare hands,
captured this quarry and tore its bleeding body
limb from limb?
Everyone looks on in horror. The women think they have killed a wild lion. Dionysus is having so much fun he nearly wets himself. Of course when Agave comes to her senses there is much grief on her part and gloating on Dionysus’.
Through the play runs a line on what is wise and not wise:
a tongue without reins,
defiance, unwisdom —
their end is disaster.
But the life of quiet good,
the wisdom that accepts —
these abide unshaken,
the houses of men.
Humility is also wise, purity, acceptance and an unrebellious soul. Obviously, the wise thing when Dionysus came to town would have been to accept him right away.
Dionysus being a god gets the last laugh but he doesn’t get away without a barbed zinger curtesy of Cadmus/ Euripides:
Cadmus: We have learned. But your sentence is too harsh.
Dionysus: I am a god. I was blasphemed by you.
Cadmus: Gods should be exempt from human passions.
D: Long ago my father Zeus ordained these things.
Don’t you just hear the “so there!” at the end of that? Dionysus sometimes comes off as a naughty, petulant boy so it is no wonder the people of Thebes didn’t believe he was a god and drop everything to worship him. It’s a good play though and the bloodshed is surprisingly minimal; only a cow and Pentheus die. Euripides must have mellowed a bit in his old age.