Euripides The Bacchae

Lesson Objectives

By the end of the lesson you should be able to:

  • Describe the historical contexts informing the rise of Greek tragedy in classical Athens.
  • Explain the key features of Greek tragedy, including Aristotle’s notion of catharsis.
  • Describe Friedrich Nietzsche’s interpretation of tragedy in terms of a complementary tension between the ‘Dionysian’ and ‘Apollonian.’

Summarize the interpretation given of the play’s religious dimensions.

Lesson 4: Euripides The Bacchae

  Reading

  • Review the lesson notes in the “Historical Content” section, prior to reading Euripides’s play, The Bacchae.
  • Read the Bacchae. [Online Version]. The chief characters in the play are:
    • DIONYSUS: divine son of Zeus and Semele, also called Bromius or
    • TIRESIAS: an old blind prophet 
CADMUS: grandfather of both Dionysus and Pentheus, an old man 
PENTHEUS: young king of Thebes, grandson of Cadmus, cousin of Dionysus 
AGAVE: mother of Pentheus, daughter of Cadmus, sister of Semele
    • The play opens in front of the palace at Thebes, with a speech by Dionysus.
    • The Bacchae is a play, so it may well help you to read aloud. The online edition you are reading includes some brief stage directions, so try to visualize the action as you read.
    • Make note of scenes and lines in the play that seem to you especially important or perhaps confusing.

After reading the play, proceed with the lesson notes.

Historical Context

  • Euripides
    • The flowering of Athenian tragedy (and comedy) was during the 5th and early 4th centuries BCE.
    • In the 5th century, Athens became a democratically-based city state. Wealth and power shifted from aristocratic families to the people.
    • A foundational event during this era was the military defeat of an invading Persian army at Marathon in 490. Ten years later, the Persians returned in force, and Athens and Sparta joined forces to defeat them again. It is this latter battle — the Battle of Thermopylae — that was the basis for the 2006 film 300, directed by Zack Snyder.
      • It is worth reading this short, critical take on the ideological uses of these famous historical battles. Read ‘The Truth Behind 300.’ Euripides himself was wary of the ideological uses of valorizing war.
      • Nevertheless, these military victories, which brought Athens confidence, wealth, and political power coupled with the rise of democratic traditions, were followed by an outburst of artistic and creative energy that would not be seen again in Europe until the Renaissance. It was during this period, for example, under the leadership of Pericles, that the famous buildings of classical Athens (such as the Parthenon) were built. Athens had become a major regional power, an empire, and one with imperial ambitions.
      • The emergence of Athens and Sparta as regional powers also set the stage for a later conflict between the two, the long, drawn out Peloponnesian War (431-404). (A useful comparison is perhaps the drawn-out cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, a conflict that followed on the heels of their victory over Germany and Italy in WWII.) The Peloponnesian War would bring great hardship to Athens, and challenge political, moral and religious convictions.
      • The affluence and power of Athens in these years also gave birth to a new genre of performance — dramatic theatre.
      • Athenian literature of this period is overwhelmingly shaped by the crisis of the war, as intellectuals and artists attempted to understand how such deep-seated strife and suffering could follow so quickly on the heels of the glory days of the very recent past.
    • Euripides was born in 484, into a well-respected and influential Athenian family.
      • Euripides devoted his life to work as a dramatist. His plays competed with those of Aeschylus, who was 40 years his senior, and Sophocles, his younger contemporary.
      • Many of Euripides plays have survived, attesting to his popularity and influence.
      • Late in his life, in his early 70s, after the experience of more than two decades of decline and suffering owing to the Peloponnesian War, Euripides, for reasons not entirely clear, left Athens and took up residence in the court of the king of Macedon. Here, he wrote what many critics consider his finest play, The Bacchae, which would be performed in Athens two years after Euripides’ death to public acclaim. The landscape of his new home was mountainous, and in The Bacchae the mountains are lauded as a place of renewal, free from the corruptions of city life.
      • Comparison of the Athens of Euripides with the contemporary political and cultural climate is not unreasonable. Today, as was the case then, we are plagued with war and conflict, economic hardships, moral uncertainties, violence and terror, and a mix of resurgent religious fundamentalism, scepticism, and spiritual seeking. It was in such a cultural environment, reflecting back on a long life scarred by war, that Euripides wrote The Bacchae.
      • Writing in the early 1950s, in the aftermath of WW II, Phillip Vellcott wrote, in the introduction to his translation of The Bacchae: “One experience which we have in common with that world [of Euripides] is the suffering and the guilt of war… Another experience uniting us with Euripides’ audience is the progressive loss of faith in any agency external to man [sic] himself which man might look to, either for aid in confronting the dangers of life, or for guidance in solving moral problems. The modern world has derived its traditional code of behaviour even more specifically from divine injunction than did ancient Greece; and today’s irrational search for credible sources of guidance suggests parallels with that addiction to imported religions which made The Bacchae a topical piece.”
      • Sixty years on, The Bacchae is perhaps even more relevant than in the post WW II era. The literary critic Terry Eagleton, for example, opens his reflections on the connections between religion, violence and terror in a post 9/11 world (Holy Terrors), with an analysis of The Bacchae. Later in this lesson, we will return to Eagleton’s reading of The Bacchae.
    • Dionysus
      • As the god Dionysus is a central character in The Bacchae, some background information on this god is helpful. Another name for him is Bacchus.
      • Dionysus was a principal god in ancient Greece. Not strictly one of the Olympians, Dionysus nevertheless held a central place in the mythological and ritual life of the ancient Greeks. (Note: The Gods of ancient Greece were called “Olympians,” as they made their mythological home on Mount Olympus.)

That Dionysus is spoken of in Homer demonstrates that he had a presence in Greek religious life from very early on. He was born of a mort

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