Notes and Questions for Euripides' Bacchae

[Read the introduction on "Cultural Background" etc., pp. xii-xxi. Also, re-read "Dionysus" (packet 14-15).]
It helps to know that Agave is a sister of the Semele who was the mother of Dionysus. The sisters are Cadmus' daughters, while Pentheus is Agave's son and thus Cadmus' grandson.

(line 64) The Chorus is a group of maenads, wild female followers of Dionysus.
(line 66, 115) Thunderer = Dionysus or Bacchus.
(lines 120-125) Crete . . . Curetes . . .Corybantes. Crete was the island of the mother-goddess. Zeus' mother Rhea, was attended by dancers called Curetes, who celebrated the birth of Zeus in a cave on Crete. Corybantes were followers of another mother-goddess named Cybele. Often, in Dionysian and other rituals, dancing was used to induce an ecstatic, religious trance.
(line 142) Bromius, another name for Dionysus or Bacchus.
(lines 295-6) sewn in thigh . . . showing sky, an attempt to translate a pun in Greek. The Greek text says that Zeus gave the dummy Dionysus as a hostage (homeros) to Hera, but later, men garbled the story: Zeus had sewn Dionysus in his thigh (meros). Notice that Tiresias contradicts what the Chorus of Maenads says at lines 94-100.
(line 337) Actaeon Torn to pieces by hounds. See "Artemis" (packet 14).
(line 1301) like you—with no reverence for the god. At first, Agave denied the divinity of Dionysus (lines 23-37). How did Cadmus blaspheme?

1. What do you suppose was the attraction, religious and psychological, of "goat-kill blood, raw flesh-eating joy" (line 138)? What might be beneficial about Dionysus' madness? (See pp. 12, 16, 18, and the introduction xii-xvi.)

2. In what ways is the conflict in this play like or unlike the conflict in Antigone? In Oedipus the King? Compare Dionysus with Antigone and Pentheus with Oedipus and Creon. (Compare hubris and tragic mistakes.)

3. Can you think of any reason(s) why Tiresias rationalizes the story of Dionysus being sewn in the thigh of Zeus? (See introduction, "New Learning" xvi-xvii and "Tiresias" xxvii.) Why do you suppose the Chorus contradicts what he says? (See lines 94-100, 295-96, 523-29.) Comment on the symbolism of the "male womb" (line 527).

4. Do you think that Cadmus is sincere in his worship of Dionysus? (See lines 330-42.) Do you think he should be punished at the end? Why or why not?

5. What are some differences and similarities between the madness of the worshippers of Dionysus and the madness of Pentheus? (See lines 297-317, 325-328.)

6. What do you think Dionysus means when he tells Pentheus, "Who are you? You don't know!" (line 506)? (Compare and contrast to Oedipus.)

7. In light of what happens in the rest of the play, how can Dionysus say, "A wise man trains his temper to be good and calm" (line 641)? Do you think this Dionysian religion contradicts the Greek ideal of the Mean? Why or why not?

8. Why do you think Pentheus is so curious to see the revels and rites on the mountain? Find other male-female role reversals throughout the play. Why do you think there are so many? (See pp. 31-35 and 37-40. Read also "Plot" xxiv and "Pentheus" xxviii-xxix.)

9. What answers does the Chorus give to the question "What is wise" (line 878)? (See also lines 395-402, 991-1023, 1150-52, and introduction xxvi.)

10. How can the laws of tradition (custom, culture, nomos) and nature (wilderness, physis) be the same? (See lines 895-96, note on p. 72, and introduction xx-xxi.)

11. Do you think Agave is also a tragic figure?

12. Compare / contrast Cadmus' view of the gods in lines 1346 and 1348 (p. 56) with those of Oedipus. See also Agave's last speech (lines 1384-1387).

13. Which of the interpretations of the Bacchae (introduction xxix-xlii) do you find most convincing and why? See also next question, a variation of interpretation #7 (xxxvii.)

14. The African playwright Wole Soyinka sees this play in terms of the struggle between lower class slaves and their oppressors, the ruling class. For Soyinka, Dionysus can be seen in part as wish fulfillment for the underclass. Dionysus' history, Soyinka writes, "was extravagantly rich in all the ingredients of a ravaged social psyche: displacement, suppression of identity, dissociation, dispossession, trials, and the goal of restoration. As deity also of the moist elements he fulfilled the visceral link of the peasant personality to Nature rhythms, his experience of growth, decay, and rejuvenation—in short, the magic and mystery of life. As a non-Olympian, he was easy, even natural to identify with. His followers could become entheos; his worship released the pent-up frustrated energy of the downtrodden" (vii). What do you think of this view?

15. The last chorus (lines 1388-1392) may be an actor's addition. Do you think it applies to the events in the tragedy? Why or why not?

Four Types of Beneficial (Divine) Madness (according to Plato)

In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato tells of the four kinds of beneficial madness and the divinities who preside over each type:

1. Prophetic: (Apollo)

2. Telestic, ritual: (Dionysus)

3. Poetic: (Muses)

4. Erotic (Aphrodite, Eros)

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