Study Guide for Euripides' The Bacchae (or The Bakkhai)


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Source: The Beazley Archive

by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Temple University

updated 18 December 2013

There is also a structural outline.

We will read two plays that feature the god Dionysus as a character; The Bacchae and Aristophanes' The Frogs. Given this presence, and since this is Euripides' last play, we should be aware that Euripides' might be commenting on the nature of tragedy and theater. Keep your eye out for things in this play that might be suggestive of "metatheater" -- theater that is about the nature of theater itself.

Like many of Euripides' plays, opinion is divided over its meaning. Is Euripides "anti-Dionysus" or "pro-Dionysus"? After years of scepticism about the Olympian gods does this demonstration of their power show a death-bed conversion, or is Euripides again showing the absurdity of traditional religion and the viciousness of human nature that it conceals? Also, carefully consider the nature of Dionysiac religion, as established in the early choral odes.

Prologue (lines 1-63): Dionysus will prove himself a god by disguising himself as a man. Is this strange? Why is Dionysus so obsessed with proving his power and divnity? Note that the myth represents him as coming from Asia.

Parodos (choral entry song, 64-169) The chorus members are, as characters, Bacchants from Asia; don't confuse them with the Theban Bacchants on Mt Cithaeron. Note what actvities and animals characterize the worship of Dionysus

Act I (170-369): What relation is Pentheus to Cadmus? Where is Pentheus' father?

Tiresias and Cadmus: do you see anything funny in this scene? Note that the two men make a rational choice to adopt an irrational religion; are they truly worshippers of Dionysus?

Pentheus: how old is he? Does he remind you of any other characters? What does he assume the women are doing while off on the mountainside? Is he right?

266319 Study Tiresias' defense of Dionysus carefully. How does it strike you?

336: pay attention to the myth of death of Actaeon, as it foreshadows the death of Pentheus

Stasimon 1 ("standing song" after the chorus has entered, 370-433)

Consider the message of peace and tranquility in the worship of Dionysus. How can it be achieved?

Act II (434-515):

450ff. Throughout this and the other encounters between Pentheus and Dionysus, beware of indications that Pentheus might feel an erotic attraction to Dionysus/Stranger. What familial relation do they have?

505-9 Dionysus is probing Pentheus' self-awareness and says that Pentheus is deceived about his true nature. What does he mean by this?

Stasimon II (519-75)

536-55 Note the associations of Pentheus with savagery through the myth of the founding of Thebes

Act III (576-861):

585-95 An earthquake releases Dionysus/Stranger. Is it real or imagined?

616-35 What does the collapse of the palace symbolize? The bull?

676-774 The messenger's speech is important as it indicates more about the nature of the women's worship of the god. Is there anythng wrong with the initial picture? How do the subsequent events on the mountain foreshadow what happens later? Why does the Stanger know what the messenger will say?

809-45. The key scene in the play. What happens to make Dionysus/Stranger to make his final move here? What does he play on in Pentheus? What is it about getting Pentheus to admit his desire to see the women that places him under the god's power?

Stasimon III (862-911)

Compare the chorus' words of happiness and wisdom with the gather sense of violent doom

Act IV (912-76):

Is this the real Pentheus, or is he mad? Why dress as a woman? what does that symbolize? By the way, remember that female characters are always played by men, so is Euripides having a bit of a joke here?

Stasimon IV (977-1023)

Is this violent song compatible with the chorus' earlier visions of the Dionysian?

Act V (1024-1152)

Death scene. When Pentheus is atop the pine tree, what aspect of Dionysian worship does he resemble?

Look at Aristotle's remarks about family tragedies. What, if anything, does Pentheus realize at the end?

Stasimon V (1153-64)

A victory song and dance. Contrast with what follows

Act VI/exodus (1165-end)

What have the Bacchants been doing with the body of Pentheus?

How does Cadmus get Agave to return to reality?

Why does Euripides put so much stress on the recognition of Agave?

1346 Is Cadmus right that Dionysus has been excessively cruel?

When does Dionysus leave? When does the chorus

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