Puneet Varma (Editor)

The Bacchae

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
Written by

Original language
Ancient Greek

Date premiered
405 BC


The Bacchae (2002)

Place premiered
Classical Athens

The Bacchae t0gstaticcomimagesqtbnANd9GcRGj0McVdCFjcnLT

Bacchae, female followers of Dionysus

DionysusTiresiasCadmusPentheusServantMessengerSecond MessengerAgave

Euripides plays, Tragedies, Other plays

Euripides the bacchae summary and analysis

The Bacchae (/ˈbæk/; Greek: Βάκχαι, Bakchai; also known as The Bacchantes /ˈbækənts, bəˈkænts, -ˈkɑːnts/) is an ancient Greek tragedy, written by the Athenian playwright Euripides during his final years in Macedonia, at the court of Archelaus I of Macedon. It premiered posthumously at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 BC as part of a tetralogy that also included Iphigeneia at Aulis and Alcmaeon in Corinth, and which Euripides' son or nephew are assumed to have directed. It won first prize in the City Dionysia festival competition.


The Bacchae is concerned with two opposite sides of human nature: the rational and civilized side, which is represented by the character of Pentheus, the king of Thebes, and the instinctive side, which is represented by Dionysus. This side is sensual without analysis, it feels a connection between man and beast, and it is a potential source of divinity and spiritual power. In Euripides’ plays the gods represent various human qualities, allowing the audience to grapple with considerations of the human condition. The Bacchae seems to be saying that it is perilous to deny or ignore the human desire for Dionysian experience; those who are open to the experience will find spiritual power, and those who suppress or repress the desire in themselves or others will transform it into a destructive force.

The tragedy is based on the Greek myth of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave, and their punishment by the god Dionysus (who is Pentheus' cousin). The god Dionysus appears at the beginning of the play and proclaims that he has arrived in Thebes to avenge the slander, which has been repeated by his aunts, that he is not the son of Zeus. In response, he intends to introduce Dionysian rites into the city, and he intends to demonstrate to the king, Pentheus, and to Thebes that he was indeed born a god. However, as the play proceeds Dionysus encounters what he considers newly occurring reasons to be angry, and in his capriciousness, the audience watches his revenge grow out of proportion. By the end of the play, there is the horrible and gruesome death of the king and the wrecking of the city of Thebes by the destruction of its ruling party and by the exiling of its entire population. Dionysus will further cause the plundering of a number of other cities.

In The Bacchae there are two completely different versions of Dionysus. First there is the god as he is described by the chorus, which is the god of wine and uninhibited joy and instinct. However, Dionysus also appears as a character on the stage, has come for revenge, and is never like this. He is instead deliberate, plotting, angry and vengeful.

The Bacchae is considered to be not only Euripides' greatest tragedy, but one of the greatest ever written, modern or ancient. The Bacchae is distinctive for the facts that the chorus is integrated into the plot and the god is not a distant presence, but a character in the play, indeed, the protagonist.

Why study dionysus and the bacchae with judith mossman

Various interpretations

The Bacchae has been the subject of widely varying interpretations regarding what the play as a whole means, or even indeed whether there is a “moral” to the story.

The extraordinary beauty and passion of the poetic choral descriptions indicate that the author certainly knew what attracted those who followed Dionysus. And the vivid gruesomeness of the punishment of Pentheus suggests that he could also understand those who were troubled by the religion.

At one time the interpretation that prevailed was that the play was an expression of Euripides’ religious devotion, as though after a life of being critical of the Greek gods and their followers, the author finally repented of his cynicism, and wrote a play that honors Dionysus and that carries a dire warning to anyone who doesn’t believe.

Then, at the end of the 19th century the opposite idea began to take hold; it was thought that Euripides was doing with The Bacchae what he had always done, pointing out the inadequacy of the Greek gods and religions, which were based on myths.


The Dionysus in Euripides' tale is a young god, angry that his mortal family, the royal house of Cadmus, has denied him a place of honor as a deity. His mortal mother, Semele, was a mistress of Zeus; while pregnant she was killed, through trickery, by Hera, who was jealous of her husband's affair. When Semele died, her sisters said it was Zeus' will and accused her of lying; they also accused their father, Cadmus, of using Zeus as a coverup. Most of Semele's family refuse to believe Dionysus is the son of Zeus, and the young god is spurned in his home. He has traveled throughout Asia and other foreign lands, gathering a cult of female worshipers (Maenads or Bacchantes). At the play's start he has returned, disguised as a stranger, to take revenge on the house of Cadmus. He has also driven the women of Thebes, including his aunts, into an ecstatic frenzy, sending them dancing and hunting on Mount Cithaeron, much to the horror of their families. Complicating matters, his cousin, the young king Pentheus, has declared a ban on the worship of Dionysus throughout Thebes.


The play begins in front of the palace of Thebes, with Dionysus telling the story of his origin and his reasons for visiting the city. Dionysus explains that he was born prematurely, when Hera made Zeus send down a lightning bolt, killing the pregnant Semele and causing the birth. Some in Thebes, he notes, don’t believe this story. In fact, Semele’s sisters — Autonoe, Agave, and Ino – claim it is a lie intended to cover up the fact that Semele became pregnant by some mortal; they say Zeus' lightning was a punishment for the lie. Dionysus reveals that he has driven the women of the city mad, including his three aunts, and has led them into the mountains to observe his ritual festivities. He explains that while he is appearing, at the moment, disguised as a mortal, he will vindicate his mother by appearing before all of Thebes as a god, the son of Zeus, and establishing his permanent cult of followers.

Dionysus exits to go into the mountains, and the chorus enters. They dance and sing, celebrating Dionysus and adding details of his birth and the Dionysian rites. Then Tiresias, the blind and elderly seer, appears. He knocks on the palace doors and calls for Cadmus, the founder and former king of Thebes. The two venerable old men are planning to join the revelry in the mountains when Cadmus’ grandson Pentheus, the current king, enters. Disgusted to find the two old men in festival dress, he scolds them and orders his soldiers to arrest anyone engaging in Dionysian worship. He wants the "foreigner", whom he doesn't recognize as Dionysus in disguise, to be captured. Pentheus intends to have him stoned to death.

The guards soon return with Dionysus himself. His hands are bound, and he is disguised as a priest and the leader of the Asian Maenads. Pentheus questions him, his words showing both his skepticism and his interest in the Dionysian rites. Dionysus' answers keep the meaning hidden, only hinting at the truth Pentheus cannot see. Infuriated, Pentheus has him taken away in chains and locked up in his stable, where the guards attach the other end of their prisoner's chains to the hooves of an angry bull. Dionysus, being a god and powerful, breaks free and creates more havoc, razing the palace with an earthquake and fire. Dionysus is confronting Pentheus, when a herdsman arrives from the top of Mount Cithaeron, where he had been herding his grazing cattle. He reports that he found women on the mountain behaving strangely. First, some were sleeping quietly, or drinking wine while listening to flute music. Some were going into the woods "in pursuit of love". Some women were putting snakes in their hair, some were suckling wild wolves and gazelles. Some caused water, wine or milk to spring up from the ground. One woman had honey oozing from her thyrsus. The herdsmen and the shepherds made a plan to capture one particular celebrant, Pentheus' mother. But when they jumped out of hiding to grab her, the tables were turned, and the women pursued the men. The men escaped, but their cattle were not so fortunate, as the women fell upon the animals, ripping them to shreds with their bare hands. The women carried on, plundering two villages that were further down the mountain, stealing bronze, iron and even babies. When villagers attempted to fight back, the women drove them off using only their ceremonial staffs of fennel. They then returned to the mountain top and washed up, as snakes licked them clean.

Dionysus, still in disguise, persuades Pentheus to forgo his plan to defeat and massacre the women with an armed force. He says it would be better first to spy on them, while disguised as a female Maenad to avoid detection. Dressing Pentheus in this fashion, giving him a thyrsus and fawn skins, Dionysus leads him out of the house. At this point, Pentheus appears not wholly sane, as he thinks he sees two suns in the sky, and believes he now has the strength to rip up mountains with his bare hands. He has also begun to see through Dionysus' mortal disguise, perceiving horns coming out of the god's head.

A messenger arrives to report that once they reached Mount Cithaeron, Pentheus wanted to climb an evergreen tree to get a better view and the stranger used divine power to bend down the tall tree and place the king in its highest branches. Then Dionysus, revealing himself, called out to his followers and pointed out the man in the tree. This drove the Maenads wild. Led by Agave, his mother, they forced the trapped Pentheus down from the tree top, ripped off his limbs and his head, and tore his body into pieces.

After the messenger has relayed this news, Agave arrives, carrying her son's head. In her possessed state, she believes it is the head of a mountain lion. She proudly displays it to her father, Cadmus, and is confused when he does not delight in her trophy, and his face instead contorts in horror. Agave then calls out for Pentheus to come marvel at her feat, and nail the head above her door so she can show it to all of Thebes. But Dionysus' possession begins to wear off, and Cadmus forces her to recognize what she's done. As the play ends, the corpse of Pentheus is reassembled as well as is possible, the royal family devastated and destroyed. Agave and her sisters are sent into exile, and Dionysus decrees that Cadmus and his wife Harmonia will be turned into snakes and lead a barbarian horde to plunder the cities of Hellas.

Dramatic versions

  • Joe Orton's play The Erpingham Camp (television broadcast 27 June 1966; opened at the Royal Court Theatre on 6 June 1967) relocates The Bacchae to a British holiday camp. An author's note states: "No attempt must be made to reproduce the various locales in a naturalistic manner. A small, permanent set of Erpingham's office is set on a high level. The rest of the stage is an unlocalised area. Changes of scene are suggested by lighting and banners after the manner of the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions of Shakespeare's histories."
  • In 1970, Brian De Palma filmed Richard Schechner's dramatic re-envisioning of the work, Dionysus in 69, in a converted garage.
  • Wole Soyinka adapted the play as The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite with the British Royal National Theatre in London in 1973, incorporating a second chorus of slaves to mirror the civil unrest in his native Nigeria.
  • Caryl Churchill and David Lan used the play as the basis of their 1986 dance-theatre hybrid A Mouthful of Birds.
  • In 1989 Costas Ferris adapted `The Bacchae` for his film Oh Babylon and `retells it in a more modern guise` NYTimes review by Clarke Fountain, Rovi. Attached links: http://www.nytimes.com/movies/movie/226766/Oh-Babylon/overview ,
  • British Film Institute entry: http://explore.bfi-dev.org.uk/4ce2b79d27b29 . Cast:Alkis Panayiotidis, Sotiria Leonardou, Angelique Rockas ]]

  • Andre Gregory related in My Dinner With Andre that he put on a production at Yale University and campaigned to have a real cadaver's head used for Pentheus', but the actress playing Agave refused.
  • The Bacchae 2.1, a theatrical adaptation set in modern times, was written by Charles Mee and first performed in 1993.
  • Swedish director Ingmar Bergman directed The Bacchae three times: as an opera (1991) for the Royal Swedish Opera, as a film (1993) for Sveriges Television, and on stage (1996) for the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. These three versions received great acclaim amidst some mixed reviews.
  • In 1997, Brad Mays directed his own adaptation of the play at The Complex in Los Angeles, where it broke all box office records and was nominated for three LA Weekly Theater Awards: for Best Direction, Best Musical Score and Best Production Design. Because it featured levels of violence and nudity rare for even experimental theater, it was widely discussed in print, and even videotaped for the Lincoln Center's Billy Rose Theatre Collection in New York. The production was eventually made into an independent feature film which, interestingly, featured Will Shepherd — the Pentheus of Richard Schechner's Dionysus in '69 — as Cadmus. Both the stage and film versions were produced by Mays' wife, Lorenda Starfelt.
  • On 20 April 2003 BBC Radio 3 premiered the radio play Dionysos—a ninety-minute drama based on The Bacchae—written by Andrew Rissik and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, with Paul Scofield as Cadmus and Diana Rigg as Agave. It was repeated on BBC Radio 7 in May 2008.
  • In 2007, David Greig wrote an adaptation of The Bacchae for the National Theatre of Scotland starring Alan Cumming as Dionysus, with ten soul-singing followers in place of the traditional Greek chorus. A critically praised run at New York's Lincoln Center Rose Theater followed the premiere in Scotland.
  • Luigi Lo Cascio's multimedia adaptation La Caccia (The Hunt) won the Biglietto d' Oro del Teatro prize in 2008. The free adaptation combines live theater with animations by Nicola Console and Desideria Rayner's video projections. A revised 2009 version went on tour with original music by Andrea Rocca.
  • In 2008, James Thomas directed Peter Arnott's faithful and audience-friendly translation of The Bacchae as part of MacMillan Films series on Greek drama. The production featured Mia Perovetz as Dionysus, a traditional Greek chorus with Morgan Marcum as the chorus leader and the dance choreography of Angessa Hughmanick.
  • Operatic versions

  • In 1941–1944, Giorgio Federico Ghedini composed an opera in Italian based on The Bacchae and called Le Baccanti, with libretto by playwright and screenwriter Tullio Pinelli. It debuted at La Scala in Milan on February 22, 1948. It was revived in Milan in 1972.
  • Harry Partch composed an opera based on The Bacchae titled Revelation in the Courthouse Park. It was first performed in 1960, and a recording was released in 1987.
  • Another opera based on The Bacchae, called The Bassarids, was composed in 1965 by Hans Werner Henze. The libretto was by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
  • John Buller composed an opera Bakxai (The Bacchae) which was produced at the English National Opera in London in 1992.
  • Georgia Spiropoulos composed a solo opera for performer, electronics and lights called Les Bacchantes. The work premiered at Ircam during the 2010 Agora Festival, starring Médéric Collignon.
  • Karol Szymanowski's second opera King Roger is based on The Bacchae.
  • Daniel Börtz' opera Backanterna (Swedish for the Bacchae) is based on The Bacchae. The opera premiered at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm in 1991. The music was used in Ingemar Bergman's 1993 TV opera film.
  • Musical versions

  • Gustav Holst's "Hymn to Dionysus" (Op. 31, No.2) is a setting for female voices and orchestra of the parodos from The Bacchae in the translation by Gilbert Murray. It was composed in 1913 and premiered in 1914.
  • In Summer 2009, the Public Theater (of New York City) produced a version of The Bacchae with music by Philip Glass.
  • In Fall 2013, the Globe Theatre produced a musical adaptation of The Bacchae, The Lightning Child, written by Ché Walker. Music was scored by Arthur Darvill.
  • Film versions

  • In 1961 Italian filmmaker Giorgio Ferroni directed his own adaptation of the tragedy as Le baccanti, with French actor Pierre Brice as Dionysus, Italian actors Alberto Lupo and Miranda Campa respectively as Pentheus and Agave, Finnish actress-dancer Taina Elg as Dirce, and Russian actor Akim Tamiroff as Tiresias. American choreographer Herbert Ross directed the bacchantes' dance sequences.
  • In 1970 American filmmaker Brian De Palma and theater director Richard Schechner filmed the stage adaptation Dionysus in '69, performed by members of The Performance Group, an experimental theater group in New York that would later become The Wooster Group.
  • IMDb lists at least five adaptations made for television.
  • Significant quotations

    Dionysus: "It's a wise man's part to practise a smooth-tempered self-control."Dionysus: "Your [Pentheus'] name points to calamity. It fits you well." (The name "Pentheus" derives from πένθος, pénthos, grief)Messenger: "Dionysus' powers are manifold; he gave to men the vine to cure their sorrows."Dionysus: "Can you, a mortal, measure your strength against a god?"

    Religious significance

    The ancient Greek concept of religion was very different from the concept as it is generally known today. The Greek gods did not demand worship. Instead they merely demanded to be recognized and accepted as a part of the human experience. Parallels have been drawn between passages regarding God in the Pentateuch and Jesus in the New Testament and passages in The Bacchae, including the idea that Dionysus wants no other god to be respected above him, the idea and symbolism of both wine and bread, and the idea of Dionysus being a god taking on the form of a man. The scene of Dionysus being brought before King Pentheus to be interrogated regarding his claim of divinity has been compared to Jesus’s interrogation by Pontius Pilate. However, that particular comparison is limited; Dionysus before his interrogator is not a meek sacrifice about to be crucified; rather, the shoe is on the other foot and Dionysus will soon be sending the king to die by being torn apart by his own mother.

    Dramatic structure

    In the play's climactic plot construction, Dionysus the protagonist instigates the unfolding action by simultaneously emulating the play's author, costume designer, choreographer and artistic director. Helene P. Foley, writing of the importance of Dionysus as the central character and his effect on the play's structure, observes: "The poet uses the ritual crisis to explore simultaneously god, man, society, and his own tragic art. In this protodrama Dionysus, the god of the theatre, stage-directs the play."

    At the play's start, Dionysus' exposition highlights the play's central conflict: the invasion of Greece by an Asian religion.


    Until the late 19th century, the play's themes were considered too gruesome to be studied and appreciated. It was Nietzsche's "Birth of Tragedy" in 1872 that re-posed the question of Dionysus's relation with the theatre and awakened interest in The Bacchae. In the 20th century, performances became quite fashionable—particularly in opera, due in part to the dramatic choruses found throughout the story. In 1948, R.P. Winnington-Ingram said of Euripides' handling of the play: "On its poetical and dramatic beauties, he writes with charm and insight; on more complex themes, he shows equal mastery." Recent criticism has been provided by P.E. Easterling, et al. in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy.


  • Theodore Alois Buckley, 1850: prose: full text
  • Henry Hart Milman, 1865: verse
  • Edward P. Coleridge, 1891: prose: full text
  • Gilbert Murray, 1911: verse: full text
  • Arthur S. Way, 1912: verse
  • D. W. Lucas, 1930: prose
  • Philip Vellacott, 1954: prose and verse
  • F. L. Lucas, 1954: verse
  • Henry Birkhead, 1957: verse
  • William Arrowsmith, 1958: verse
  • Moses Hadas and John McLean, 1960: prose
  • Paul Roche, 1969: verse
  • Geoffrey Kirk, 1970: prose and verse
  • Robert Bagg, 1978: verse (as The Bakkhai)
  • Michael Cacoyannis, 1982: verse
  • Matt Neuberg, 1988: verse: full text as PDF
  • Arthur Evans, 1988, prose and verse, as The God of Ecstasy (St. Martin's Press)
  • Nicholas Rudall, 1996
  • Richard Seaford, 1996: prose
  • Daniel Mark Epstein, 1998;verse
  • Paul Woodruff, 1999: verse
  • Reginald Gibbons, 2000: verse ISBN 0-19-512598-3
  • James Morwood, 2000: ISBN 0-19-283875-X
  • David Franklin, 2000: prose
  • Ian Johnston, 2003: verse: full text
  • Colin Teevan, 2003: verse (as "Bacchai")
  • George Theodoridis, 2005: prose: full text
  • Michael Valerie, 2005: verse: full text
  • Michael Scanlan, 2006: verse (La Salle Academy: Providence, RI)
  • Graham Kirby, 2009: verse (The Scoop)
  • Che Walker, 2013: play with songs as The Lightning Child
  • Robin Robertson, 2014: verse
  • Anne Carson, 2015: verse (as The Bakkhai)
  • David Stuttard, 2016: verse
  • References

    The Bacchae Wikipedia

    Similar Topics