an analysis of the play by Euripides

This article on the Bacchae was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 311-4.

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BacchaeTHE Bacchae, which was not exhibited till after the death of Euripides, must have been the work of his latest years; and certain local allusions favour the supposition that it was written in Macedonia at the court of Archelaus. No play seems to have been more popular in the theatre, or to have been more frequently quoted and imitated. Without doubt it is one of the greatest of Greek tragedies, and its production in extreme old age is a marvellous testimony to the vigour and vitality of the poet. The motive of the plot -- the conflict between rationalism and religious instinct -- has a deep and permanent interest. The characters, also, are contrasted with skill and discrimination. Pentheus, a foe to hypocrisy, and a sceptic as to religious belief, regarding the Bacchic rites as a mere cover for sensual indulgence or lucrative imposture, is determined to suppress them by force. Opposed to him is Teiresias, a man of pious and reverent soul, to whom "the traditions of his fathers, coeval with time itself," are a sacred and imperishable inheritance. Cadmus, the prudent old counsellor, intervenes between the two, advising caution and submission. "Even if there be no such God as Dionysus, it is better, he says, to "pretend to believe," and to practice a "useful falsehood." Amid these diversities of opinion are heard from time to time, like the burden of a song, the passionate cries and wild ecstatic prayers of the Bacchantes, as they clash their cymbals in fervid adoration, and protest their scorn for "the wisdom of deep thinkers," and their devotion to the "customs and beliefs of the multitude."

This fierce antagonism between conflicting principles is intensely dramatic in itself, and leads to a conclusion which, for depth of tragic irony, has no equal in Euripides. Dionysus, appearing in the shape of a comely youth, conceals his vindictive purpose under a mask of smooth and winning innocence. Pentheus, following blindly his treacherous guidance, is drawn along from one delusion to another, until the climax is reached when he comes upon the stage, half dazed in mind, and dressed like a Bacchante, with girdle and wand and flowing robe. In this humiliating posture he is exhibited for a time to the public gaze, unconscious of his companion's mockery, and feebly smiling at his own astuteness, and the cleverness of his disguise. Then after carefully arranging the details of his female attire, he departs, full of confidence and gratitude, on his fatal enterprise.

The moral of the play is to demonstrate the power of the gods, and the futility of resistance to the universal convictions of mankind. This conclusion is enforced with so much passion and vehemence, that the Bacchae has often been regarded as a sort of recantation on the part of Euripides. It has been suggested that he wished, in his old age, to reconcile himself to his countrymen, and to atone for his previous attacks on their religious beliefs. But it is perhaps hardly necessary to assume any such purpose in the composition of the tragedy, especially as it appears to have been written after his final departure from Athens. It is doubtful, too, whether his religious views had given much offense to the majority of his countrymen, or were felt to require any formal recantation. Occasional strokes of satire, directed against the grosser features of the legends, had been more than outweighed by the general tendency of his plays, which was not unfavourable to the established creed. If this tendency is more than usually prominent in the Bacchae, the fact is largely due to the character of the legend. The story of Pentheus, if treated at all, could hardly be treated in any other way than that adopted by Euripides. It would have been impossible on the Attic stage, and at the festival of Dionysus, to represent Pentheus as an innocent victim, and the Dionysiac worship as a fraud. Euripides has taken the myth as he found it, and his dramatic instinct has caused him to depict the fervid enthusiasm of the Bacchantes with extraordinary force and power. But to suppose that he wished their violent utterances, and their contempt for philosophy and speculation, to be regarded as his own last words upon the subject, is to forget the dramatic nature of his work. Even in the present play he does not shrink from exposing the imperfections of the legend. Agave, in the final scene, protesting against the severity of Dionysus, admonishes him that gods should be superior to men, and should not imitate their craving for vengeance. To her dignified rebuke Dionysus can find no better answer than that his conduct has been "sanctioned by Zeus." This characteristic allusion to the frailties and vices of the legendary deities would scarcely have been inserted in a play which was written as a recantation of previous attacks, and as a glorification of the old mythology.

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