In the Bacchantes, Euripides relates the tale of Dionysus’ revenge on the people of Thebes. Dionysus is the Greek god of wine, theater, and ecstasy. The people of Thebes refuse to acknowledge this new god of the Greek pantheon. In retaliation, Dionysus drives the women of the town mad, sending them into the surrounding forests to dance and perform rites associated with the cult of Dionysus. King Pentheus abhors the women’s behavior, and wishes to put an end to their revelry. Dionysus persuades Pentheus to disguise himself as a woman so that he can spy on the mysterious rites. Pentheus’ mother Agave and the other woman discover Pentheus, who appears to them as a wild lion because Dionysus has concealed Pentheus’ true identity from them. The women tear Pentheus apart with their hands. Agave returns to Thebes with Pentheus’ head on a stake. The play ends when her wits return to her, and she realizes that she has killed her son.
The play is primarily concerned with the balance between rationality and irrationality, as represented by the characters Pentheus and Dionysus respectively. Pentheus believes that there is no place for levity in the State. Passionless reason ought to govern the behavior of the populace. Dionysus argues that such a mode of government is insupportable. Mankind needs release from the restrictions of solemn thought. Having presented the conflicting beliefs, Euripides demonstrates that there are dangers inherent in both. If people entirely neglect rationality, they degenerate into mere beasts, capable of tearing apart their own son. If people entirely submit their lives to the dictates of Reason, they will reject the gods and be incapable of avoiding grief. Indeed, many of the characters extol the virtue of wine, which can alleviate the suffering and pain of the intoxicant.
Pentheus also bears similarities to Eve of Genesis. Like Eve, Pentheus desires forbidden knowledge. He wishes to see the mysterious rites of the cult of Dionysus, despite the prohibition of men viewing women during such rituals. Both his and Eve’s quest for knowledge lead to their deaths. Euripides clearly argues that man should revere the gods, and that the philosopher’s quest for knowledge ought not to enter the realm of the gods. “That way madness lies.”
“The faith we inherited from our fathers, old as time itself, no reasoning shall cast down; no! though it were the subtlest invention of wits refined.”
“Two things there are, young prince, that hold first rank among men, the goddess Demeter, that is, the earth,—call her which name thou please; she it is that feedeth men with solid food; and as her counterpart came this god, the son of Semele, who discovered the juice of the grape and introduced it to mankind, stilling thereby each grief that mortals suffer from, soon as e’er they are filled with the juice of the vine; and sleep also he giveth, sleep that brings forgetfulness of daily ills, the sovereign charm for all our woe.”
“Though slow be its advance, yet surely moves the power of the gods, correcting those mortal wights, that court a senseless pride, or, in the madness of their fancy, disregard the gods. Subtly they lie in wait, through the long march of time, and so hunt down the godless man. For it is never right in theory or in practice to override the law of custom. This is a maxim cheaply bought: whatever comes of God, or in time’s long annals, has grown into a law upon a natural basis, this is sovereign.”
“What is true wisdom, or what fairer boon has heaven placed in mortals’ reach, than to gain the mastery o’er a fallen foe? What is fair is dear for aye. Happy is he who hath escaped the wave from out the sea, and reached the haven; and happy he who hath triumphed o’er his troubles; though one surpasses another in wealth and power; yet there be myriad hopes for all the myriad minds; some end in happiness for man, and others come to naught; but him, whose life from day to day is blest, I deem a happy man.”
“Many are the forms the heavenly will assumes, and many a thing the gods fulfil contrary to all hope; that which was expected is not brought to pass, while for the unlooked-for Heaven finds out a way.”