November 1, 2012, by Alan Sommerstein
What goes wrong in Euripides’ Bacchae?
In Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae, the god Dionysus brings terrible suffering on Thebes, the city of his birth, and on all the surviving relatives of his mother Semele. All the women of Thebes become possessed and flee to the mountains to perform orgiastic rituals in honour of Dionysus, led by Semele’s three sisters Agaue, Ino and Autonoe. Agaue’s son Pentheus, the king of Thebes, is persuaded by the disguised Dionysus to go and spy on the women, only to be discovered and torn in pieces; his mother brings his head home as a trophy, believing herself to have killed a lion with her bare hands. Old Cadmus, the founder of Thebes and grandfather both of Pentheus and of Dionysus, who had promoted, and participated in, the worship of the new god, is left bereaved and helpless. Are we enabled to understand why this has happened? In this essay Alan Sommerstein explores the question.
This essay was published in Alan Beale (ed.), Euripides Talks (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2008) 23-32.