Rowland Bismark's Reviews > Bacchae and Other Plays: Iphigenia Among the Taurians; Bacchae; Iphigenia at Aulis; Rhesus

Bacchae and Other Plays by Euripides
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May 17, 2010

really liked it
Read in January, 2003

The Bacchae is a family tragedy, but as any audience will attest, it is more singularly Agaue's tragedy, which is all the more remarkable given that the queen only appears on stage for one scene. In fact, besides Pentheus, the Cadmus family (Cadmus and Agaue) only appears in the first and last scenes, while the core of the drama exclusively involves Dionysus and Pentheus. By keeping the Cadmus family at the periphery of the main action, Euripides uses them as background, frame and context. They amplify and filter the core events, but have no part in those events as physical characters on the stage. They also serve as commentators and critics (in theatrical terms they are an audience) on the core events and it is largely in the last scene that they get to flesh out various themes. Both members do accept responsibility for what happened to Pentheus, but in two different ways they also criticize Dionysus's justice. Agaue's heart- wrenching grief and murderous guilt testifies to Dionysus's excessive, harsh and cruel revenge. Cadmus reproaches Dionysus twice, directly saying that the god's retributive justice did not fit the offense. However, the god merely brushes these two laments aside with the fatalistic comment that Zeus set up a world of harsh gods.

While Euripides follows a number of formal classical traditions in The Bacchae, such as a complicated chorus and the use of messenger, he diverges quite starkly from Aristotle's ideal of drama. In classical Greek drama, and as defined by Aristotle in his Poetics, there is also a moment of recognition at the very end when our hero, full of hubris, realizes his error and passes from ignorance to knowledge. This is tied to the moment of catharsis for the audience, or the moment of the release of the emotions that had been built up before. Finally, there is a hearty lament. Pentheus does not truly repent and re-evaluate his mistake, nor indulge in metaphysical musings. He merely uses the word "error" in the one line where he begs his mother not to kill him. Importantly, too, the audience does not explicitly learn anything about Dionysus except that he wants Pentheus to show deference toward him. And the main "secret" of the play, Dionysus's disguise, is known from the start. Instead, Euripides writes a shocking, long, and pathos-filled lament. This disproportionate (in classical terms) emphasis on the lament signals two things: both the excessive cruelty and the absolute power of Dionysus.

One of the reasons that the last scene—depicting a demented Agaue proudly brandishing the head of her son—is effective because it is a acted out on the main stage instead of being relayed by messengers. Previously, all the gory, disturbing and violent actions of the play, such as the killing of the cattle and the palace miracles, had taken place offstage and were subsequently retold to the audience as a story. When this scene is actually played out, the audience is still fresh and able to be deeply shocked. Euripides does not flinch from gruesome touches such as having Agaue piece together the son she tore apart. Moreover, in this last gesture, the audience realizes that it is not just Pentheus's body that must be reconstructed but also the moral of the story and the future of both Cadmus and Agaue. Tragically, some pieces will always be missing.
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