Euripides’ “The Bacchae”: A Lesson in Human Frailty
In Euripides’ The Bacchae, a play from ancient Greece circa 407 B.C., we find a fascinating and unusual portrayal of the nature of humanity, and a warning to those who might be on the path to their own destruction. The main feature of the play is the conflict between two central characters, Pentheus and Dionysus. Pentheus, king of the Greek city of Thebes, refuses to believe that Dionysus, god of wine and sexual love, is really the god he says he is. This is Pentheus’ downfall. Dionysus decides to punish the headstrong young king by driving the women of the city into a bloodthirsty frenzy, including Pentheus’ own mother. In a dramatic and violent scene, she leads the other women in ripping him limb from limb, too mad to see that it is her own son being killed. However, the story that leads up to this is full of encounters that show where Pentheus went wrong. To avoid a tragic demise according to Euripides, one must know their own limits and be aware of the finiteness of human life, in addition to obeying the gods. Pentheus did none of these. Euripides uses The Bacchae as a vessel to bring wisdom to people who don’t want to meet the same end that the king of Thebes did. Is the wisdom Euripides offers still applicable today? I will leave that up to you.
In a central part of the story, Pentheus instructs his guards to find Dionysus. “Track him down, and when you find him, tie him up, bring him here, so he can get what he deserves, death by stoning,” he orders (page 23). Pentheus had come back to Thebes to find his subjects worshiping the “upstart deity,” as he dubbed Dionysus, with wine, orgies, and dancing in the wilderness. Outraged at their behavior, Pentheus began to track down and lock up the worshipers, but it was Dionysus that he wanted to catch most of all. The guards bring the god to Pentheus. Dionysus had come calmly and without resistance, it seems. “He just smiled, gave us his hands, told us we’d better tie him,” the guards say (page 30). They also inform Pentheus that the Dionysus-worshipers that had been locked in the dungeon are gone, dancing in the meadows again. Their chains had snapped and the prison doors opened as though by miracle. Yet Pentheus refuses to consider that Dionysus might have had the power to bring about such miracles.
Pentheus begins to talk with Dionysus, and quickly becomes angered by what his would-be prisoner has to say. Though the god has taken the form of a mortal here, he tells Pentheus that Dionysus, and all the power that accompanies a god, is there with him. “Where is he?” asks Pentheus (page 33). “I can’t see anything.” This only demonstrates Pentheus’ ignorance. He expects that if there is a god with this stranger, he must be able to see it, rather than believing that the god might have the power to make himself invisible or disguised, as was the actual case. “He’s with me. You’re unholy. You can’t see,” Dionysus tells him (page 33). Pentheus screams at his guards to tie up the scornful stranger, but Dionysus says that he won’t be bound. “I say bind him! I’m the power here, not you!” cries the infuriated Pentheus (page 33). “Your power is mortal, you don’t know what you’re doing: you don’t even know who you are,” Dionysus says (page 33). Pentheus’ reply is an interesting one. He retorts, “I am Pentheus. Son of Echion. Son of Agave” (page 33). He is, indeed, Pentheus, the son of Echion and the son of Agave. Yet the answer he gives is the wrong one. Why?
When Dionysus tells Pentheus that he doesn’t know who he is, he doesn’t mean it literally. Of course Pentheus knows who he is, who his parents were, where he came from, and so on. No, Dionysus’ statement has a much deeper implication than that. What he means is that Pentheus does not have a sense of who he is as a mortal, a human being, one who is subject to forces greater than himself. Though Dionysus performed miracles inside Pentheus’ own castle, releasing the revelers the king had imprisoned, stubborn Pentheus still refuses to see Dionysus for the god he is. “I’m the power here!” Pentheus asserts in vain. As we see later, Pentheus succumbs to the power of the god’s persuasion and goes to the mountain where the Dionysus-worshipers are dancing. It is there that the frenzied women tear the obstinate king to pieces. The only thing Pentheus asserts when he tries to resist the power of a god is his own mortality.
Pentheus came to a tragic and untimely death because of his lack of wisdom. But what is wisdom? This is a major question that Euripides attempts to answer in The Bacchae. Pentheus was accused of being a fool for not participating in the worship of Dionysus, first by his grandfather’s friend Tiresias, then by Dionysus himself. Was he really so foolish, though? He was knowledgeable enough to run a city, after all. But Euripides tells us, “Knowledge is not wisdom: cleverness is not, not without awareness of our death, not without recalling just how brief our flare is” (page 26). This is a key passage in the play. Knowledge is not wisdom.
Though Pentheus had knowledge, he was a foolish man. “To know your human limits, to revere the gods, this is the noblest and I think the wisest course that mortal men can follow,” advises the messenger who brings the tragic news of Pentheus’ death back to the city (page 71). This is where the young king of Thebes went wrong: he did not recognize his human limits. Euripides tells us that if we are to be wise, we must be aware of our own mortality, of “just how brief our flare is.” Pentheus brought about his own premature death because he was too secure in his power and his beliefs to consider that he might encounter a being with the ability to take all of it away from him.
Today, most of us do not share the ancient Greeks’ beliefs about gods, yet Euripides’ message of wisdom perhaps still has some validity. Whether you believe in God or gods, fate, karma, or even just the forces of nature, you are foolish to not acknowledge that there are powers in this world greater than you. If one begins to believe that they are above the influence of these forces, they may be seduced into ignoring the reality of their own human limitations, and consequently meet a death as untimely as Pentheus’. We must have the wisdom to recognize that we do not dictate how long our time is on earth, that our lives are fleeting at best, and that whatever we want to accomplish in our lives must be done with our own impending finality in mind.