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David Moon

Literature & Judgment


Dr. Bresnick
January 31, 2016
Whats a King to a God: Divinity in The Bacchae
The central conflict of Euripides The Bacchae stems from interaction between mortals
and the divine: the stubborn King Pentheus of Thebes refuses to acknowledge and respect the
divinity of Dionysus. This refusal to pay proper respect stirs up great anger in the god, who then
disguises himself in mortal form and punishes the city by driving the women into a frenzy and
into the mountains where they dance and worship him. Throughout the play, Dionysus
admonishes Pentheus for his sacrilege and gives him multiple opportunities to repent for his
actions and gain forgiveness, but the obdurate king repeatedly refuses to ask for forgiveness,
only becoming even more invested in his rejection of the god. Euripides uses this interaction to
generate dramatic irony: the audience is fully aware of Dionysus divinity from the very
beginning of the play, and gains a greater sense of Pentheus absolute arrogance and foolishness
in rejecting older customs. Pentheus also ignores his grandfather and Teiresiass pleas to respect
tradition, portraying a dual rejection of all counsel, in an attempt to secure his rule. This pigheadedness results in severe retribution from Dionysus and the ultimate emasculation: after the
public sees Pentheus dressed as a woman in an attempt to fool the Bacchae, the women of
Thebes, led by his very own mother, tear him limb from limb, tricked by Dionysus into thinking
that they are tearing apart a lion. Dionysus also extends his retribution to the entirety of the city,
cursing even those who worshipped and revered him properly, essentially declaring them guilty
by association. Thus, Euripides presents an extremely pessimistic and brutal portrait of
anthropomorphic gods, arguing both that a lack of respect will surely be met with severe

brutality, and that being a bystander to such a lack of respect may result in severe consequences
anyways, despite ones own proper action.
Through Dionysuss severe punishments against those who deny his divinity, the play
argues that there is an absolute duty to respect the gods, and that failure to give them their due
will bring great harm. In the opening lines of the play, Dionysus reveals that in return for the
offense (34) of claiming that Dionysus was no son of Zeus (25), he has driven the women of
Thebes from home, mad (36) and up into the mountains forced to wear [his] ritual uniform
(34). As a result, the work reveals the vengeful nature of the gods: in return for the gossip of only
[his] mothers sisters (26) Dionysus has punished the entirety of the female population of
Thebes in a severe manner, driving them up into the mountains, taking their wits from them, and
forcing them to revere him in the manner in which his aunts failed to. Furthermore, this
punishment stems from an intense desire from retribution, rather than any sort of obligation to
uphold morality. Dionysus claims that this city must learn its lesson (39) and that he must
prove that [he is] god/ indeed (47-48). Dionysus takes action not in order to uphold any higher
moral code, but rather for the sake of establishing his divinity and gaining worship for himself.
The Bacchae uses Pentheus brutal death to further illustrate both the need to respect the
gods and the gods humanlike and vengeful nature. Throughout the play, Pentheus remains
arrogant in his irreverence, constantly insulting Dionysus and remaining totally ignorant to the
ways in which the god manipulates him while quite literally right in front of him. Teiresias
advises Pentheus to glorify Dionysus since the god delights in honor (321) and warns that
Pentheus has become drugged/ with madness (328) as a result of his quest to stop the worship
of Dionysus. Furthermore, the chorus warns a tongue without reins,/ defiance, unwisdom -/
their end is disaster (387-389). Thus, Euripides magnifies the intensity of Pentheus error: both

the Bacchae and the older generations recognize that there is an absolute need to respect the
gods. Thus, Pentheus decision to disrespect Dionysus by ordering Dionysus himself, albeit
unknowingly, to be clap[ped] in chains (355) and ordering his men to pry [Dionysus place of
worship] up with crowbars, heave it over,/ upside down; demolish everything (348-349) in
context is even more disrespectful. However, Dionysus punishment is extreme: he makes
Pentheus the laughingstock of Thebes,/ led through the town in womans form (853-854)
then causes him to be butchered/ by the hands of his mother (856-857) like a priestess with
her victim (1114). Pentheus death alone is not sufficient to satisfy Dionysus wrath; rather, he
must fully emasculate Pentheus. First, he parades Pentheus in front of the his subjects foolishly
garbed as a woman. Next, he grants Pentheus own mother divine strength in order for her to
dominate Pentheus in the most severe way possible, literally tearing him limb from limb and
rendering him a sacrifice for his sacrilege. Thus, the play demonstrates the heavy price of a
failure to obey the gods through Pentheus ultimate humiliation and death in return for his
disrespect of Dionysus.
Dionysus decision to punish Cadmus despite his pious behavior demonstrates that proper
adulation cannot guarantee safety from the gods wrath, and that personal well-being is
ultimately up to chance. In the early part of the play, Teiresias and Cadmus extol the virtues of
the gods and attempt to convince Pentheus to join them in worship of Dionysus. They recognize
that they should not trifle with divinity (200) and are aware that no quibbling logic can topple
them,/ whatever subtleties this clever age invents (203-204). Teiresias and Cadmus properly
humble themselves before the gods, recognizing that there is no means by which they can
outsmart them and that divine power will always exceed that of mortals. As a result, the men
resolve to follow customs and traditions/ hallowed by age (201-202), thereby paying respect.

The chorus underscores the need for humility while they chastise Pentheus decision to go
against the unassailable (1000), declaring to accept the gods, to act as a mortal-/ that is a life
free from pain (1004-1005). Despite Cadmus consistent piety throughout the play, in the end,
Dionysus declares that Cadmus, shall be changed/ to a serpent (1330-1331) and suffer a
wretched and hard (1338) homecoming, suffering doom (1333). Furthermore, Dionysus
ignores Cadmus pleas for clemency, even when Cadmus acknowledges that his family has done
wrong (1344). For Dionysus, it is too late since they did not know [him] when [they] should
have (1345). Furthermore, at the end of the play Dionysus has destroyed [them] all (1297),
despite the fact that he is god of [their] own blood (1250). Thus, the play reveals that even a
personal relationship with the gods is not enough to be spared their wrath if their anger has been
incurred the gods will serve their justice no matter what. Through Dionysus refusal to grant
clemency to those who repent and to spare even those loyal to him, the play reveals that the gods
value exacting retribution above all else, and that it is impossible for one to be certain in their
avoidance of divine wrath.
Over the course of the novel, Euripides presents a pessimistic and brutal portrayal of
divinity through Dionysuss extreme and brutal actions against the city of Thebes. At the end of
the play, Dionysus punishes the remaining members of the Theban monarchy despite their
repentance even Cadmus, who has done nothing wrong. Such a characterization of divinity
differs greatly from that of Christianity, which came to dominate the western world as the
religion spread. In Christian ethics, forgiveness is tantamount, and Christians are called to
forgive others and repent in the same manner in which Jesus died to forgive their sins. Thus,
Euripides illustrates a crucial difference between the culture and ethics of Ancient Greece and
those of the post-Christian world. This glorification of violent vengeance is not unique to

Euripides writing. Homers Odyssey also tells the tale of Odysseus, who slaughters every one of
the suitors who defile his home, giving none of them the opportunity to repent. This praise
reflects an era in which talented warriors were needed to fight for the survival of fractured citystates, and as a result, culture placed a higher value on the violence which accompanied that
fighting. As a result, the play ultimately succeeds in lending the audience a better understanding
of Ancient Greek culture and values, as a contrast to their own.