- What is Dionysus' true nature? The central character of Dionysus is described as loving and gentle, but also as a terrifying force of animal nature. He is simultaneously a god with feminine characteristics (much is made of his long hair and fair skin) but at the same time a god of powerful vengeance (appearing as a raging bull). What does this duality mean for the actions of the characters in the play who respond to Dionysus? Does it suggest a duality within us all?
- Siegfried Melchinger writes, "[Dionysus] is the center between the opposite poles, not the god of metamorphoses, but the god of dichotomy. He is in the middle between man and woman, between Asia and Europe, between Hellas and the barbarian world, between heaven and hell (according to Heraclitus, his other name is Hades), between death and life, between raving and peace. ...Dionysus is the one who disappears and returns, hunter and hunted, murderer and victim, life and death. The tragedy consists in knowing that these two aspects are different sides of the same manifestation." What do you make of this? Do you agree that murderer and victim are two sides of the same coin?
- Who is wise in the play? The chorus says it is wise for mortals to follow the gods, and to know their place in the order of things. Pentheus finds wisdom in the imperative to take arms against the violent disorder the Bacchae may otherwise bring. Cadmus counsels the wisdom of acknowledging the god for the good of the city, even if there are doubts about his being a true god. Maenads find a mad wisdom in following an animal nature. Is there a sense of wisdom that the play is promoting? Would a different kind of wisdom on any characters' part have averted the tragedy?
- Is there anyone in this play to root for? The play begins with the audience feeling sympathy for Dionysus, who is wronged and slandered. As he is hunted by the arrogant Pentheus, we see Pentheus as the villain. Then, as we learn more, this balance changes. Dionysus easily slips from being hunted to being hunter, and ensnares Pentheus in his own desire to see the women. By this point, the prey is in the net, and what unfolds is horrifying vengeance, which consumes the town. Even the chorus expresses dismay at this turn of events, and our pity for Pentheus (and Agave) is aroused. What feeling are we left with for Dionysus? Is Pentheus sympathetic simply because he dies? If we don't like either of them, what does that say about our ability to understand what is right?
- Does the punishment fit the crime? Dionysus has been wronged. Thebes has not acknowledged him; Pentheus mocks and imprisons him, threatening to take arms against his followers, and the town is resistant to his cult. And yet, the revenge for these acts is horrifyingly gruesome and leaves the city in ruins. Is this really a fair punishment? Cadmus asks this of Dionysus near the end of the play, and is told it was ordained. Is this a satisfactory answer? Or should we abandon the expectation that the world depicted in this tragedy is a just one?
- A stranger comes to town—the notion of the outsider who changes the social order is an old one in literature, and persists in narratives of all kinds into the current day. Dionysus is such a figure, although not a true stranger, merely in disguise, but the bringer of outside mysteries and rites. He comes from the East, and faces the Greek cultural and military distrust of anything beyond Hellas, particularly Asia Minor, the repeated scene of armed conflict. This fear of the outsider is still with us. Imagine a contemporary play or story in which the central character came from a hostile land: would a character who responded like Pentheus seem more justified or more prejudiced to you?
Discussion Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking
- The Dionysian spirit. As noted in the video, the spirit of Dionysus and The Bacchae received a lot of attention in the 1960s, possibly finding a resonance in an invitation to return to true animal nature. If you watch some of Dionysus in '69, this is evident. Do you think the play actually invites this view? Is there a caution or counterargument in the play?