Analysis of the Bacchae

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To this day scholars offer a number of different interpretations of Euripides’ The Bacchae. This essay will argue the centrality of ‘sophia’ (wisdom) and its opposite ‘amathia’, similar to the interpretation offered by Arrowsmith and Dodds: that the central idea of The Bacchae is that wisdom – possession of humility, acceptance and self-knowledge, encompassed by the Greek word ‘sophia’ – is the greatest and most necessary quality humanity can possess in the face of godly power. In particular this essay will focus on how the central idea is communicated through the convergence of characters and dialogue in Euripides’ The Bacchae.

The Bacchae explores the necessity of wisdom and acceptance, as it looks at the conflict between the man-king Pentheus and the man-god Dionysus. Dionysus indicates from the outset that he has ultimate control over Pentheus’ destiny, announcing his plan to “prove to (Pentheus) and every man in Thebes that I am god indeed.” Pentheus refuses to accept the power of Dionysus and his new religion, and is duly punished for it, falling victim to Dionysus’ plan. Dionysus makes clear the stupidity and futility of Pentheus’ plight as he says: “a man, a man, and nothing more, yet he presumed to wage war with god.” Pentheus therefore is shown as the embodiment of ‘amathia’, as he denies his own weakness and seems ignorant to the universal knowledge that there is no power greater than that of a god.

It is evident from the above argument that the idea of wisdom manifests itself particularly through the characters of The Bacchae. Each possesses a form of ‘sophia’ and ‘amathia’, with one of the two forms being more prevalent in certain characters. Pentheus’ character is defined by a boyish lack of wisdom and is therefore humiliated and punished. His ‘amathia’ is his rejection and mockery of Dionysus, as he “flouts custom and outrages god.” Despite warnings from the chorus, Teiresius, Cadmus and Dionysus himself, Pentheus seems determined in stubborn ignorance, and so reveals his ‘amathia’ - complete lack of humility or self-awareness. This same ‘amathia’is presented in Pentheus’ mother Agave. It is because of her denial and hand in her sister Semele’s death that Dionysus has sent her mad; her power as a maenad given ultimately so she may slaughter her son as punishment. These characters possess “a tongue without reigns, defiance, unwisdom,” they lack humility and refuse to accept their mortal impotence against the power of the gods, and so meet disaster. In terms of plot, Agave’s role distinguishes the main idea in the play’s climax. As Agave realises she holds Pentheus’ head in her hands, it’s apparent her son’s death, her suffering and the suffering of her family were all wrought from denial of Dionysus. In this moment Cadmus describes best the central idea of humility as he states, “if there is still any mortal man who despises or defies the gods, let him look on this boy’s death and believe in the gods.”

Antithetically, ‘sophia’ of experience and humility is best presented in the older characters Cadmus and Teiresias. They are the only men in Thebes to don the dress of the Bacchantes, as they see the potential greatness of Dionysus, most likely having seen the rise of other religions in the course of their long lives. They are wise enough to see themselves as mortals powerless against gods, as they are “man, nothing more. (They) do not scoff at heaven.” Cadmus and Teiresias accept Dionysus as they recognise the supreme power of the god and understand the hazard in denying a deity. They also warn the young, inexperienced Pentheus to do the same, and in doing so they are seen as wise, especially as Pentheus rejects their pleas and falls victim to the jealous Dionysus.

Even those characters that seem to exist solely to fulfill specific plot functions exhibit a necessary form of wisdom. The messenger is one such character; his long descriptive speeches tell the audience of action in the fields of...
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