Euripides wrote The Bacchae at the very end of his career and did not live long enough to see it produced. In it he finally manages to achieve a happy balance between the classicism which bogged down the plots of some of his mid-career plays and the satire and social commentary that run through his earlier works. The god in the play is an integral, developed character, not a stilted deus ex machina like Aphrodite in Hippolytus.
The Bacchae is fascinating partially because of its subject matter, Dionysus, whom Durant calls “the most troublesome, the most popular, the most difficult to classify of all Greek gods.” Most of us have a passing acquaintance with Greco-Roman mythology, gained mainly from pop culture tropes inherited from Victorian writers. If we know Dionysus at all, we probably picture him as the fat, tipsy Bacchus in Disney’s Fantasia. After all, he’s just the god of wine. How important can be be compared to the other Olympians?
The answer is, “incredibly important”. Even though he was the last deity to be formally admitted to the Olympian pantheon, Dionysus was a popular god in the Greek world from Mycenaean times right up until the Christian domination of the Roman Empire. He was a fertility god and, at times, an almost messiah-like figure who promised rebirth in the afterlife. Unlike the other Olympians, who had been brought to Greece by conquerors and always maintained their associations with the ruling class, Dionysus was a god of the working class, women, and counter-cultures. The cult of Dionysius played a similar role to later religions that originally evolved among oppressed minorities, such as Voodoo, Rastafarianism, and Primitive Christianity. The orthodox elites were never able to stamp out Dionysianism, but they accepted its presence only grudgingly. While it existed, though, it provided an important social “safety valve” for people who would otherwise have had little hope.
Many people have written about the parallels between the Dionysian cult (particularly its later off-shoot, the Cult of Orpheus) and Christianity. Like Christ, Dionysus was the son of a father god (in this case Zeus) who had been killed and then rose from the dead. Like Christians, Dionysians believed in a happy afterlife, in contrast to the usual Greek vision of a dim eternity as shades in Hades. Much has been made of the importance of wine in both faiths, and of the superficial similarities between Dinonysus’ arrest and trial by Pentheus and Christ’s trial by Pilate. All of these synchronicities are fairly cosmetic, however. Christianity and Dionysianism had very different moral teachings and doctrines. It is doubtful that Dionisianism influenced Christianity in any meaningful way. They were simply two different faiths that occupied the same niche in different periods. Many of the features that they have in common are also found in other mystery cults throughout the ecumene.
The primary mode of worship for the Dionysians was the bacchanal, in which groups of worshipers went into the country and made themselves incoherent with wild music and alcohol. Usually, the climax of the bacchanal came when the bacchae tore a live animal apart with their bare hands, reenacting the god’s death at the hands of the Titans. Usually the victim was a goat or bull, but it was not unknown for them to seize and kill innocent bystanders.
Euripides’ play is the story of Pentheus, king of Thebes. Pentheus is worried about the growing influence of the Dionysian cult and has determined to suppress it. He arrests a young man whom he believes to by a Dionysian rabble rouser, but who is actually an avatar of the god. Dionysius has already determined to punish Pentheus for his impiety and make an example of him, thus removing any doubt about his god-head. After giving Pentheus a chance to repent, Dionysius takes control of his mind, convincing him that it is a good idea to infiltrate the bacchae and spy on them, disguising himself as a maenad, or Dionysian priestess.
Of course, the bacchae immediately notice Pentheus, helped by the fact that Dionysus has placed him in a tree for a better view. They tear the tree down, then rend Pentheus limb from limb, led by Pentheus’ own mother, whom Dionysus has enchanted to believe she is fighting a wild animal.
The semiotics of this play are very rich, with each image connoting multiple levels of symbolism. For example the scene where Dionysus helps Pentheus adjust his female clothing symbolizes not just how far he is in the God’s power, but probably also an inner jealousy of the bacchae and their freedom–on some level he wants to join in the bacchanal and forsake his kingly duties. At the same time, it could be interpreted as Dionysus decorating and preparing a sacrifice. It should also not be forgotten that the sacrifice in a bacchanal represents Dionysus himself. On one level of meaning, he is helping Pentheus to be more Dionysus-like. I’m sure you could find at least as many semiotic observations about the tree, the scene where Dionysus is bound and his hair is cut, the severed head of Pentheus, and many other symbols in the play.
When Euripides wrote The Bacchae, he was treating on a religious friction which still quite active in his day, even though the play is supposedly set in mythological times. The cult of Dionysus was still quite active and making the ruling class uncomfortable. Euripides was treading beyond the edge of political correctness to write a play about them, particularly one with such an ambiguous message. Euripides, like most of the Athenian playwrights, was an educated man from an affluent citizen family. If anything, we would expect him to denounce the cult. He really doesn’t though. What he does is create a work where the audience’s sympathies are divided between the two sides, and where the final message is open to multiple interpretations. The Bacchae is “classic Euripides”, in every sense, the perfect play on which to end his career.