Dionysus, Greek god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, and ecstasy, stands outside of the royal palace of Thebes. He has taken human form and returned to Thebes, the town of his birth, to avenge the dishonorable treatment of his deceased mother, Semele.
Dionysus is a complicated figure, able to take on different forms. This opening, in which one of the characters provides background information to the play, is a traditional feature of ancient Greek theater.
Semele was the daughter of Cadmus, the elderly Theban who has given over the rule of the kingdom to his grandson, and Dionysus’ cousin, Pentheus. Semele was impregnated by Zeus, the king of the gods. Hera, Zeus’ wife, was jealous of Semele’s relationship with Zeus and tricked Semele into asking Zeus to reveal himself in his true form—a lightning storm, which struck and killed Semele.
Ancient Greek audiences would have been familiar with the backstories of the play’s main characters. The Greek gods frequently interacted with mortals, and Dionysus’ visitation to the mortal world mirrors Zeus’ earlier appearance there as Semele’s lover. The gods are frequently deceptive, jealous and impulsive throughout the Greek myths. This gives the audience an understanding of Dionysus’ motive for revenge.
Dionysus tells the audience he has arrived in Thebes from the East, where he established his “rites and mysteries” and “set all Asia dancing.” He’s set the city “ringing” with his “ecstasies” and “the cries of women, clothed in fawn-skin, holding the thyrsus.” He explains that he’s targeted Thebes because his mother Semele’s sisters, Agave, Ino, and Autonoe, deny that he is the son of Zeus and dishonor his mother’s memory. They thought the story was just a ruse thought up by Cadmus because Semele had a scandalous affair with a mortal man.
Dionysus’ rites and rituals are all about ecstatic revelation, in which participants are encouraged to “lose themselves” in drunkenness and orgiastic behavior. The thyrsus is a rod made from fennel that doubles as a weapon and an item with magical qualities. It’s also a phallic symbol, reminding the viewer of the important sexual element in Dionysus’ cult.
Dionysus wants Thebes to “learn its lesson” and follow his rites and rituals. All of the women of the city are already entranced—they’ve decamped to the mountains, driven “delirious” by Dionysus. They are his Bacchae. He says that when the Thebans realize his godliness they will see Semele’s innocence.
A lot of action has already taken place before the beginning of the play. Most notably, Dionysus has already bewitched the women of Thebes, demonstrating to the audience his godly power. It’s also clear that part of his revenge hinges on proving his godly superiority over those who doubt his divinity. “Bacchae” is the name for his female followers—they’re called “Maenads” sometimes too.
Dionysus is angry with Pentheus, the king of Thebes and grandson of Cadmus, for disrespecting him by refusing to offer sacrifice or prayer in his honor. He says that once his task is done in Thebes, he’ll move on to other cities—but if anyone tries to stop his female followers, the Bacchae, he will “bring on war.” Dionysus calls on his “women” to beat their drums at the palace doors, before leaving to join the dance of his Bacchae on Mount Cithaeron.
This sets up the opposition between Dionysus, who values anarchy and chaos, and Pentheus, who tries to impose order on Thebes and its citizens. Since they share the same grandfather, they are cousins. The audience gathers that Dionysus is bloodthirsty and not looking for a peaceful resolution to his desire for vengeance.
The chorus sings Dionysus’ praises, charting their journey from Asia to Greece. They say those who give themselves to Dionysus will be blessed. They also recount the story of Dionysus’ birth. According to the chorus, if Theban women dress in ivy and wool, carry the thyrsus, and dance, they will be “freed from themselves, possessed by Dionysus!”
Choruses occupy an unusual role—they are both part of the play and independent from it, serving more as a commentary to what’s going on than actually getting involved in the action. In this play, the chorus is made up of some of Dionysus’ female followers, the Bacchae. In this instance, they reinforce the idea that to give in to Dionysus’ chaotic rituals represents a form of liberation. It’s worth noticing the emphasis on the Dionysian costume being an important element in the transformation.