Nothing is quite as it seems in the world of The Bacchae, an ancient Greek tragedy about the god Dionysus and the naive King Pentheus. Euripides uses misunderstandings, both deliberate and accidental, to construct a morally ambiguous play that resists easy interpretation. But perhaps that’s the point—by creating an uncertain world, Euripides highlights the folly and deception involved in the identities people construct for themselves, arguing that life is infinitely more complex and identity more fragile than people might think.
Dionysus, god of wine, theater, and fertility, sets the tone, appearing in different forms throughout the play. His conflicting ways of being contribute to an overall sense of anarchy throughout, both muddying any morality in the play and, by extension, arguing the unreliability of society’s governing morality more generally. He manipulates and undermines the other characters in the play, destabilizing people’s identities and thereby undermining their position in society.
Dionysus uses his ability to change form in order to create confusion and disorder. He sets out this strategy in the opening lines of the play, telling the audience he has taken human form—specifically as a Dionysian priest—to avenge his dead mother, Semele, whose sisters have dishonored her name. He has Pentheus, his own cousin, firmly set in his sights, both because Pentheus refuses to believe in Dionysus’ divine identity and because Pentheus believes himself to be an all-powerful, rational king. Pretending to be a priest of the Dionysian religion, Dionysus deliberately allows himself to get caught by Pentheus’ armed guards. This allows Dionysus to get close to Pentheus, the king of Thebes, and exact his revenge. Assuming human form, then, allows Dionysus to embed himself in human society and create chaos from within. At the end of the play, Dionysus appears as a bull, representing his power and primal nature. His different forms show both the instability sown by Dionysus and his ability to dictate what happens. More than anything, though, Dionysus’ shape-shifting shows that he has total control over his identity—or at least his identity as perceived by humans.
Dionysus’ control over his identity contrasts with Pentheus and his mother, Agave, who both have their identities completely undone by Dionysus’ godly manipulations. Pentheus is an arrogant king whose power has gone to his head, so much so that he refuses to pay tribute to Dionysus despite numerous warnings and believes himself capable of matching the god’s powers. Pentheus likes to portray an air of rational skepticism, admonishing his grandfather Cadmus and the blind prophet Tiresias for indulging in Dionysus’ “ridiculous” rituals. Dionysus then uses deception to trick Pentheus, destabilize his mind, and eventually lead him to his death. It doesn’t take much—posing as the Dionysian priest, Dionysus only has to offer Pentheus a glimpse of Dionysus’ hedonistic female followers, the Bacchae (also known as Maenads), to make him willing to cross-dress and undermine his kingly identity. He even has Pentheus briefly take part in Dionysian ritual when the two go into the palace to prepare Pentheus’ womanly costume. Starkly contrasting with his earlier authoritarian behavior, Pentheus seems to enjoy dressing up as a woman, asking Dionysus if he looks more like his mother or his aunts. In manipulating Pentheus’ sense of self, Dionysus shows Pentheus’ magisterial identity to be less stable than he would like, playing on Pentheus’ latent fantasies to do away with his kingly self and join in the ecstatic Bacchic rituals of wine and sexual freedom—in other words, to be set free from the identity that he holds so dear. This suggests the wider point that people’s identities are more fragile than they realize, and that it only takes a few changes or opportunities to undermine their sense of self.
The cruelest deception of all is that of Agave, Pentheus’ mother and Dionysus’ aunt. Agave occupies a kind of temporary identity, in which she is completely won over by Dionysus’ hedonistic ways; she “loses” herself in the festivities of drunkenness and sexuality, making her unable to recognize her own son—whom she subsequently kills. This argues that people’s actions not only affect the stability of their own identity but also how they perceive other people. This “loss of self” allows Agave to morally transgress her normal identity. When Pentheus pleads for his life, Agave’s eyes are “rolling,” her “mouth filling with foam.” She doesn’t recognize Pentheus, both because of his own disguise and her entrancement, and delivers the fatal blow. This deception reaches its tragic conclusion at the end of the play, when Agave appears on stage carrying the head of Pentheus on a spear. It’s only when her father, Cadmus, makes her first look at the sky to “reset” her identity and then to examine the head more closely that she realizes the horrors of what she’s done.
Disguise and deception propel the plot of The Bacchae. They highlight the fragility of individual identities and allow Dionysus to enact his revenge. Euripides thus challenges the audience to question the stability of their own identities. In ancient Greece, people were more likely to believe that the gods could make mortals commit acts that they wouldn’t normally; contemporary audiences are more likely to believe in personal responsibility for individuals’ actions. Euripides’ play questions both—there’s plenty of tragedy in modern day life—probing the relationship between identity and unexpected behaviors.
Disguise, Deception, and Identity ThemeTracker
Disguise, Deception, and Identity Quotes in The Bacchae
So I must teach this Pentheus, teach all of Thebes,
what kind of god I am.
Once I am established here
I will move on to other lands and show myself there.
But if Thebes tries to drive my Bacchae
from the mountains by force of arms,
I will marshal my Maenads and bring on war.
I have readied myself for battle:
put my deity aside and taken human form.
Are we the only men who'll dance for Dionysus?
The rest are blind. Only we can see.
They say some foreigner has arrived from Lydia:
one of those charlatan magicians
with blond hair that reeks of scent,
the flush of wine in his cheeks
and all the tricks of Aphrodite in his eyes.
Day and night he's with the women,
showing them his mysteries –
holding up his secret, for them to adore.
Once I catch him there'll be none of that tossing of locks
and waving of wands:
I'11take that head from off his body!
And here's another miracle! The prophet Tiresias
all got up in fawn skin, and my mother's father
dressed up as a Bacchant with a wand.
You look ridiculous, both of you: have you lost your wits?
I'm ashamed of you, Grandfather.
Shake off that ivy and drop that bloody stick!
This is your doing, Tiresias, I can tell:
another imported god, another chance
to make money on the side from burnt offerings
and reading auguries from the guts of birds.
So. Not entirely unattractive—at least to women, I suppose,
which is why you’re here in Thebes.
Such long hair.
Not a wrestler then, I take it?
So long, it frames your cheeks.
This is maddening.
That stranger, that man I had in chains, has escaped!
What! How is it that you’re free, standing at the gates of my palace?
They snatched children
from their homes, and pillaged houses.
Everything they threw on their backs stayed there:
nothing, not even bronze or iron, fell to the earth.
Flames danced in their hair but did not burn them.
The furious villagers took up their weapons in defense
and, sire, what happened next was dreadful to see.
The men's spears of pointed metal drew no blood,
while the flung wands of the women ripped open flesh,
and the men turned and ran.
While he is sane he will never wear a woman's dress.
But he will shortly, as he is nearly mad.
After all those threats,
I want him walking down these streets in a frock;
I want him a laughing-stock.
Now I shall dress him for Hades,
where he will go by his mother's hand.
And he shall finally know Dionysus, son of Zeus,
a god both terrible and gentle to the world of man.
I see two suns in the sky;
two cities of Thebes, each with seven gates.
And you, my guide, you seem to be a bull.
Horns grow from your head.
Were you a beast all along? For you are a bull now.
The god is with us.
There were difficulties, but now we have a truce.
You see now what you should have seen before. The god.
So how do l look?
A little like Aunt Ino, or a bit more like my mother?
The very image of your mother, now I can see you plain.
But let me fix this curl that's come astray.
It must have been all that Bacchic ecstasy there in the palace.
I was shaking my head so much!
His own mother,
like a priestess with her sacrifice, fell on him first.
But he snatched off his headdress and wig
so she could see who he was.
He reached out his hand to touch her cheek
and cried out: "Mother! Mother! Look!
It's me, Pentheus, Your own son!
The son you bore to Echion!
Spare me, Mother, I beg You!
I have done wrong, Perhaps,
but you cannot kill your own son!"
But Agave's eyes were rolling,
and her mouth filling with foam.
In the grip of the god and the god's frenzy,
it was as if she couldn't see him, couldn't hear.
Grabbing his left hand at the wrist,
she planted her foot against his flank and wrenched,
pulling his arm straight out of his shoulder—
not with her own strength but the strength of the god.