The Bacchae is chiefly concerned with two very different ways of being. On the one hand, there is the “civilized” order represented by King Pentheus which, generally, is the way the Thebans live their life. However, Dionysus’ aim is to show them the other side of themselves—to get them to give into their irrational nature, a plan that clearly works. Pentheus believes his subjects are wrong to indulge in irrationality, and tries to impose order by hunting down the Bacchae (Dionysus’ followers) “with nets.” The play, then, asks whether there is a place in life for irrationality—or whether what Dionysus gives the Thebans is even irrational in the first place.
Dionysus is the god of wine. His festivities encourage the Thebans to drink alcohol as a means to loosen the order from everyday life and connect with their more “irrational” side. This poses the question—does this widespread drunkenness represent wasteful irrationality or an important method for the reevaluation of life itself? Wine is certainly at the heart of Dionysian celebration. He sees it as a way of attaining a state of ecstasy, a kind of release that reminds people of what makes them human in an increasingly civilized world. Tiresias sees wine as a great gift bestowed on humanity by Dionysus. He says it “brought peace to the troubled mind, gave an end to grief, and gave us sleep—blessed sleep—a forgetting of our sadnesses. He, a god himself, is poured out in honour of the gods. Through that holy wine we win their favour.” In other words, Tiresias believes wine to be a kind of cure, bringing order to emotional distress. Pentheus, on the other hand, associates wine with madness, irrationality, and immorality, claiming that “Drink is at the bottom of it all.” Both Pentheus and Tiresias are right, in a way. Dionysus does intend to use “drink” to bring madness to Thebans as part of his revenge, but his “gift” is also intended to improve people’s lives, as the chorus lets the audience know: “He shares his gift of wine, of bliss, with rich and poor, and hates all those who have no care of this: who would not live a life of blessedness, day and night.” For Dionysus, then, there isn’t really a contradiction between order and irrationality—one is part of the other. By facilitating his followers’ so-called irrationality, he restores what he sees as a kind of order to their lives, based on realizing the more primal and sensual sides of their nature.
It’s not just copious amounts of wine that symbolizes Dionysus’ undermining of the social order of Thebes. His followers temporarily reject their civilized nature by leaving the city for the mountains and indulging in behaviors that would normally be considered irrational. Euripides explicitly links their actions with a return to a more “animal” nature, asking the audience to examine what “civilization” really means. Dionysus inspires his female followers to leave Thebes and decamp into the mountain forests. Here, they sleep on pine needles and breastfeed wild animals, surviving on hunted prey that they tear apart with their bare hands and eat raw; Dionysus wants his followers to abandon the order of their normal, civilized lives in order to reconnect with the natural world. Numerous characters explicitly frame the “madness” of the Bacchae as a supernatural liberation. After Pentheus has tried to imprison some of the women, a servant tells the king that they’ve escaped—“the chains just fell of them, like magic.” When Dionysus effortlessly destroys Pentheus’ palace, he undermines one of the grand symbols of Theban civilization.
Euripides leaves the question of order and irrationality open to the audience’s interpretation. Pentheus and Dionysus represent two extremes—and it’s up to the viewer to decide which is right, or whether there is a compromise that leads to a happy, fulfilled life. In the play, too much order and too much irrationality both lead to destruction. Pentheus’ refusal to acknowledge Dionysus’ godliness is also a denial of Dionysus’ philosophy of irrationality, chaos, and ecstasy. That’s part of the reason why Dionysus feels he has to teach Pentheus such a tragic lesson. However, Dionysus hardly offers a sustainable way of living—to engage in Dionysian behavior continuously would also result in a person’s destruction. So perhaps Euripides is arguing for a third way—a mode of living that is generally civilized but is punctuated by rituals that remind individuals of the full scope of human nature by exploring humanity’s more wild and animal side. The second messenger, who arrives to bring news of Pentheus’ death, offers this view: “This is another lesson: that moderation and reverence for the gods are a mortal’s best possession.”
Order and irrationality, then, offer the audience another duality. They appear to be two contradicting, conflicting ways of being—but neither extreme order nor extreme irrationality comes across as particularly appealing. In investigating order and irrationality, Euripides asks the audience to examine their relationship to one another, and to consider that they are, perhaps, not contradictory, but complimentary. It’s not certain that this is Euripides’ intention—but if Pentheus had embraced his irrational side, he would have saved himself; and if Dionysus had brought more order to his actions, he might have won his following without having to resort to deception and murder.
Order vs. Irrationality ThemeTracker
Order vs. Irrationality Quotes in The Bacchae
Women have deserted their homes for these
fraudulent rites up in the woods and mountains,
dancing to celebrate some new god
Dionysus, whoever he is.
Drink is at the bottom of it all.
Huge bowls stand in their midst, I'm told,
brimming with wine, and one by one the women
slip into the shadows to satisfy the lusts of men.
They say they are priestesses, sworn to Bacchus,
but it's clearly Aphrodite they adore.
I've had some of them trapped, and shackled in the prison.
The rest are still out there on the mountain –
Even my mother is among them,
she who bore me to Echion,
with her sisters Ino and Autonoe, mother of Actaeon.
I'll hunt them down with nets.
I'll put an end to their filthy orgies.
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.
The new god you ridicule will be a great Power in Greece.
Let me explain, young man, the two blessings of human life.
Firstly Demeter, Mother Earth – call her what you will –
sustains us mortals with the gift of grain, of solid food.
But he who came next – son of Semele – matched
her gift to man: he brought us wine.
And wine brought peace to the troubled mind,
gave an end to grief and gave us sleep – blessed sleep –
a forgetting of our sadnesses.
He, a god himself is poured out in honor of the gods.
Through that holy wine we win their favor.
As for the women, it is not for the god to enforce chastity.
Dionysus releases their true nature. Even plunged in delirium,
a virtuous soul does not turn vile.
Look: the stone lintels gape from their columns!
The Roaring One is pulling down the palace from inside!
Spark the lightning bolt!
Let the flames feed on the house of Pentheus!
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?
Bar every gate of the city!
What good will that do? What is a wall to a god?
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.
Father, you have the right to make the proudest boast,
for you have sired the bravest daughters in the world.
And of us all, I am the foremost:
leaving the shuttle and loom for bigger things –
hunting animals with my bare hands.
As you can see, I have a trophy for our house,
to hang here on the wall.
Cithaeron? But why was Pentheus there?
He went to mock the gods, and your rituals.
But we—why were we there?
You were out of your wits.
The whole city was possessed by Bacchus.
I see. Dionysus has destroyed us all.
The gods take many shapes,
accomplish many things beyond our expectations.
What we look for does not happen;
what we least expect is fashioned by the gods.
And that is what has happened here today.