The Bacchae is a play full of violence from the outset. People are beheaded, animals are torn apart limb from limb—but it’s not gratuitous violence written in for the sake of it. In his violently graphic descriptions interspersed throughout the play, Euripides examines the nature of violence, asking those in the audience whether they are capable of violent acts and exploring the relationship between violence and the imagination. The play seems to suggest that violence is a part of human nature that can’t be entirely civilized away; though violence itself can be suppressed, its urges still lurk under the surface of the human psyche.
From the outset of the play, Euripides shows that violence isn’t that far from daily life, and that it’s kept at bay by a thin veil of civility. Dionysus’ first speech on stage makes it obvious that what’s coming is going to be violent, and he sees himself as both an invader and someone returning home: “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.” King Pentheus, too, sees violence as the best course of action: “I’ve had some of them [the Bacchae] trapped, and shackled in the prison. The rest are still out there on the mountain—even my mother is among them […] I’ll hunt them down with nets.” The audience, then, knows violence is looming. Coupled with the fact that Dionysus is known as the god of theater, perhaps then Euripides is gesturing to the audience’s own thirst for a simulated violence that they can observe from a safe distance. Theater could be seen as a way of simulating violence under the mask of civility (that is, people seek out violence as entertainment under the pretense of simply going to the theater), echoing the way violence exists in real life. This, too, might further explain Dionysus’ particularly cruel treatment of Pentheus, Agave and Cadmus—he finds the most theatrical way to satisfy the bloodlust of his own, of his followers, and, most importantly, of the audience. Though the actual murder may take place off stage, its descriptions spare no details, and Agave’s display of Pentheus’ impaled head is undoubtedly gory.
Dionysus’ appearance allows the Theban women to become Bacchae and indulge their latent fantasies of violence. But crucially, it’s also Pentheus’ thirst for violence that brings about his end, even though on the surface he is adamantly opposed to the behaviors and rituals involved in Dionysian worship. Pentheus thinks he is getting a handle on the situation by imprisoning the Bacchae and their priest, who is actually Dionysus in disguise. Although he professes to be opposed to the Bacchae’s violence, Pentheus uses that same violence to suppress them and momentarily restore order. Dionysus then exploits this violent side of Pentheus’ otherwise orderly character by making him a tempting offer—to witness the Bacchae’s violence at first hand, alongside their sexual activity. Pentheus is instantly desirous to do so, and says “I am the only one in this city brave enough to go.” Pentheus’ attitude to violence, then, is not merely one of necessity. Violence isn’t just a way of preserving the order of his kingdom—it’s something that actively appeals to his psyche.
Furthermore, Euripides shows that fantasies of violence, which lurk under the surface of the human psyche, can easily become reality. It doesn’t take much more than wine and dancing to turn the women of Thebes into bloodthirsty killers. When the first messenger, the herdsman, appears in the play, he brings news of the violent behaviors of the Bacchae. Before Dionysus arrived, these women were occupying their usual roles in society as wives to men—only the men were permitted to undertake violent acts. The women evidently embrace actual violence with relish: “A single woman pulled a mewling calf in two, while others clawed apart a full-grown heifer […] They snatched children from their homes, and pillaged houses.” By having women engage in such wanton violence, Euripides achieves two things: firstly, he argues that everyone has a capability for violence within them, and all it takes is the right conditions to set it loose; secondly, Euripides demonstrates how violence conducted by men is normalized in society—if it was men committing these acts of violence, neither the characters in the play nor the audience would find it so shocking.
Euripides, then, manages to use violence to explore the complexities of human psychology. He shows how fantasy can lead to reality, and how imagination can lead to violent engagement. This turns the play back onto the audience itself: as audience members sit “enjoying” the violence on stage, they are forced to consider their own capacity for senseless violence. In implicating this question to his viewers, Euripides ultimately argues that people know less about themselves than they think.
Violence 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.
Blessèd are those who know the mysteries of the god.
Blessèd are those who consecrate their lives to worship.
Blessèd are those who give themselves up to the dance,
to the mysteries, to purification on the holy mountain
where the dance and the mysteries take place.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.