I gather this play is a masterpiece, and I have no argument against that position, but it didn’t do much for me, even after reading it twice. I’m sure I missed the point somewhere, and lacked all sorts of historical context, but in the end the whole thing fell flat for me.
The story concerns the god Dionysus getting his revenge on the House of Cadmus for wrongs he received regarding his parentage. His mother Semele of the house Cadmus was Zeus’ mistress and got pregnant with Dionysus, but Zeus’ wife Hera was jealous, and tricked Zeus into killing Semele by appearing in his natural form and thereby destroying her mind. Zeus then sewed up Dionysus in his leg, presumably cutting him back out when he came to term. Once Dionysis was a boy, his relatives in the House of Cadmus didn’t believe that Zeus was the father, so they denied that he was a god. If there’s one thing that will piss off a god, it’s telling him he’s mortal
So Dionysus shows up and makes all the women of Cadmus go off into the mountains to rave like lunatics, much to the consternation of Pentheus, the King, who thinks their behavior is very improper indeed. He blames The Stranger, a.k.a. Dionysus in disguise, and imprisons him, but of course that results in his house being burned to the ground. Then Dionysus gets Pentheus interested in seeing the Bacchanals with his own eyes, so he dresses him as a woman and sneaks him into the mountains where the women are still cavorting. Dionysus manages to get Pentheus up to the top of a tree, and then convinces the women to attack and tear him to shreds. Leading the charge is Pentheus’ mother, Agave, who literally rips his head from his body. In her defense, she thought it was a lion cub. When she gets back to Thebes, she learns of her mistake and accepts the punishment of being banished, and everyone agrees that although they all had it coming, still Dionysus was exceptionally harsh on them.
So, I love a good god-disguised-as-human story as much as the next guy, but this one didn’t really sit well with me. I can accept that Dionysus was pissed, even though a God taking slights to what some puny humans think seems awfully petty. But in reading the play, Dionysus basically tricks all of the characters into doing what they do, with him as the vengeful puppetmaster. Agave, Pentheus, and the rest of them lack agency. Which makes the whole thing not very interesting to me.
I think you can read the play as a meditation on the tension between the rational mind, represented by Pentheus and his uptight need to maintain the social order, and the animal instincts represented by the frenzy of the Bacchanlia, but I didn’t care enough to read it that way given as I said that the whole thing was just Dionysus pulling everyone’s strings. I would have felt better about Pentheus getting his head ripped off if he’d gone there on his own and hadn’t been tricked into it by Dionysus.
Next up on my greek drama series is Sophocles, and something about someone named Oedipus.