What’s Up With the Ending?
The ending of The Bacchae is remarkable because nobody learns anything. If you listen to Aristotle, tragedies are supposed to end with the hero having an anagnorisis. This is Greek for a moment of realization or recognition. Basically, it's the part of the play where the hero goes, "Oh my gosh, I really messed up." According to Aristotle, the anagnorisis is supposed to happen to the play's protagonist. However, Dionysus, the protagonist of The Bacchae, isn't sorry one bit. He's happy as a bug in a rug about the horror he's caused. Making all the ladies of Thebes go crazy and dismember cattle? Awesome. Causing Agave to rip her son Pentheus's head off? A job well done. Dionysus set out to show everybody who's boss and that's just what he's done. At the end of the play, he's completely unrepentant.
You do see a bit of an anagnorisis with Agave. She definitely has a moment of recognition, when she realizes that the bloody head she's holding is actually her son's and not a lion's. She's definitely sorry for doing it. The thing is it doesn't really count because Dionysus is the one that took over her mind and made her do it. Agave isn't sorry at all for spurning Dionysus to begin with. When Dionysus tells her she's banished she complains the god is "merciless" (313). As she exits the stage, she's not thinking, "Well, next time I'm going to mind my manners when a new god comes around." Instead she says, "Let others meddle with Bacchants" (332). Agave doesn't seem to be sorry at all, she's just mad the whole thing happened.
The only person who says he's in the wrong at the end is Cadmus. The old man pleads with Dionysus saying, "Have mercy, Dionysus, we have sinned" (311). This is pretty ironic, because Cadmus was the only one in the family who willingly worshiped Dionysus. We think it's kind of weird that nobody mentions this here. Did everybody just forget the scene where Cadmus and Tiresias set off to dance in the mountains dressed up in fawn skins? Apparently, no one cares about that, least of all Dionysus, who dooms the old man to leading a barbarian horde in the form of a snake. So, let's get this straight – the only one who's sorry at the end of the play didn't really do anything wrong, but is punished anyway. What is the meaning of this, Euripides?
It's really no wonder that, in his Poetics, Aristotle talked a lot of smack about Euripides. These two guys obviously had different ideas of what a tragedy was supposed to be. The lack of any true anagnorisis in the conclusion of The Bacchae highlights their stark differences. Euripides's plays consistently present a cynical view of both man and the gods. But this attitude just didn't seem to compute with Aristotle's ideas of the universe. Euripides's tragedies are very rarely about the tragedy of one person who suffers and learns from that suffering. Instead Euripides often presents the tragedy of all humankind, being trapped in a harsh, chaotic, and unsympathetic universe.