Study Guide

The Bacchae Madness

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"my mother's sisters […]
I've driven from their wits and from their homes:
out the mountains and out of their minds." (1)

Dionysus's first act of punishment is to drive all his mother's sisters crazy for denying the fact that he is a god. Ironically, the people who have denied his divinity are now out celebrating it. It makes sense that Dionysus would choose such a punishment, since he was thought to represent the irrational.

"the rounded timbrel […]
They gave it in the hand of
Mother Rhea to drum-beat
For shouting Bacchants raving.
The run-mad satyrs snatched it,
Joined it to the dances" (4)

A little madness now and then is a good thing. At least, that's what your average Bacchant would tell you. Wild frenzies are an essential part of their rituals. Some scholars say that the main message of The Bacchae is to show how it's important for humans to allow space for irrational to exist in their lives.

"There is no cure for madness
when the cure itself is mad." (22)

The seer, Tiresias, is chastising Pentheus for not honoring Dionysus. Pentheus has been arguing that all the new god's crazy rituals are just that – crazy. Tiresias is trying to tell him that denying the madness that Dionysus brings is itself a crazy idea. One of the central ideas of the play seems to be the importance of finding balance between the irrational and the rational.

"Oh sir, I've seen the raving ladies--
those who streamed out from their homes stung mad,
their white limbs flashing." (117)

What is sanity? What is madness? What's the difference between the two? When we read The Bacchae we really start to question.

like a wildfire it already hurries here,
outrageously, this mass hysteria,
disgracing us before the whole of Thebes." (121)

By trying to repress the madness of Dionysus's rituals, Pentheus has allowed the entire land to erupt with hysteria. Once again we see demonstrated in the play the dangers of totally suppressing rationality. If you try to bury that part of the human mind it all might just explode in your face.

"Sane, he [Pentheus] will never consent
to put women's clothing on,
but once deranged he will." (119)

This seem a little inconsistent to us. Dionysus says this after Pentheus has already left the stage to dress like a woman. Does this mean that the god already put the spell of Pentheus before he left, or is it a glitch in the logic of the script?

"Slowly but surely divine
Power moves to annul
The brutally minded man
Who in his wild delusions refuses
To reverence the gods." (173)

Here the Chorus alludes that to deny the gods is madness. It's interesting that the people telling us this worship a god who induces madness as a hobby. Looks like no matter what you do in the world of The Bacchae you end up crazy.

"Now I'd say your head was horned…
or were you an animal all the while?
For certainly you've changed…oh, into a bull." […]
Dionysus: "You see things as you ought." (178-179)

Now that Dionysus has messed with Pentheus's head the beguiled King can finally see the truth of the god's form. Does that mean Pentheus was crazy before or that he's crazy now?

"She was foaming at the mouth.
Her eyes dilated rolled.
Her mind was gone--possessed by Bacchus--
she could not hear her son." (225)

Talk about madness. Agave has been driven so insane by Dionysus that she's about rip her own son limb from limb. She is in the throws of a holy trance, which, depending how you look at it, has some very holy or very unholy results.

"I seem to be becoming…somehow…aware.
Something in my mind is changing. […]
No…no…It's Pentheus' head I hold…
most wretched woman!" (284)

As Agave finally comes out of her Bacchus-induced trance, she realizes the horrible thing she's done. She would've been a lot happier if she'd been allowed to stay filled with the mad ecstasy of Bacchus forever. What do you think this might be saying of the nature of madness?

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