The Bacchae is a novel written by Euripides.
- Dionysus - Originator, protagonist and central axis of The Bacchae, this god of wine, theater and group ecstasy appears mostly in disguise as a beautiful, longhaired, wine-flushed Lydian, the Stranger. His non-human forms and powers are also felt acutely throughout the play and Dionysus the god is clearly different from Dionysus in disguise, as the Stranger, and yet they are the same. Still, they exist in their different forms simultaneously, so while the audience and the chorus hear the divine god give the command for the earthquake, the Stranger is inside the palace torturing Pentheus. Dionysus is the son of Zeus and the mortal Semele, daughter of Cadmus.
- Pentheus - Pentheus is the king of Thebes, son of Agaue, grandson of Cadmus and the first cousin of Dionysus. Structurally Pentheus is Dionysus's foil, thus he is a preserver of law and order, a military man, a stern patriarch, and ultimately a doomed mortal. Pentheus is not merely a mirror or inverted double of Dionysus; he is puritanical and obstinate, but also curious and voyeuristic.
- Agaue - Mother of Pentheus and daughter of Cadmus. Agaue is already one of the maenads (a worshipper of Dionysus participating in orgiastic rites, from the Greek mainad to be mad) at the start of the play. Even though she only enters the play at the very end, her scene is the most powerful and tragic in the play.
- Cadmus - Former king of Thebes, father of Agaue and Semele, grandfather of Pentheus and Dionysus. Cadmus is the only one in his family to declare allegiance to Dionysus.
- Servant - He captures the Stranger and brings him to Pentheus in Scene II.
- First Messenger - One of three anonymous witnesses in the play. The first messenger is a cowherd who spies on the maenads and comes back to relate the incident to Pentheus.
- Second Messenger - The second messenger accompanied Pentheus and Dionysus up the mountain and witnessed the death of his king. He returns to the palace to relate the event to the chorus.
- Chorus - Female bacchants from Lydia, led by Dionysus in his human form as the Stranger.
- Tiresias - A famous Theban seer and friend of Cadmus. Tiresias persuades Cadmus to worship Dionysus.
Dionysus, the god of wine, prophecy, religious ecstasy, and fertility, returns to his birthplace in Thebes in order to clear his mother's name and to punish the insolent city state for refusing to allow people to worship him. The background to his return is presented in the prologue, in which Dionysus tells the story of his mother, Semele, once a princess in the royal Theban house of Cadmus. She had an affair with Zeus, the king of the gods, and became pregnant. As revenge, Zeus's jealous wife Hera tricked Semele into asking Zeus to appear in his divine form. Zeus, too powerful for a mortal to behold, emerged from the sky as a bolt of lightning and burnt Semele to a cinder. He managed, however, to rescue his unborn son Dionysus and stitched the baby into his thigh. Semele's family claimed that she had been struck by lightning for lying about Zeus and that her child, the product of an illicit human affair, had died with her, maligning her name and rejecting the young god Dionysus. The action of the play begins with Dionysus's return to Thebes years later. He arrives in town disguised as the stranger, accompanied by a band of bacchants, to punish the family for their treatment of his mother and their refusal to offer him sacrifices. During Dionysus's absence, Semele's father, Cadmus, had handed the kingdom over to his proud grandson Pentheus. It was Pentheus's decision to not allow the worship of Dionysus in Thebes. Dionysus tells the audience that when he arrived in Thebes he drove Semele's sisters mad, and they fled to Mt. Cithaeron to worship him and perform his rites on the mountainside. As the ruler of the state and preserver of social order, Pentheus finds himself threatened by the Dionysian rites bringing the women from the city into the forest. Unconvinced of their divinely-caused insanity, he sees their drunken cavorting as an illicit attempt to escape the mores and legal codes regulating Theban society. His response is therefore a political one, as he orders his soldiers to arrest the Lydian stranger and his maenads, whom he sees as the root of the troubles. Deviously, Dionysus allows himself to be easily arrested and taken to Pentheus with the others. In the first of three encounters, Dionysus begins the long process of trapping Pentheus and leading him to his death. The encounter begins with the powerful Pentheus thinking he has caught the delicate stranger. He orders his androgynous prisoner to be chained, bound, and tortured but soon finds it impossible to do so. When Pentheus tries to tie Dionysus he ties only a bull, when Pentheus plunges a knife into Dionysus the blade passes only through shadow. Suddenly an earthquake shakes the palace, a fire starts, and Pentheus is left weak and puzzled. In their second exchange, Dionysus tries to persuade Pentheus to abandon his destructive path, but Pentheus does not relent. A cowherd arrives and describes his sighting of the maddened women of Cadmus. All the women were seen resting blissfully in the forest, feasting on milk, honey and wine that sprang from the ground. They played music, suckled wild animals and sang and danced with joy. But when they saw the cowherd, they flew into a murderous rage and chased after him. The cowherd barely escaped, but the herd of cattle was captured and torn apart by hand by the maenads, including Pentheus's mother Agaue. Pentheus is left intrigued and excited by the messenger's marvelous and frightening tale. Dionysus takes note of Pentheus's interest and offers him a chance to see the maenads for himself, undetected. Pentheus, on the verge of launching a military expedition to arrest the band, suddenly cannot resist the opportunity to see the forbidden. He agrees to do all Dionysus suggests, dressing himself in a wig and long skirts. The effeminate Pentheus, stripped of his masculinity and authority, is revealed as a vain, boastful and lecherous creature. Once in the woods, Pentheus cannot see the bacchants from the ground, and wants to mount a tree for a better vantage. Dionysus miraculously bends a tall fir tree, puts Pentheus on top, and gently straightens the tree. At once the maenads see him, and Dionysus orders them to attack the vulnerable ruler. With rolling eyes and frenzied cries the women attack, bringing Pentheus down and dragging him to the ground. As he falls Pentheus reaches out for his mother's face and pleads with her to recognize her son. But Agaue, driven mad by Dionysus, proceeds to rip her son to death. At the palace the chorus is exultant and sings the praise of Dionysus. Agaue returns home with Pentheus's head in her hands. She is still deluded and boasts to all about the young lion she hunted and beheaded. Old Cadmus, who knows what has happened, sadly approaches his daughter and draws her mind back to the palace, her family and finally what she is holding in her hands. Agaue begins to weep. Cadmus remarks that the god has punished the family rightly but excessively. In the end, Dionysus finally appears in his true form to the city. He banishes Agaue from Thebes and ordains that Cadmus and his wife will turn into snakes, destined to invade Greek lands with a horde of barbarians.
Fawnskins are the key garb for bacchic ritual, described as "the sacred cloak." It is the first item mentioned by both the two old men and by Pentheus when they decide to dress as bacchants. The mountain dancers strive to emulate the speed and freedom of the fawn. In Greek lyric poetry, the fawn was the traditional symbol for playfulness. The fawn also plays into the hunting motif, central to the play, embodying the paradigmatic quarry. As the chorus sings in Interlude III: "Shall I in night-long dances ever set white foot in bacchis celebration, hurling my throat to the dewy air of heaven, like a fawn playing in the green pleasures of a meadow, when it has escaped the terrifying hunt."
In Greek visual art and the lyrical poetry of the time, Dionysus was commonly depicted as being graceful, with effeminate features and long, flowing hair. As Pentheus is both drawn to and disgusted by the bacchic revelry, so is he fascinated and revolted by the Stranger's looks, especially the Stranger's hair. He comments upon the hair several times, and when asked what he would do to his prisoner, his immediate response is: "first I shall cut off your delicate locks," to which Dionysus responds, "my long hair is sacred; I am growing it for the god." This exchange proves a revelation, for while the Stranger could have been growing his hair as a promise to a god, as was common practice, his hair is long simply because he is the god himself. When their roles are reversed and Pentheus is imprisoned by Dionysus, they mention hair first. At that point, hair symbolizes Pentheus's weakness or femininity, as Dionysus chides Pentheus: "But this curl has fallen out of its proper place, not as I fixed it under the snood…well we whose care it is to look after you shall put it back in position; now hold your head straight." Dionysus's dominance over Pentheus is complete as he tucks the other man's hair into place in a moment not devoid of sexual overtones.
The bull is one of Dionysus's most common incarnations in Greek art and religious imagery. It expresses the god's power, leadership, virility, and his potency as a force of nature. The epithets used for him in cultic practice and in poetry often allude to his bullish form. Crucially, the shape of the god and his victim is sometimes the same, as in the case of the bull, often offered as a sacrifice in his honor. In the play, the maenads tear apart bulls in the frenzy of their sparagmos (the ritual dismemberment of animals) in the cowherd's speech. Pentheus, in particular, sees Dionysus in his bull-like form. When he thinks he is tying up the Stranger, he finds himself wrestling with a bull in the stables of the palace. Once he goes mad, he sees the Stranger as a bull.