Masterpiece Monday: Bacchae

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Rating: 5 out of 5

I don’t mean to update so late, but I’m running on fumes right now. It’s back-to-school season, and I’ve been putting in major hours at the tutoring center. This week I’m teaching an ACT class, and the essay prompt for today had to do with arguing whether or not libraries should offer R-rated movies and books to those underage.

I know most of you would be against any kind of censorship, since it violates a reader’s first amendment, and my students were of the same mind as well. One of the first literary works I thought of that would be on the chopping block was Euripides’ Bacchae. If you haven’t read this play yet, you’re in for a doozy!

Euripides was, in my opinion, the most bad-ass of the ancient Greek tragedians, since his plays were full of brutal material. I’ve already reviewed his more famous work, Medea, and if you thought a story about a mother killing her own children to get back at her husband was insane, Bacchae is even more outrageous.

The play follows Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and partying. Dionysus’ origin story is multifaceted, but in this version, he’s out to avenge his mortal mother Semele, who was killed after she slept with Zeus. As these affairs usually go, Zeus’ wife Hera became jealous and convinced Semele to ask to see Zeus’ divine form. Appearing as a lightning bolt, she was obliterated instantly.

In a bizarre twist, Zeus is able to sew the unborn Dionysus into his own thigh until the baby is ready to be born. At the beginning of Bacchae, Dionysus comes to the city of Thebes to punish the rest of Semele’s family, who accused her of lying when she revealed that she was an immortal’s lover.

Semele’s sister Agave is the mother of Theban king Pentheus, who has banned the city from worshiping Dionysus. If you guessed that something terrible is going to happen to this young man, you would be correct.

Telling you exactly how Pentheus meets his doom would be spoiling the whole reading experience, but I will tell you that  it is crazy and gory. I certainly wouldn’t say this is middle-school material, but I think you guys are old enough to handle it.

One thing I’d like to add, however, is that Euripides is an amazing playwright, so don’t think he relies on shock value alone. Although the moral of the story is to respect and honor the gods, he manages to include apt political and cultural commentary of his time period. Thousands of years later, we can still learn so much from Euripides.

Favorite Quote: “Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.”

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