Invitation to World Literature
The Bacchae The Bacchae – Key Points
Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts
- What is Dionysus’ true nature? The central character of Dionysus is described as loving and gentle, but also as a terrifying force of animal nature. He is simultaneously a god with feminine characteristics (much is made of his long hair and fair skin) but at the same time a god of powerful vengeance (appearing as a raging bull). What does this duality mean for the actions of the characters in the play who respond to Dionysus? Does it suggest a duality within us all?
- Siegfried Melchinger writes, “[Dionysus] is the center between the opposite poles, not the god of metamorphoses, but the god of dichotomy. He is in the middle between man and woman, between Asia and Europe, between Hellas and the barbarian world, between heaven and hell (according to Heraclitus, his other name is Hades), between death and life, between raving and peace. …Dionysus is the one who disappears and returns, hunter and hunted, murderer and victim, life and death. The tragedy consists in knowing that these two aspects are different sides of the same manifestation.” What do you make of this? Do you agree that murderer and victim are two sides of the same coin?
- Who is wise in the play? The chorus says it is wise for mortals to follow the gods, and to know their place in the order of things. Pentheus finds wisdom in the imperative to take arms against the violent disorder the Bacchae may otherwise bring. Cadmus counsels the wisdom of acknowledging the god for the good of the city, even if there are doubts about his being a true god. Maenads find a mad wisdom in following an animal nature. Is there a sense of wisdom that the play is promoting? Would a different kind of wisdom on any characters’ part have averted the tragedy?
- Is there anyone in this play to root for? The play begins with the audience feeling sympathy for Dionysus, who is wronged and slandered. As he is hunted by the arrogant Pentheus, we see Pentheus as the villain. Then, as we learn more, this balance changes. Dionysus easily slips from being hunted to being hunter, and ensnares Pentheus in his own desire to see the women. By this point, the prey is in the net, and what unfolds is horrifying vengeance, which consumes the town. Even the chorus expresses dismay at this turn of events, and our pity for Pentheus (and Agave) is aroused. What feeling are we left with for Dionysus? Is Pentheus sympathetic simply because he dies? If we don’t like either of them, what does that say about our ability to understand what is right?
- Does the punishment fit the crime? Dionysus has been wronged. Thebes has not acknowledged him; Pentheus mocks and imprisons him, threatening to take arms against his followers, and the town is resistant to his cult. And yet, the revenge for these acts is horrifyingly gruesome and leaves the city in ruins. Is this really a fair punishment? Cadmus asks this of Dionysus near the end of the play, and is told it was ordained. Is this a satisfactory answer? Or should we abandon the expectation that the world depicted in this tragedy is a just one?
- A stranger comes to town—the notion of the outsider who changes the social order is an old one in literature, and persists in narratives of all kinds into the current day. Dionysus is such a figure, although not a true stranger, merely in disguise, but the bringer of outside mysteries and rites. He comes from the East, and faces the Greek cultural and military distrust of anything beyond Hellas, particularly Asia Minor, the repeated scene of armed conflict. This fear of the outsider is still with us. Imagine a contemporary play or story in which the central character came from a hostile land: would a character who responded like Pentheus seem more justified or more prejudiced to you?
Discussion Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking
- The Dionysian spirit. As noted in the video, the spirit of Dionysus and The Bacchae received a lot of attention in the 1960s, possibly finding a resonance in an invitation to return to true animal nature. If you watch some of Dionysus in ’69, this is evident. Do you think the play actually invites this view? Is there a caution or counterargument in the play?
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.