The Bacchae and Antigone Unit

TheBacchae and Antigone


Tragedyis just one of the many forms of literature that has been perfectedby various ancient writers such as Shakespeare, Sophocles andEuripides. Ideally, tragedy revolves around the death of the maincharacter(s) that normally possess desired traits that the audiencecan identify with. The cause and motivation of such deaths may differdepending on the style of the writer and also the plot and the themesobserved. In most cases, love, vengeance, war, religion, gods, anddivinity cause such deaths. In Euripides’ The Bacchae andSophocles’ Antigone, there is a consistent portrayal of how humansare supposed to act towards the gods and the associated punishmentfor defaulting or blasphemy. To bring this out and achieve tragedystatus in both plays, the two main sets of characters take opposingpositions in regards to the divine one side is devoted to the stateand the rule of the law and the other side is devoted to piety.


Inthe case of Antigone, King Creon chooses to desecrate a body and denyit proper burial rights. This body belongs to one of Antigone’sbrothers, Polyneices. Creon feels that Polyneices was the evilbrother who terrorized the people while the other brother Etiocleswas the good one. Therefore, Creon orders Eteocles body to be offereda proper burial but orders the body of Polyneices to be left out inthe wild to be devoured by animals. Antigone pleads with Creon to beallowed to offer proper burial rights to the body Polyneicesbelieving that there is no need to hold a grudge with the dead.However, Creon denies her the persmission and she instead defies theking and buries the body in the cover of darkness. On realizingAntigone defied him, he orders that Antigone and her sister to bekilled. Antigone is to be immured behind a cave of rocks to starve todeath. Antigone justified her actions by saying that “I disobeyedbecause the law was not the law of Zeus nor the law ordained byjustice, justice dwelling deep among the gods of the dead” (29).Creon’s son, Hameon and the prophet Tiresias repeatedly warn theKing against condemning Antigone to death. However, the king isadamant that his actions are in accordance with the law. He says toHaemon “Haemon, son, the judgement I pronounced is what the lawrequires” (p. 41). In the end, Antigone chooses to commit suicideby hanging herself as opposed to the pain of starving to death in thecave.

Similarly,in The Bacchae, different takes on the law and piety causes the deathon main characters in the play. This scenario begins with thearrival of Dionysus in the city of Thebes who plans to punish thepeople for failing to worship him. The reigning King, Pentheus hasprohibited worshipping of Dionysus as he denies that the man was bornof Zeus and thus is not a god. This rumour had been be created by oneof the sisters to Dionysus mother who had insinuated that Simele’slover was a mortal. Pentheus seems to believe these rumours. However,old Cadmus and Tiresias know otherwise. They attempt to convincePentheus to recognize Dionysus as a god to which he refuses. EvenDionysus himself advises Patheus and offers him a chance to repentand recognize Dionysus as a god when he says “You dint hear mywords of warning, Pentheus, or you ignored them. You have wronged me,but I am giving you another chance” (790, p. 45). At the timeDionysus is making this offer, he is disguised as a mortal and astranger in the city. When Pentheus refuses to heed the adviceoffered, Dionysus casts a spell of madness on women including themother of Pentheus. It is mother of Penthsus, Agaue who had conspiredagainst Simele that gets to kill his own son for failing to worshipDionysus. While this may appear to be more of a vengeful death, it isstill wrapped around the concept of defying the laws of the gods aspresented in Antigone.

However,in both plays, the role of the gods in meting punishment to those whodefy the gods is different. In the case of the Bacchae, Dionysus as agod is directly controlling the actions of men to mete out punishmenton fellow men. His presence and his actions in Thebes are clearlyvisible for all to see. His ability to cast a spell of madness onwomen of the city enables him to achieve his goals and punishdeserving men. On the other hand, the roles of the gods in meting outpunishment in Antigone are rather concealed. The death of Antigonethrough suicide does not imply she was punished by the gods. Instead,her death is punishment to Creon indirectly. This is because thedeath of Antigone causes the death of Creon’s son Haemon and, hiswife Eurydice. The death of a wife and a son condemns Creon to a lifeof loneliness.


Thebrief analysis above demonstrates that there are some similaritiesand differences between the “The Bacchae” and Antigone. Apartfrom both plays being tragic, the cause and the motivation for deathsare similar in that they are largely driven by differences inperception of the laws of the gods and the laws created by man. Onthe other hand, the two works differ in the role of the gods incausing death or tragedy. Therefore, examining these works from thisangle enhances better understanding of these pieces of work and therole of deity and piety in the ancient Greek culture.


Euripides(n.d.). The Bacchae

Heaney,S. (n.d.). The burial at Thebes. A version of Sophocles’ Antigone.New York: Faber &amp Faber.