Prologue, Lines 1-63
The Bacchae begins with a prologue, spoken by the god, Dionysus, as he stands before the royal palace at Thebes and the tomb of his mother, Semele. He identifies himself as the son of Zeus, the god, and Semele, a mortal woman who was the daughter of Cadmus, the king of Thebes. Dionysus announces that although he is a god, he now appears as a man. He recalls the circumstances of his birth, when Zeus appeared to Semele as a bolt of lightning, and she was killed. Dionysus praises Cadmus for establishing Semele’s tomb as a shrine.
Dionysus then recalls his journeys, as he traveled the world spreading knowledge of his rites. He began in Lydia and Phrygia (both in modern-day Turkey), then on to Persia and Media (in present-day Iran), and Arabia and all the cities of ancient Greece. In all these places he established cults and rituals in praise of him. Then he reached Thebes, where many women have joined his cult and celebrate him in “their ecstasy of joy.” Dionysus says he came to Thebes to refute the claims made by his mother’s sisters, that he was no son of Zeus. They claim that Semele’s father Cadmus invented that story to conceal the shameful fact that Semele had had a mortal lover, a man. Zeus had then killed her for lying. To punish them, Dionysus has forced all the women of Thebes from their homes, and made them mad. They now wander the mountains, wearing the clothes that show they are part of the Dionysus cult, and carrying out his rites. Dionysus says he will vindicate his mother and show himself to everyone as a god.
Dionysus explains further that Cadmus has abdicated his throne in favor of his grandson, Pentheus, who opposes the cult of Dionysus. Dionysus reiterates that he is determined to prove to Pentheus and all the men of Thebes that he is a god. They must not ignore him. When he is worshiped in Thebes, he will go on to other lands.
He then addresses the Chorus, calling out to his female followers to come with their drums and tambourines and hammer on the doors of Pentheus’s palace.
These opening lines serve as exposition. In drama, exposition tells the audience what has happened before the play starts so the audience has all the information it needs to understand the events that follow.
Dionysus gives the exposition as a soliloquy. A soliloquy is when a character speaks his thoughts alone on the stage. (For example, Hamlet’s speech, “To be or not to be” is a famous soliloquy.)
In the prologue, Dionysus gives the context in which, according to legendary tradition, the worship of Dionysus spread from Asia to Greece. Originally, In Asia, he was a fertility god, worshipped by an agricultural people. Thebes is the first Greek city to encounter this new cult of foreign origins.
Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, is the god of wine and revelry. His followers were known for the wild ecstasies they experienced as they threw off their rational, everyday selves and worshipped the new god. They believed that as they indulged in this frenzied worship, they actuallly became part of the god.
The version of his birth Dionysus attributes to Semele’s sisters is a distortion of the usual story. Zeus did not kill Semele for lying. The story is that Semele told Hera, Zeus’s wife, that she was pregnant by Zeus. Jealous, Hera made Semele doubt whether her story was true, so she asked Zeus to show himself to her in all his glory and so establish the fact that he was a god. Zeus was reluctant, but Semele insisted, with the result that Zeus revealed himself to her in a bolt of lightning, which burned her up.
Two other important elements in the prologue to note are, first, all the followers of Dionysus in Thebes are women, not men. Second, the prologue carefully sets up the central conflict of the play, between Dionysus and Pentheus, the king of Thebes.