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Sep 2, 2014


A bold new translation of Euripides’ shockingly modern classic work, from Forward Prize-winning poet, Robin Robertson, with a new introduction by bestselling and award-winning writer, critic and translator Daniel Mendelsohn.

Thebes has been rocked by the arrival of Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. Drawn by the god’s power, the women of the city have rushed to worship him on the mountain, drinking and dancing with frenzied abandon.

Pentheus, the king of Thebes, is furious, denouncing this so-called “god” as a charlatan and an insurgent. But no mortal can deny a god, much less one as powerful and seductive as Dionysus, who will exact a terrible revenge on Pentheus, drawing the king to his own tragic destruction.

This stunning translation by award-winning poet Robin Robertson reinvigorates Euripides’ masterpiece. Updating it for contemporary readers, he brings the ancient verse to fervid, brutal life, revealing a work of art as devastating and relevant today as it was in the fifth century, BC.

Sep 2, 2014

Informazioni sull'autore

Euripides (c. 480-406 BC) was, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens.

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Anteprima del libro

Bacchae - Euripides


For James Lasdun


We turn to the gods

but the gods turn us;

we turn to the gods

and are torn apart.




Preface by Daniel Mendelsohn


Note on the Text


Family Tree




Also by Robin Robertson


About the Publisher


In the spring of 411 BC, the comic playwright Aristophanes presented to the citizens of Athens a new comedy, Thesmophoriazousae, lampooning the tragedian Euripides. The tongue-twisting title of the play means Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria, a reference to an annual all-female rite held in honor of the fertility goddess Demeter. The ritual setting was crucial to the plot: In the play, the women of Athens, long irritated by Euripides’ penchant for putting oversexed and murderous heroines (Phaedra, Medea) onstage, take advantage of the seclusion offered by the Demeter festival to plot their revenge. An anxious Euripides, having got wind of their scheme, persuades an elderly relative, Mnesilochus, to dress up as a woman, sneak into the rite, and spy on the proceedings. But the old man is found out, and as the play reaches its farcical climax Euripides himself appears and attempts to rescue poor Mnesilochus. (As he does so, both men quote passages from various Euripidean dramas in which heroes fly to the rescue of helpless heroines.) The play ends in rejoicing, as Euripides vows never again to insult the women of Athens in his work.

Not long after Thesmophoriazousae premiered, the playwright left the city of his birth for good, having accepted an invitation by the king of Macedon, a realm occupying the remote northern wilds of the Balkan peninsula, to adorn his court as a kind of writer-in-residence. There is little reason to believe that Euripides’ abandonment of the most civilized city in Greece for a remote cultural backwater was in any way connected to the comic drubbing he had received at Aristophanes’ hands; certain ancient sources suggest that he had become disgusted by Athens’s political and moral descent during the Peloponnesian War. And yet it is hard to resist the thought that Aristophanes’ play had planted a creative seed in the mind of the great tragedian. A couple of years after arriving in Macedon, Euripides died, in his mid-seventies; the following year, in 405 BC, his final work for the stage, Bacchae (Bacchantes) was produced in Athens. At the climax of that drama—which oscillates disturbingly between black humor and deepest horror, between the city and the untamed wilds beyond—a man possessed by curiosity about what certain women are doing during the celebration of an all-female rite dresses up as a woman in order to spy on them. But this time there is no rescue, no rejoicing. At least, not for the characters: for Euripides it won a posthumous first prize at that year’s annual dramatic competition, an accolade that had so often eluded the irreligious and daringly experimental playwright during his lifetime. Within the year his great rival, Sophocles, was dead, too, and soon after tragedy itself seemed to peter out and die as well.

That Bacchae—an undisputed masterpiece, whose status as one of the greatest Greek tragedies is colored by our knowledge that it was also one of the last—should have had its origins as a bit of theatrical gamesmanship, a sophisticated tragic riposte to a comedian’s tease, seems appropriate. Few works in the history of the theater, and certainly no other work in the extant corpus of thirty-three Athenian tragedies (all that remain of the thousand or so works that were performed during the fifth-century BC), are as self-consciously preoccupied as this one is with the theater and its mechanisms: illusion and reality, belief and disbelief, costume and performance, laughter and terror. And how not? It is the only surviving Greek play about Dionysus himself, the god of drama who is also the protagonist of this drama; the deity who lent his name to the festival for which all Greek tragedies were originally composed (the City Dionysia) and to the theater where they were performed: the Theater of Dionysus, still visible today, nestled against the southern slope of the Acropolis, its location a powerful reminder of how central the theater was to the life of the city. Euripides’ bold choice of subject, the decision to make the theater and its smilingly ambiguous god the subjects of his theater piece, allowed him, in his final play, to explore in a remarkably complex way the tensions and conflicts that had always animated his work: between civilization and nature, appearance and reality, sanity and madness, masculinity and femininity.

The plot of Bacchae recalls, in a highly literary form, an event from a dimly remembered Hellenic prehistory: the introduction of the worship of Dionysus from Asia into Greece. As dramatized by Euripides, the most overtly psychologizing of the three great tragedians, the bare anthropological fact becomes a charged personal drama. In his Prologue speech, the young god—who, we should remember, presides not only over wine and theater but over ecstatic song and dance and liberating madness (as his epithet eleutherios, the Liberator suggests)—announces that he has come to Thebes, the hometown of his late mother, Semele, for the express purpose of forcing these Greeks to accept his worship. But the Thebans have resisted thus far, and so the deity, intent on demonstrating his power and authority, has afflicted the women with his special brand of madness, sending them running into the hills outside of town. There they have become bacchae, female celebrants of Bacchus—Dionysus’s other name—cavorting in the wild and consorting with wild animals, much to the consternation of the men who have remained home. (Shades of Thesmophoriazousae, here.)

No man is more aggrieved by this lapse in civilized behavior than

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