A Critical Review of The Bacchae of Euripides by Wole Soyinka

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This article is one of three in a series on Bacchus/Dionysus, you can read the next one here.

In Wole Soyinka’s retelling of The Bacchae,[i] a classical Greek play, the tone has been  slightly altered to include a comedic aspect; which neither excludes the initial somber tendency nor does the plot deviate far from Euripides 5th c. script.  There are several instances in which comedy is inserted in the play that momentarily changes its tone. The majority of these instances is in the dialogue between the characters Kadmos and Tiresias. The comedic points, although vulgar, play an important role in creating a secondary tone in Soyinka’s version of The Bacchae. The first and second are both conversations between the Kadmos and Tiresias. The first is a misspoken line by Kadmos to the other, where as the second is a conversation between them about the origins of Dionysus. The third is an inebriated Pentheus speaking to Dionysus in disguise who incites him to see the maenads. In the retelling of the play, Soyinka has had to abandon the ending of the original and create a new ending because of the nature of the source in which substantial parts are lost.

In both texts, Tiresias is blind, but what is different is how they approach joining the worship of Dionysus. Kadmos does so in secret in Soyinka’s text, by hiding his fawn skin robes underneath his cloak, and devising a thyrsus that is collapsible,

KADMOS: …“See how it works? First collapsible thyrsus in all of Attica, in the whole  world maybe. Made it myself. Couldn’t trust the place joiner not to talk. Shows you how nervous I was, going all that length to disguise the obvious.”[ii]

The two intended to secretly travel to Mt. Kithairon, but before that, Tiresias asks if Kadmos is dressed to go and do Dionysus honor. At this point, Kadmos takes off his cloak to reveal his fawn skin in which the following lines ensue,

KADMOS: Aren’t I? (Takes TIRESIAS’ hand.) Here, feel that.  You won’t find finer foreskin except on Dionysus himself.”

TIRESIAS: He isn’t circumcised?

KADMOS: Who? Who isn’t circumcised?

TIRESIAS: Dionysus. What you said about his foreskin.

KADMOS: Did I? Slip of the tongue.

TIRESIAS: (considers it quite seriously). I wonder how many of that you’d need to make a Bacchic smock.

KADMOS: If that was what Dionysus demanded . . . a couple of thousand slaves forcibly circumcised . . . Pentheus could arrange it.[iii]

These lines change the over all tone completely from the beginning of the play which had been serious and vindictive. The reason for the secrecy were doubts that Kadmos had at joining Dionysus  as he worried  “it did not befit [my] age or rank.”[iv] The accidental “slip of the tongue” that Kadmos had turns from comedic back to seriousness as Tiresias actually considers the idea being discussed.

In the original, this scene is kept serious, and both characters are aware of each other’s devotion to Dionysus. Tiresias sought after Cadmus[v]  in a very upfront manner by saying,

TIRESIAS: …“Go someone, tell him that Tiresias is seeking him. He knows himself why I have come. He knows the arrangement I have made…to dress the thyrsus and put on skins of fawns and wreathe our heads with shoots of ivy.”[vi]

Among the two plays, this is one of the differences in plot. For the most part, Soyinka kept whole sections of dialogue from the original version and tended to only make minor changes such as spelling of character names and who said certain lines.

The next appearance of comedic insertion in the text comes again in a conversation between Kadmos and Tiresias. In the conversation, they talk about  the rumor of Dionysus’ birth  which was misconstrued as him being taken by Zeus, who then sewed Dionysus into his thigh.[vii] Tiresias pokes fun at this aspect with humorous, yet insightful vulgarity.

TIRESIAS(to KADMOS):

“…Is the man

Not fully present in the seed? And the offspring

Of the son of Ichion, are they not even now ensconced

Within that dangling pouch between your thighs?

Offsprings whose genesis you now endanger

By sharp tongue wagging impiously?

It’s not for me to say if Zeus had his scrotum

Sewn to one side of his thighs or

In—between like—presumably—yours.”[viii]

These lines appear in a more serious form with in the original text but are not spoken by Tiresias, but rather Pentheus to the two old men. He tells them the misconception of this story is due in part to an error of communication by mortals who came up with the concept that he was sown into the thigh.[ix] Pentheus does not go in any such detail as Tiresias does, whose comments were rather racy.

The final comedic addition that changes the tone can be found in the interaction between Dionysus and Pentheus as he dressed him in the costume of a maenad. As Dionysus put Pentheus into a trance like state, he became in a state akin to being on acid[x]; hallucinating Dionysus as a talking animal.

PENTHEUS: (with just a touch of tipsiness)

Yes, but listen. I seem to see two suns

Blazing in the heavens. And now two Thebes

Two cities, each with seven gates. And you—

Are you a bull? There are horns newly

Sprouted from your head. Have you always been

A bull? Were you. . .(He searches foggily in his brain.)

. . . yes, that bull, in there?

Was it you?

DIONYSUS: Now you see me as you ought to see. Dionysus

Has been good to you with his gift of wine.[xi]

This off balanced and humorous Pentheus is quite different from the serious overbearing one earlier in the play, both in Soyinka’s and Euripides’ version.  In the original, Pentheus only thinks Dionysus may be a bull, whereas in Soyinka’s version Dionysus actually becomes a bull with out any doubt in the mind of Pentheus as understood in the dialogue.

The ending of the two plays is the biggest difference,  yet is attributed to the fact that parts of the ending of Euripides’ Bacchae are lost. In Soyinka’s Bacchae, Agave successfully nails her son’s head to the archway in the palace, while in the original text, she merely carries it around until it becomes an object of recognition that causes a change of emotion in her. Soyinka follows through with Agave thinking the head as a trophy by tacking it to the wall, whereas the original Agave recognizes it as her son and does not proceed that far. The spot where he abandons the original ending is at the point of a blood like substance streaming forth from the mouth of Pentheus. It continues to spew outwards like a fountain and it turns out not as blood, but as Dionysian wine that characters, in a trance, drink.

Soyinka’s inventive writing and incorporation of a comedic tone in the retelling of this play, has given it new vigor while retaining its roots befitting a classic tragedy. With each of the artfully inserted comic lines, the play gained a new perspective. The characters of Tiresias and Kadmos became comic relief in Soyinka’s version which gave this play a breath of fresh air into the serious and direct original piece.


[i] Can be known as either The Bacchants or The Bacchantes.

[ii] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 25.

[iii] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 22

[iv] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 23

[v] Name given to the character of Kadmos in the original text.

[vi] Euripides and Moses Hadas. Ten Plays by Euripides. 3rd ed. (New York: Bantam Classics, 2006) 321.

[vii] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 30.

[viii] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 31.

[ix] Euripides and Moses Hadas. Ten Plays by Euripides. 3rd ed. (New York: Bantam Classics, 2006) 324.

[x] Lysergic acid diethylamide commonly abbreviated as LSD.

[xi] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 76.

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