Irony as a Driving Literary Device in “The Bacchae”

Irony is my favorite literary device to read, simply because of the way it can be introduced into a piece. For example, one can include irony humorously via sarcasm, as seen in The Bacchae during the long exchange between Pentheus and Dionysus: 

Pentheus: “You really want to spoil me don’t you?”

Dionysus: “To spoil you — yes, in my own way.”

One can also include irony into a piece tragically, and the text which immediately comes to mind is George Orwell’s 1984. The chapter(s) where Winston is being interrogated by O’Brian are particularly compelling in this regard. Euripidies was able to harness the humor of irony, while Orwell was able to harness the darker-side of irony — lies taken as a universal truth, demonstrating the flexibility of this literary device. 

Epigraph number one not only got me thinking about the ways in which irony can be implemented into a text, but also how, at least by the epigraph’s description, it serves as a driving feature in The Bacchae. Specifically, it is Pentheus’s failure to, as the epigraph states, “…accept the absurdity of a situation” that leads to his downfall.  According to the epigraph still, this: “…suggests a kind of belief that [Pentheus] knows all about a given a situation” and it is this foolishness that costs him his life, and his family name. 

Pentheus is given multiple warnings to dissuade him from attempting to retrieve the Maenads, by not only Cadmus and Teiresias, but Dionysus himself as well (disguised as a “stranger.”) Teiresias tells Pentheus to: “…[not] be too sure that force is what controls human affairs…do not think your folly is wisdom.” Despite Teiresias’s role in this society as a “seer” or prophet, Pentheus refuses to take what the elder has to say seriously, as he mocks his clothing and thyrus. Moreover, Teiresias illuminates a significant irony throughout the work: if one thinks they are wise, they are a fool, or as The Bacchae puts it: “To be clever is not to be wise.” The juxtaposition between “wisdom” and “folly” serves to set the tone for the rest of the piece, as it becomes a motif throughout the play. However, to call Pentheus clever may be a stretch, as he fails to yield to the words of even Dionysus himself: “Perhaps you will catch them unaware — [aside:] unless you are caught first.” Dramatic irony lends importance to the quote, as the audience knows that it is Dionysus himself warning Pentheus, but that Pentheus does not. Furthermore this line emphasizes the different ways in which irony can be implemented in a piece; and despite different implementations such as: sarcasm (or comic irony), tragic irony, or dramatic irony respectively, they all are used to maintain the author’s central message: to think oneself wise is a fool’s thought. 

The relationship between Dionysus and Pentheus, when compared to some other Greek Tragedies is in itself ironic. In the Bacchae, the person of a higher social status (Dionysus, being a god) tricks the person of a lower social status (Pentheus being a king.) In Euripides’ other work, “Medea” it is Medea, a woman, who tricks a king into facilitating her reign of terror on Korinth. Meanwhile, in the “Odyssey,” Odysseus bests Polymorphous by blinding him, and subsequently tricking him into releasing him and his men from the Cyclops’s cave. While a Cyclops is not necessarily part of the ancient Greek social structure, he certainly is a higher life form than Odysseus in terms of strength and raw power. Euripidies’ The Bacchae, deviates from these other plays by contradicting the tales of cunning, heroic, mortals, to tell a story where the protagonist is actually a god, and the antagonist is human. While it can be said that in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is actually the antagonist, this revelation is not given until the end of the story, where as, in The Bacchae, Pentheus is immediately antagonistic — mocking the seer, and his grandfather. For the first time in a long time, in terms of Greek tragedies, the “little-guy” does not walk away victorious. 

Identifying the ironies in The Bacchae is something that I want to do in all texts that we are going to read this year. Obviously not just ironies, but other literary devices as well. My goal is to devise what kind of literary feature the author(s) use most often, and to be able to explain how that feature furthers the message of the central theme. This is a skill that I want to master going through this course. It is one thing to know what a book is about, and what it is trying to communicate to its readers, but it’s another thing to know the “how” and “why” behind it. Similarly, memorizing facts does not determine knowledge, rather learning concepts and building foundations breeds a greater depth of understanding. If a mechanic does not know why an oil leak is occurring in a vehicle, it is impossible for him to know how to best fix the problem, and I’d rather not be left with oil stains on my hands for no cash in my pocket. 

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