Double Tragedy in Antigone and The Bacchae

Double Tragedy in Antigone and The Bacchae

A Story by Ashleigh

Examining the conventions of double-tragedy in Antigone and The Bacchae.


                Tragedy in theatre has been a popular genre since Ancient Greece during a time when theatre was considered a high art form worthy of celebration for the gods. Indeed, Euripides’ The Bacchae is about the god of fertility and wine, Dionysus and the tragedy he wreaks upon Thebes. The Bacchae is an example of Greek tragedy caused by a god; however mortals such as Antigone also weave their own pattern of destruction as seen in Sophocles’ Antigone. Tragedy is commonly seen as a series of events which lead to the death of a character with likable qualities or someone whose death is catastrophic for others. At times, tragedy can turn into double-tragedies, where two important figures die at the end of the play, whether it be two characters or a character and an intangible figure. Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ The Bacchae can both be considered double-tragedies, which become evident when comparing the overall theme of each play, the structure of the plays and how gender issues present in both plays influence the outcome, whether directly or indirectly.
                As with any genre, there are specific requirements or themes that a play must fulfill in order to be a tragedy. Tragedy is comprised of many different components, but possibly one of the most important qualities a tragedy must possess is a plot. Aristotle’s Poetics states that tragedy is driven by action, and not character. It is possible to have both character and action in a tragedy, and indeed, character can serve to spur on the actions of the characters, but ultimately a tragedy can stand on its own without character (Aristotle VI, par 4-5). In Sophocles’ Antigone, Antigone and Creon are both very strong-willed characters. They both have incredible depth and intricacies laced into their personalities, but the fact that they are wilful does not directly contribute to Antigone’s death, thus the end tragedy. Rather, it is the decisions they both make and the actions they carry out which were influenced by their characters that led to tragedy. Antigone becomes a double-tragedy when Antigone’s death results in Haemon’s death as well. Two people with likable qualities have died as a result of actions carried out by both themselves and other characters in the play. A specific example of this in the play can be seen when the action of Creon declaring that Antigone be killed directly leads to her being locked in the cave and later on, Antigone chooses to hang herself rather than suffer the pain of starvation:
CREON. Get her out of here NOW: if you’re slow, you’ll be sorry!
ANTIGONE. O God, this command brings me closer to death.
CREON. Yes. There’s no escape, Antigone.
ANTIGONE. O Theban city, land of my ancestors,
                Gods of my forefathers,
                They lead me away and there is no more time.
                Look on me, rulers of Thebes,
                The last of the royal line,
                See what I suffer and who causes it
                Because I honoured what should be honoured. (Sophocles 27)
Of course, Haemon, so upset by Antigone’s death, decides to kill himself, thus resulting a double tragedy. These were both actions that led to deaths, fulfilling the plot requirement for tragedy. This same idea of action driving a tragedy is seen in The Bacchae when Dionysus persuades Pentheus to dress in women’s clothes and go spy on the women. Pentheus’ insecurity about his sexuality and his curiosity to see what the women are doing in the mountains are factors that contribute to his decision to spy on them, but in the end it is the action itself and not the character traits influencing it which later leads to his discovery and dismemberment by the women, including his own mother Agave:
PENTHEUS. I can’t put on women’s clothes. I can’t.
DIONYSUS. You’d rather fight them? Blood on blood?
PENTHEUS. Better see what they’re up to first?
DIONYSUS. Much better. First gather your evidence.
PENTHEUS. I can get through Thebes and not be seen? … I won’t be laughed at. They musn’t laugh. (Euripides 109)
Character development in tragedy merely allows the character to make choices and then carry out actions; however a tragedy can exist with no character development as long as there is a plot or series of linked events. In the case of Antigone and The Bacchae, these actions lead to the deaths of two figures, resulting in a double tragedy.
                Aristotle’s Poetics states that all tragedies must have a consistent plot; beginning, middle and end. Each part must flow into the next through a series of events that ultimately lead to tragedy within the play (Aristotle VII, par 1-2). In the case of The Bacchae and Antigone, these structures are linked through actions which lead to double tragedies. Antigone follows set structure. Antigone is seen arguing with her sister, Ismene, in the first scene about the proper burial of their brother, Polinisces. Her belief that her brother deserves a proper burial is what begins the chain of events that lead to her death and Haemon’s death. She resolves to give him a proper burial, which angers Creon who labelled Polinisces as a traitor in the first place. He eventually becomes so angry with her that he has her put to death, but Haemon fights against this. By the time Creon’s realized his mistake, Antigone’s already hanged herself and finding out about his betrothed’s death, Haemon commits suicide as well. The beginning, middle and end are clearly defined by the introduction of the problem through Antigone’s fight with Ismene, the many arguments between Antigone and Creon and the dramatic deaths of both Antigone and Haemon at the end, fulfilling the role of being a double tragedy. The Bacchae follows a similar structure. The problem is introduced at the very beginning of the play where Dionysus enters and speaks of his bitter feelings towards his mother’s family and neighbours because they did not believe that the son she was carrying was the son of Zeus and a god, but that she was just a common w***e looking for an excuse to save a scrap of her dignity. It is because of this that Dionysus was never given proper recognition as the god that he is. He has a plan to get back at the people of his mother’s home. It’s this plan and initial problem at the beginning that stir up the rest of the play. The middle of the play is when Dionysus’ plan is being put into place and the women are leaving their homes to become one with nature, much to the fury of Pentheus, who believes the women are being bewitched and are taking part in sexual acts on the mountain. Pentheus is so disturbed by their behaviour that he has to do something about it. This is when Dionysus comes in disguised as a mortal man and cons him into spying on the women. The dramatic and fateful end is where Pentheus is caught spying on the women and his own mother in a blinding fit of ecstasy tears her own son to pieces with her bare hands. Although Pentheus is the only person who dies in this play, it is considered a double tragedy due to the fact that through his death, no eligible heirs to the throne remain and the family is sent into exile. It is not necessarily the death of a person, but the death of a government. These structures serve to further the plot and for Antigone and The Bacchae, allow actions to lead to double tragedies in both instances.
                Both tragedies are fuelled by disturbances in gender relations. It is Creon’s determination not to allow a mere woman to best him and Pentheus’ assumption that the women are engaging in sexual acts up on the mountain, coupled with his anger that they have left their homes and ceased doing “women’s work” that aid their behaviour and lead to death. In Ancient Greece, women were expected to be obedient and submissive to their fathers, husbands or whatever other male figure had power over them. It was unusual and often fatal for a woman to speak her mind and resist this rule. Both Antigone and the women in The Bacchae display this unusual resistance for the rulers. Antigone restates again and again in the play that she follows the rule of the Gods, not the rule of the state and says this defiantly to her uncle and the ruler of Thebes, Creon:
CREON. And yet you dared to break the law?
ANTIGONE. Yes. Because this order did not come from the gods above nor those below and I didn’t                             think that any edict issued by you had the power to override the unwritten and unfailing law of the
                      gods. That law lives not only for today or yesterday, but forever. I did not fear the judgement of a
                      mere man so much as that of the immortal gods. (Sophocles, 14)
Her blatant defiance shocks and angers Creon, who is terribly ashamed of being ruled by a woman. Antigone’s refusal to bow before the laws of a man infuriates Creon and causes him to order her death. Similarly, the women in The Bacchae are charmed b y Dionysus and leave their household duties to go celebrate their femininity and allow their mind, sprit and body to become one with the Earth. They disregard the duties put in place for them by men. Pentheus, the ruler of Thebes is enraged that the women have stopped doing the household chores and left their homes. He does not understand the true meaning of their journey to the mountain and assumes they are engaging in sexual acts due to the belief of men that women were wild, lust-filled creatures who needed men to tame them and keep them subdued:
PENTHEUS. As soon as I leave the city, troubles flares!
                Some… epidemic of nonsense invades all of Thebes.
                They’re leaving home, the women, skipping to the woods,
                Tripping off to the hills in bogus ecstacy!
                … Our women slipping off on the quiet, one by one,
                To w***e with men. (Euripides 91)
Pentheus’ assumption that the women are having sex outside of marriage in the mountains and his anger at the lack of household work being completed pushes him to go spy on the women to see what they are really doing and to punish them, only to be discovered and torn to shreds.
                Through the comparison of The Bacchae and Antigone, with Aristotle’s Poetics as a guide, one may find that both plays not only fulfill the requirements of tragedy, but also of double tragedies. This can be seen through the examination of the general themes and structures of tragedy and double tragedy, along with gender issues as a contributing factor to the structure and action of both plays and in turn, the resulting tragedies. The unfortunate end of these characters leads one to wonder whether they themselves were the sole contributors to their deaths or whether their fate was already written in the stars by the gods?

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Project Gutenberg. Accessed March 2009        <>

McDonald, Marianne et al, eds, trans. Greek Tragedy. London: Nick Hern Books, 2005.

© 2009 Ashleigh

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Added on April 9, 2009



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