The Bacchae

The Bacchae Summary and Analysis of Lines 775-1024

From the exit of the First Messenger to the Entrance of the Second Messenger (Lines 775-1024):


Pentheus calls for his men to arm themselves. The full army of Thebes is going to storm Mount Cithaeron; he intends to crush the Maenads. Dionysus warns him again not to take up arms against the god. Pentheus rejects the advice. Dionysus even offers to bring the women back peacefully, but Pentheus rejects it as a trick. As Pentheus strides away, Dionysus calls out to him with a voice of command. He asks if the boy would like to see the revels on the mountain. Pentheus would. Dionysus tells him that he must go disguised as a woman. Pentheus objects, but the lure of seeing the Dionysian rites is too much from him. He is torn between male pride and a desire to see the rituals. Pentheus exits to consider Dionysus' offer.

With Pentheus gone, Dionysus promises the women that Pentheus will be humiliated. He will walk though the streets of Thebes dressed as a woman, and then he will be butchered by his own mother. Dionysus' divinity will then be beyond question. He goes to dress Pentheus. The Chorus sings of the glory of Bacchic ritual; the women are able to run free, in nature, where no man troubles them. They speak of the destruction that awaits those who defy the goods, and talk of the wisdom that comes from acceptance.

Dionysus reemerges, and then calls for Pentheus to come out. Pentheus is now dressed as a woman. He is dazed and under the power of the god; he has been possessed by Dionysus. He asks Dionysus for instruction; he now looks to the god as his guide. Dionysus attends to him dutifully, fixing his clothes and telling him what to expect: Pentheus will suffer for his city, and he will be carried back by his mother. Pentheus exits. Dionysus calls out to Agave and the daughters of Cadmus: he is bringing Pentheus to them. The day belongs to Bromius.

The Chorus sings of Pentheus' impending doom. They sing of Justice, and the power of the gods to lay low the pride of men. They praise humility and acceptance. The Second Messenger enters.


A theme that holds great interest for Euripides is the relationship between gender and social order. Pentheus is outraged by the triumph of these women; he says again and again that the men cannot accept rebellion from females. Even among the peoples of the ancient world, Greek women had very little freedom. Euripides, ahead of his time in so many ways, recognized that gender and social order were inextricable parts of the same system. Greek culture was in part built on the oppression of women, and therefore the rebellion of a woman threatened the very stability of Greek society. Euripides, more acutely than any of his contemporaries, recognized that this social system was unjust. For society to function, it was necessary to silence women and comfort oneself with lies about the necessity of male rule or fantasies of female wickedness. Euripides' plays often call attention to these lies, exposing the shallowness of the fantasies of male rule. He depicts the position of women sympathetically. In the Choral ode that begins, "When shall I dance once more. . ." (ll. 862-911), the Chorus sings of a world free of civilization and free of men. Euripides is linking civilization (and its cultural constructions, social hierarchies, and sense of order) and male oppression; the fantasy of the women involves escape from both, as one cannot escape one without escaping the other.

Pentheus seeks to preserve male-dominated order, but by the end of the play Dionysus has robbed him of male dignity. The young boy is completely emasculated. The god demands that Pentheus dress himself as a woman, and Pentheus, perversely obsessed with the idea of seeing his mother and the other women revel in the mountains, complies. Pentheus, the young man who has insisted again and again that the old hierarchies of gender be preserved, is made to cross-dress. His reservations are real: "You want me, a man, to wear a woman's dress?" (l. 822). He senses that in playing the part of a woman, he will lose the privileges of being a man. But curiosity wins, and once he has wavered before the god, he loses himself. He exits considering Dionysus' proposal, overwhelmed by his sexual curiosity but still in control of himself. When he reenters, he has completely lost himself to the god.

When Pentheus reenters, he has affected female dress, as well as behavior traditionally ascribed to women. He primps and asks hopefully if he resembles his pretty mother and his aunts. He reverses many of his previous positions, following the priest's lead and saying that women should not be mastered with brute force.

The hunt is a theme of the play. Dionysus is described repeatedly as the hunter. Take note of the reversal: Pentheus was about to lead an army on a hunt for the women. Now, he is about to be emasculated, made into a woman himself, and transformed from the hunter into the hunted. Dionysus speaks using images of the hunt: "Women, our prey now thrashes / in the net we threw" (ll. 846-7). The net is the same image Pentheus used earlier: "We have him in our net. He may be quick, / but he cannot escape us now, I think"(ll. 453-4). Both men aspire to be hunters. But the god is more cunning than the man, and he also, as we shall see, has more brute force at his command.

Dionysus promises that Pentheus will have an important role: "You and you alone will suffer for your city" (l. 963). Pentheus is going to be made into the scapegoat. Remember Dionysiac rite: an animal is possessed by the god, slaughtered, and devoured. In this way, the believer shares in the god's divinity. Pentheus has been possessed: he, not Dionysus, is going to die. Ironically, the young man is going to be destroyed in the rituals that he has tried to suppress. He is to be part of a holy feast for the god whose religion he has tried to eradicate.

Because he is disguised as a mortal, Dionysus often refers to himself in the third person. These prayers have an additional effect: they suggest the difference between the personal god, the anthropomorphic form, and the abstraction, the mystery that the anthropomorphic form represents. Dionysus is both a personality and a force of nature. He is the embodiment of the force. He is god: as a force of nature, he seems beyond morality or immorality. But as a personality, he is petty and cruel. The personal god lacks those traits that distinguish humans from the indifferent forces of the cosmos. Although Euripides' universe is dark and chaotic, humans are special because they can emerge from their suffering with new wisdom and compassion. Frequently in Euripides, suffering produces no such thing. The oppressed often become brutal. But there are exceptions, and these exceptions represent what good can exist in Euripides' universe. Bacchus lacks this capacity to learn from pain; he can only lash back, as does a wild beast. As a god, he has no need to accept, nor does he need to learn compassion. Acceptance is an important theme of the play. Man must accept his limits, and man must accept his suffering. The Chorus expresses this truth in both of the odes here; acceptance is the first part of wisdom.

These scenes call attention to Pentheus' youth. He ceases behaving like a brutal and impatient king and starts to act like a teenage boy. His longing to see the women's revelry in the mountains is his undoing. But the revelation of Pentheus' immaturity condemns Bacchus more than it does Pentheus. The god is using a teenage boy's longings against him. This is not a fair hunt. Bacchus is preying on the weakness of the young, and his revenge against Pentheus will end any sympathy the audience might have had for the god.