The Bacchae

The Bacchae Summary and Analysis of of Lines 1025-1394

Entrance of Second Messenger to the end of the play (Lines 1025-1394):


A slave arrives, speaking with pity for the now-fallen house of Cadmus. He tells the Bacchae that Pentheus is dead. Coryphaeus, leader of the Chorus, shouts praises to Dionysus. The slave reproaches her for rejoicing in the disaster of the house, but Coryphaeus refuses to be cowed; she asked to know how it happened.

The slave accompanied Bacchus and Pentheus into the wilderness. At first, they hid and observed the women from afar, but Pentheus wanted a closer view. The god pulled down the top of a fir tree and allowed Pentheus to climb onto it; Dionysus then eased the fir tree back into place. But from his perch, Pentheus was visible to the Maenads. Dionysus called out to the women, telling them that the man in the fir tree had mocked the god's mysteries. The Maenads were possessed and were unable to understand the god's words, but they understood the tone of command. After several failed attempts to force Pentheus down from the tree, the women pulled the tree down with their bare hands. Agave was the first to reach Pentheus. He cried out to his mother for mercy, but Agave, possessed by the god, could not recognize him. The Maenads ripped Pentheus apart with their bare hands. Agave, the Messenger reports, impaled Pentheus' head on her thyrsus. She believes that she killed a lion, and she is coming down from the mountain, joyous and proud. The Messenger, out of pity, does not want to be present when she arrives.

The Bacchae sing praises to Dionysus and glorify his victory over Pentheus. Agave enters, covered in blood and carrying the head of Pentheus. The exchange between Agave and the Bacchae is very strange, and quite ambiguous. Agave talks to the women, telling them about the hunt in which she killed the "lion." The Bacchae ask questions and spur her on. Individual productions have a great deal of say in how the scene is to be interpreted: the Bacchae can seem to mock Agave, or they can seem compassionate, shocked into pity for the poor women. Certainly, by the time Cadmus enters, the Bacchae's tone has softened. They are no longer singing praises to Dionysus, and there is genuine pity when Coryphaeus addresses Agave: "Then, poor woman, show the citizens of Thebes / this great prize, this trophy you have won / in the hunt" (ll. 1200-02). Agave calls out to the citizens of Thebes, boasting about her kill. She calls for her father and her son to come see what she has won.

Cadmus enters, with attendants. The attendants carry a bier, on which lies the pieces of Pentheus' body. He had come down from the mountain with Teiresias when he heard of Pentheus' death, and the old man hurried to the scene of the murder. He and his men recovered what they could find of the body. Cadmus also found several of his daughters, still mad. They told him that Agave was heading to Thebes, still possessed by the god.

Agave rushes to her father proudly, glorying over her prize. He answers her with grief; she does not understand his reproaches. As they speak to each other, Agave's mind begins to clear. The madness of the god passes. Cadmus speaks gently to her, bringing her back to reality. Finally, he tells her to look at the head that she carries in her hands.

Agave screams. She has no idea how she came to carry Pentheus' head; she does not know how Pentheus died. Cadmus explains to her what has happened. Their house has been brought to ruins by Dionysus. Pentheus denied the god, as did Agave and her sisters when they said Semele was no bride of Zeus. Cadmus speaks to Pentheus' corpse: without the young Pentheus, beloved protector of their family, Cadmus is an old and defenseless man. He speaks of the lesson taught by his grandson's death: "If there is still any mortal man / who despises or defies the gods, let him look / on this boy's death and believe in the gods" (ll. 1325-7). Coryphaeus tells Cadmus that she pities him. Agave, crazed with grief, speaks of the horror that she has unwittingly done. She looks at the mutilated remains of her son and mourns for him.

Dionysus appears, in full glory as a god, above the palace. He says that Pentheus has died justly for his blasphemy. He exiles Agave and her sisters from Thebes forever; their hands are unclean with the murder of kin. Cadmus and his wife (Harmonia, daughter of the god Ares) will be transformed into serpents; they will be forced to lead a foreign army against Hellas. In the end, the god Ares will take pity on Cadmus and Harmonia. Ares will deliver them, but not in time to save them from suffering greatly.

Cadmus begs Dionysus for mercy; the punishment comes for a reason, but the god's revenge is too harsh. Dionysus is unmoved. Cadmus pleads: "Gods should be exempt from human passions" (l. 1347). Agave, realizing that Dionysus will not be moved, tells her father that it is fate. Cadmus and his daughter embrace each other, sorrowing over the fate of their family. They grieve for themselves, and they grieve for each other. Cadmus leaves his daughter with these words: "Farewell to you, unhappy child. / Fare well. But you shall find your faring hard" (l. 1379-80). Agave asks the attendants to take her to her sisters. The sisters will go into exile together. The Chorus has the last word, speaking of the gods' many shapes. What was not expected has come to pass. So ends The Bacchae.


The theme of the hunt takes its final, horrible shape as Agave, with the help of her sisters, tears her own son to pieces. In the wilderness setting, the elements of the hunt become twisted, reshaped by the mystery of the god. Man, accustomed to being the hunter of animals, becomes either the hunted or the hunter of other men. Dionysus destroys the normal hierarchies of Pentheus' civilization: Pentheus is reduced to woman, and then reduced further to animal. Normal order gives way to the chaos of the god.

Pentheus has suffered for his amathia, his inability to recognize the essential mystery represented by Dionysus. The god is more than a personality who has given man the gift of wine; Dionysus is a necessity, a force of nature. None can stand in his way. Euripides makes Dionysus the embodiment of everything we fear: he is the exotic, the Other, the unknown, the irrational, the primal, the savage, the wild. But he is of a dual nature, "Most terrible, and yet most gentle, to mankind" (l. 861). He is Greek as well as foreign. He is dark and capable of terrible savagery, but he is also a god of Olympus. What we fear is inextricable connected to ourselves and to the nature of the cosmos: remember that all of the victims of Dionysus are related to him by blood, just as Dionysus himself is the son of God. Pentheus, unable to come to terms with the darker elements of human nature and the universe, is ripped to pieces by the forces he has tried to deny.

Compassion is arguably the central theme of the last four hundred lines of the play. It is the strongest reaction of all who witness Agave's degradation. The simple statement, "I pity you," is said by all of the important human characters. This, William Arrowsmith argues, is the highest form of human Sophia, the ability to learn compassion from suffering. The messenger, out of pity, refuses to be witness to Agave's further degradation. The Bacchae, though initially triumphant, cannot help but feel sorry for Cadmus and Agave. And finally, there is the heartrending farewell between Agave and Cadmus. Remember that for the Greeks, exile was often considered worse than a death sentence. To be forced from one's house or home country was viewed as the most terrible of fates. Daughter and Father embrace each other, weeping for each other as much as for themselves.

Dionysus' presence on stage is now an intrusion. This farewell is the force that he cannot understand; his interruption of their talk (ll. 1377-8: "I was terribly blasphemed, my name dishonored in Thebes") seems almost peevish. While the play is in its own way profoundly religious, Euripides is still raising his objections about the gods. Amathia is not a trait that touches only humans; the god's revenge has been excessive and brutal, an all-too-easy victory over a maddened woman, a pathetic old man, and a young boy. The irony is powerful: remember that this play was performed at the festival held in honor of Dionysus. And yet for human beings, who have little choice, it is necessary to accept the hostility of the universe. Think of Cadmus' words over his grandson's body: "If there is still any mortal man / who despises or defies the gods, let him look / on this boy's death and believe in the gods" (ll. 1325-7). But Cadmus' warning reveals a painful truth. While Pentheus' fate shows that it is madness to defy the gods, it also suggests that there is reason aplenty to despise them. Note that Cadmus tells us to believe in the gods, but not necessarily to love them.

The theme of acceptance is important. The universe may be hostile, but little can be done about it. Begging the gods for mercy is as useless as pleading with a hurricane or an earthquake; Agave pulls her father away from conversation with the god, telling him that all has been fated. Having killed her son, she goes now quietly into exile. Acceptance is the beginning of human wisdom, and compassion follows. Though the play is haunted by terror and anger, The Bacchae's final lesson is empathetic and compassionate. Agave and Cadmus are degraded, humiliated, exiled. But in their suffering and grief for one another, father and daughter leave the stage more noble and dignified than the god who has destroyed them.