The Bacchae (summaries)



(lines 1 - 48)

Dionysus, the son of Zeus, addresses the audience and describes how Thebes is his birthplace and the ancestral home of his mortal mother (Semele). However, after her affair, Hera taunted her into asking Zeus to reveal his true divine form. As a mortal, this killed Semele, burning her to death. Zeus took the unborn fetus and stitched him into his thigh. Despite Cadmus declaring the place as a shrine, the house of Cadmus did not belief Semele's relations with Zeus - especially disputing the idea of Dionysus being her son. This is true with Pentheus, who scorns the new god.

Dionysus has made Semele's sisters mad and then driven the women from their homes, also in madness. They are driven to the hills of Mount Cithaeron where they sing, dance and perform bacchic rites. He wants Thebes to recognise him as one of their own and respect his rites. He warns against the use of 'military force', for he will use the maenads to fight them. 

He commands his group of worshippers, who have followed him from the East, to enter the city of Cadmus and bang on the drum.

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(lines 49-142)

The chorus enter, as the worshippers of Dionysus. 

They explain who they are and why they follow Dionysus.

They establish the origins and nature of Dionysus' worship (showing which myth Euripides is using for this play).

They explain the clothing and the trapping of the Dionysian worshippers and the role of Thebes.

They also explain the birth of Zeus in the 3rd antistrophe.

The epode celebrates the god (Dionysus) and identifies some characteristics of Dionysus that will play an important part of the story later in the play.

It is to make us recognise that Dionysus is a proper god and needed of worship.

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Episode 1

(lines 143-291)

The appearance of Tiresias, who calls for Cadmus to meet him. They have agreed to dress like followers of Dionysus and join the dancing and rites on Mount Cithaeron. Humour is created from the incongruity of what the old men plan to do and how they are dressed (against the roles and positions expected of old men in the polis).

Pentheus then appears on stage, pondering the recent news of the runaway women. As concerned as he is for his city, he is jumping to conclusions and declares Dionysus' rites fake and an excuse for the women to shirk their duties as women in society. He has ordered the arrest of all the maenads, but is not afraid to hunt the others down, further insulting Dionysus and his existence myth.

Pentheus sees Cadmus and Tiresias dressed in bacchic outfits and insults them both. Tiresias is the sole blame, and the one who answers back to him in the style of an agon. He tells Pentheus about the usefulness of Dionsus, bringing in the importance of Demeter (who was also a newer god). He explains the myth of Dionysus and gives Pentheus advise in the worship of Dionysus for the protection of his city. Cadmus agrees with Tiresias. Pentheus is enraged by this and threatens to destroy Tiresias' items of prophecy - Tiresias calls him a fool.

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Ode 1

(lines 292-346)

The chorus appear still as the bacchants of Dionysus. They call on Holiness to witness Pentheus' arrogance and insolent response about Dionysus. They glorify the quiet life. 

The chorus speaks of going to the island of Aphrodite (Cyprus) among other geographical areas, where they would be able to perform their rites in peace and beauty.

In the antistrophe they delight in the gifts Dionysus gives mortals. They believe that Dionysus brings joy, peace and a happy life. Yet recognise his anger at those who do not care for him as a god or his rites.

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Episode 2

(lines 347-433)

A soldier appears on stage, addressing Pentheus. He tells the king of how they captured Dionysus, who simply allowed them to chain him. The soldier feels shame at capturing the stranger and had relayed that it was Pentheus' order. The bacchants were set free by Dionysus' power and there is a reiteration of Pentheus' kingly duties

(Stichomythia)Pentheus and Dionysus talk. Pentheus questions who Dionysus is and where he is from. Dionysus speaks of himself in 3rd person. Pentheus is angered by Dionysus' deliberate teasing and answers that are not really answers. Pentheus threatens Dionsysus  (bathos), who simply questions what else he will do to himself before revealing that he is indeed the god Dionysus. Pentheus orders Dionysus to be seized, not believing his truth. Dionysus is simply acting correctly, it is not right for an unitiated person to know the workings of a cult religion. 

Pentheus then threatens the bacchants, claiming he will sell them as slaves, or turn them into servants for his house. Dionysus warns that he will enact revenge.

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Ode 2

(lines 434-478)

The chorus begin with a song to DIrce, a river spirit who welcomes Dionysus to Thebes.

They shift their attention to Pentheus and their anger at him for imprisioning Dionysus. They explain his birth in lowly terms, for when he is compared to Dionysus he is lesser.

They call upon Dionysus to punish Pentheus.

The epode focuses on the whereabouts of Dionysus. They cycle through Nysa, Corycia, Piereia, or crossing the rivers Axios and Lydias on his way to Thebes from Olympus.

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Episode 3

(lines 479-727)

The start of the episode is Dionysus and the chorus conversing. By joining the chorus in song, Dionysus proves his whereabouts to his loyal followers. They are summoned to free him from his prison (despite the fact he could easily do it himself).  There is also a description of set design, things that would make the audience look around the stage.

The bacchants are scared and excited by Dionysus' portrayal of power, and know that he will enact revenge on Pentheus. He has escaped his shackles, and reveals his power of madness. He has tricked Pentheus into believing the palace was on fire, and that he was trying to kill an animal which wasn't real.

Pentheus enters stage. He is confused and angered by the actions of the stranger, and demands answers. Dionysus tries to explain why but Pentheus refuses to see, instead ordering more guards to the palace, hoping to trap himself (and anyone else inside).

The stichomythia is interrupted by a messenger, who tells Pentheus about the woman up on Mount Cithaeron and what happened when they tried to capture them (death + injury). Pentheus orders an army to go there. Dionysus convinces him to follow his lead (women disguise)

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Ode 3

(lines 728-70)

The strophe, antistrophe and epode are all separated by a refrain.

The strophe is a celebration of the worship of Dionysus in the mountains and glens of the countryside.

The refrain elaborates on the joy of chorus by their god overcoming the will of Pentheus and the pleasure that comes from Dionysus gaining revenge for Pentheus' actions against him.

The antistrophe is a verse of triumph, justive and heavenly law over the imperious act of mortals who dare to challenge the customs established long ago.

The epode celebrates the blessings of overcoming adversity in life and the pleasures involved in enjoying a simple life.

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Episode 4

(lines 771-837)

Dionysus opens the scene by calling Pentheus to enter (who is under his divine control, ignorant to his upcoming demise), who is dressed as a female bacchant. Pentheus questions about his look and Dionysus sets about perfecting the look - sorting the stray curl, adjusting the belt and having the dress fall to the ankles. 

Pentheus wonders whether they should take any weapons with them, which Dionysus denies, for they must not harm the homes of the nymphs.

Pentheus is confident in the act he is about to take on, and orders Dionysus to lead him through the city and to the Cithaeron. Dionysus tells him that he will go alone, but he will guide him. He warns/foreshadows Pentheus' death in the line about being carried back by Pentheus' mother. Little does Pentheus know, he will be dead when he is carried back.

Dionysus finishes the episode by calling to Agave and the sisters that Pentheus is coming. The revenge is cemented in place.

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Ode 4

(lines 838-80)

A refrain separates the strophe. antistrophe and epode.

The strophe is the chorus' exctitement and reiteration of the danger that Pentheus will face. They are aware that revenge will be enacted and it will be at the hands of Agave.

The refrain is exultant and violent. Pentheus has lived his life by the sword and now the sword of justice will run him through in bloody retribution.

The antistrophe is a song of triumph about Dionysus' defeat of an enemy. Dionysus has defeated Pentheus in word, thought and action in each of their previous encounters and has now led Pentheus to his slaughter.

The epode celebrates the forms of wild animals that Dionysus can take, thus twisting the hunter metaphor. Pentheus is both the hunter and the hunted (hunter in his mind, the hunted in the maenads and Dionysus' minds).

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Episode 5

(lines 881-978)  ----> (advanced info 2022 (section a source)

A messenger appears on stage, stating to the Chorus that Pentheus is dead (he should speak to Cadmus, not the chorus). Although surprised and shocked by the Chorus' joy at this news, he tells them about how Pentheus had been slaughtered.

Dionysus had lifted him with a tree to the top of Mount Cithaeron. Dionysus has enacted his punishment. The women know he is coming, and he is in danger. They rip at the tree and despite his pleads to his mother Agave, she is the first to kill him. He is torn apart by her and her sisters. She is mad and not entirely responsible for her actions.

The messenger does not want to be at the house when Agave arrives with Pentheus' head. He alslo leaves the remaining idea that all gods should be revered and respected.

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Ode 5

(lines 979-996)

A very brief stasimon, with a single verse and a brief epode that interrupts the song as focus foes back to the characters.

The chorus celebrate Pentheus' death and mocks him about what he had been wearing (something that would have been very shameful) within the stanza.

The epode is the chorus recognising Agave coming, they are preparing everyone to go back to the play for the climatic final.

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(lines 997-1216) Remember - there are numerous missing lines during this section (lacuna)

Agave enters the palace with the head of Pentheus with her. She addresses the chorus as fellow members of the cult of Dionysus. However, Agave believes it is the head of a lion cub and is proud she caught him without the male weapons of hunting. By bringing Agave on in a state of delusion, the chorus and the audience are being confronted first hand with yet another aspect of the power of Dionysus.

Cadmus enters the stage (his job is to help Agave reach anagnorisis) bringing the remaining pieces of Pentheus' body. He and Tiresias had carried out Dionysian rites, but Cadmus is aware of the events that had happened. Agave still has yet to understand what she has done, and wants her father to feel proud of her accomplishments. A stichomythia is used to develop tension between the pair as Cadmus strives to bring Agave back to her senses to realise what she has done. Agave begins to return to sense and sees that she is holding Pentheus' head in her hands, and blames Dionysus (understands it was his doing). Dionysus appears and tells the two what their fate is, as well as the reasoning for it. Touching moment between Agave and Cadmus.

The final words of the chorus reminds us that a god's power is impossible to beat as a mortal and full respect should be paid to them.

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