The second messenger arrives, bearing “mournful” news—Pentheus is dead. The leader of the chorus celebrates. When chastised by the messenger, the chorus leader says: “I am no Greek, and he was not my king. I praise my lord in my own way. This news frees us from the fear of chains.”
Time goes by in a mysterious way in this play. Pentheus has only just exited the stage, but already the second messenger brings news of his death. The second messenger accuses the chorus of being immoral, and the leader reiterates the idea that Dionysus offers people “freedom” rather than madness.
The second messenger recounts what happened to Pentheus. He went with Pentheus and Dionysus to Mt. Cithaeron. They came across some of the Bacchae, who were singing songs and repairing their thyrsi.
This emphasizes the importance of the thyrsus to Dionysus and his followers, rendering it as a symbol of their power. As with the previous messenger’s story about the Bacchae, this story begins with Dionysus’ followers seemingly at rest, making them seem momentarily less threatening.
Pentheus wanted to get a closer look, continues the second messenger, and asked Dionysus if it would be a good idea to climb up a nearby fir tree. Dionysus pulled the highest branch of the tree to the ground with ease and sat Pentheus down, before letting the tree return to its normal height.
Dionysus’ demonstration of strength with the tree is a further demonstration of his godliness. However, he’s not helping Pentheus—he’s making him a more obvious target.
The Bacchae then spotted Pentheus at the top of the tree. The second messenger relates how the voice of Dionysus came from the sky and told the “Bacchae” that here was the man who “mocked” him and denied his “sacred mysteries.” With lightning flashing in the sky, Dionysus implored his followers to retaliate against Pentheus for his “crimes.”
Dionysus’ motivations become clear—Pentheus has to be punished for mocking him and refusing to pay him tribute. Dionysus brings lightning to the sky, echoing the godly attributes of his father, Zeus, whose “true” form was a lightning storm.
The Bacchae threw stones and branches at Pentheus, but he held his grip. Then Agave, his mother, gathered the Bacchae around the tree and had them tear it out of the ground, sending Pentheus crashing to the floor. Agave pounced on him, continues the second messenger. Pentheus took off his wig and headdress and cried out, “Mother! Mother! It’s Me, Pentheus, your own son!”
The previous messenger’s story prepared the audience for this display of violence. Dionysus has already demonstrated immense power over mortals and their world, be it through the destruction of the palace, his shape-shifting to destabilize Pentheus’ mind, or his possession of the minds of the Theban women. This means that he could have easily overpowered Pentheus in a less cruel way, but opts to force him to meet his death in these particularly tragic circumstances. Pentheus cries to his mother return him to the status of a scared little boy, thus stripping him of any remaining sense of magisterial identity.
Pentheus pleaded with Agave for his life, but her “eyes were rolling, and her mouth filling with foam.” She wrenched his arm right off of his body, “in the grip of the god and the god’s frenzy.” Then the other Bacchae, including Pentheus’ aunts, Ino and Autonoe, helped tear him apart. Soon, his remains were scattered everywhere.
Earlier, Dionysus and his followers claimed that Dionysian rituals restore people’s “true” selves; however, it’s hard to argue that Agave is not possessed by a kind of madness here. Besides her inability to recognize her own son, Agave is foaming at the mouth, which is usually a sign of serious mental or physical distress. Pentheus is killed in an especially violent manner, suggesting that Dionysus takes delight in treating non-believers cruelly.
Agave picked up Pentheus’ head and mounted it on the top of her thyrsus. The second messenger says he heard her calling out to Dionysus, her “fellow huntsman” and “companion in the chase, in the taking of the prize.” The herdsman says that her only prize is grief, and that he can’t bear to be around and see Agave realize her mistake. He parts with words of advice: “that moderation and reverence for the gods are a mortal’s best possession.”
Agave thinks she has hunted some wild creature, rather than her own son. The grisly image of Pentheus’ head impaled on the thyrsus creates a powerful symbol of Dionysus’ supremacy—Pentheus has become nothing more than a part of Agave’s Dionysian costume. The messenger’s parting words seem sensible, and suggest that Agave has reverence for the gods—but, fatally, has lost any capacity for moderation.
The chorus celebrates what’s happened to Pentheus. Agave enters, carrying her thyrsus with the head of Pentheus impaled upon it. Agave addresses the chorus, telling that the “the hunting was good” and that she has caught “a mountain lion.” She says “soon the men of Thebes will praise the mother who caught this whelp and brought him home.” The chorus asks if she is happy, and she replies she “feels the thrill of having done something great.”
Dionysus makes Agave parade her delusions in front of the other characters and the audience. This heightens the sense of tragedy, particularly given that everyone apart from Agave assumes that she will soon realize her mistake. Perhaps the fact that she thinks Pentheus’ head is that of a lion has to do with the wig that he was wearing at the time of the Bacchae’s attack—in her frenzy, she might have confused the wig for a mane.
Agave shows off the head before asking the whereabouts of Cadmus and Pentheus. Cadmus arrives with a servant carrying a “draped stretcher.” Cadmus has been searching for the different parts of Pentheus’ body and gathering them up, “a gory jigsaw.” He had heard what Agave had done and headed back up the mountain, where he saw Ino and Autonoe, both still “stricken with madness.”
Cadmus is trying to piece Pentheus back together again, underscoring the incredibly violent nature of his death. The audience is made to question whether Dionysus’ punishment was just and fair. Of course, one answer is that conventional standards of morality don’t apply to gods. Meanwhile, all three of the sisters are still in the grip of Dionysus’ power.
Agave tells Cadmus that he should be proud of her and her sisters, given their skill at “hunting animals” with their bare hands. She gives him Pentheus’ head, calling it a “trophy for our house” and asking him to “share the glory of my kill.”
Cadmus tells Agave that her and her sisters aren’t hunters, but murderers. He says he pities her for the “grief to come,” and that they must have seriously wronged Dionysus to deserve what’s happened: “he has been so just, so terribly just, he has destroyed us all.” Agave just thinks Cadmus is being miserable in his old age.
As Cadmus says, Dionysus has brought about some kind of retribution, but it’s a terrible justice. By now, most audiences will feel that Dionysus’ actions are out of proportion with the original “crime.” If Dionysus is in some way the god of the irrational—or, at least, the god most concerned with disrupting society’s usual order—perhaps his own sense of justice is skewed.
Agave calls out for Pentheus, so he can witness “his mother’s good fortune.” Cadmus says that if she ever realizes what she’s done, then she will be driven mad. She asks, “where is the shame? Where is the cause for grief?” He tells her to look up towards the sky.
Ironically, Cadmus instructs Agave to look up at the sky in order to clear her head—but the sky is also where the Greek gods are supposed to live, in a palace in the clouds. This also symbolizes Agave’s parting with her temporary animal nature, which was rooted to the land (by hunting and living amongst the pines). Both her deception and her restoration, then, are linked to the sky, suggesting the border between the worlds of the gods and the mortals is blurry.
As Agave stares at the sky, she feels her “head is clearing.” She tells Cadmus she can’t remember what they were talking about. He asks her a series of questions about who she is in order to establish her sanity, which she answers correctly. He asks her to look at the head in her hands and say what it is. She reluctantly takes a look and realizes she is holding the head of her son, Pentheus.
Agave slowly returns to her pre-Dionysian self. As she can’t remember what they’ve been talking about, Euripides implies that Agave has alternated between two distinct states. However, any previous sense of self that comes back to her will be forever ruined when she learns of her actions. It seems that what’s taken place during the play has not portrayed a “freed” woman, but one under the possession of a god.
Agave asks who killed Pentheus. Cadmus explains what happened—that Agave and her sisters are responsible. She doesn’t remember anything, not even being part of the Dionysian rituals. Cadmus tells her: “You enraged him. You denied him as a god.” She asks where the rest of Pentheus’ body is; he points to the body parts on the stretcher.
Euripides enhances the tragedy by having Cadmus reveal to Agave the full extent of her actions and her responsibility for Pentheus’ death. Though Cadmus lays the blame on Agave, if her actions were the result of her possession by Dionysus, it’s unclear if she is truly responsible. Part of the play’s sense of tragedy, then, is that it’s difficult to assign moral culpability.
Cadmus explains to Agave that Pentheus was made to suffer because “he refused the god.” He laments that their dynasty has been destroyed, and that he has no male heirs. He addresses Pentheus’ corpse, praising his grandson for keeping order over Thebes and taking care of him in his old age. He says that if “anyone disputes the power of heaven,” they need only to look at Pentheus’ death and realize that “the gods live.”
Cadmus feels that the identity of his family has been lost through the destructive events of the play. This is also the first glimpse the audience gets of the positive side of Pentheus’ character—not much of a sense of Pentheus as a ruler has been given to the audience thus far.
Dionysus appears, “revealed as a god.” He tells Cadmus that he and his wife, Harmonia, will be turned into snakes, “drawn by oxen in a cart,” and “lead a barbarian horde and sack many cities.” When they attack the wrong shrine, they will be in danger—but the gods will bring them to the “Land of the Blessed.” Dionysus reiterates his godliness.
Unbelievably, Dionysus isn’t finished yet. He returns to dish out this bizarre fate to Cadmus and Harmonia, and, as if it wasn’t already proven, to state his godliness once more. The audience is provoked to ask whether Dionysus’ “justice” is in itself a kind of madness, or just the mysterious workings of a god.
Cadmus pleads with Dionysus, asking “should not gods stand above all mortal passions, such as anger?” Dionysus says that Zeus told him all of this would happen—the events were inevitable, and there’s no point him staying around any longer. He leaves.
Cadmus’ question is central to the play: are gods above the passions of the mortals, or are mortals unable to properly understand the actions of the gods? That’s why Cadmus offered the pragmatic advice to Pentheus earlier in the play that it’s best to pay to tribute to the gods even if you’re not a true believer—a kind of insurance policy. Furthermore, in claiming that he already knew what was going to happen, Dionysus suggests that nobody in the play truly has free will—and therefore nobody is truly responsible for their actions.
Agave embraces Cadmus, distraught that she must be exiled with him. Cadmus says he can’t help her. Agave bids farewell to her “home,” “city and “marriage bed.” She tells Cadmus she grieves for him, and he says he does the same for her and her sisters.
Agave knows that she can never undo her terrible actions. Most audiences by this point will sympathize with Agave and Cadmus—but, in watching the play as entertainment, they have themselves indulged in actively enjoying the thrill of violence. Dionysus is the god of theatre, so accordingly the play asks whether there is a theatrical element to violence in human society.
Agave says “terrible is the ruin Lord Dionysus has visited on this house”; Cadmus says it’s their fault for dishonoring the god. They bid farewell to each other and leave in different directions. The chorus closes the play: “what we look for does not come to pass; what we least expect is fashioned by the gods. And that is what has happened here today.”
Agave addresses Dionysus as a “Lord,” showing heartbroken respect for his superior power. She and Cadmus leave in different directions to symbolize the finality of the tragedy—they will likely never see each other again. The chorus strikes a slightly different tone from its blood lust earlier, here giving a fairly accurate description of what’s happened in the play—the unexpected. This final moment, then, reiterates that the gods are beyond the understanding of mortals. Even those who pay tribute to Dionysus in the play can’t be said to fully comprehend the extent—or motives—of his powers.