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The Bacchae | Study Guide


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Episode 3

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Episode 3 of Euripides's play The Bacchae.

The Bacchae | Episode 3 | Summary



An explosive light and Dionysus's divine voice from offstage tell the chorus their god has heard their calls. An earthquake levels the palace, and a fire flares at Semele's tomb. The chorus drops to the ground in hysterics, but the stranger emerges from the rubble and comforts them. For a brief moment, they see the stranger is their god.

The stranger tells them he used illusions to trick Pentheus. When Pentheus attempted to bind him, he bound only a bull. Once the palace crumbled and fires broke out, Pentheus ordered his men to douse the flames. Then he remembered his prisoner, whom he tried to stab with his sword. Once again, however, he was tricked: instead of cutting his prey, he stabbed only shadows.

A furious but exhausted Pentheus emerges from the remains of the palace. He orders the stranger's recapture and all Thebes's exits sealed off. The stranger tries to warn Pentheus that his increasing efforts against him will end badly, but Pentheus is determined.

A herdsman arrives with news from the mountain. The Maenads were spotted sleeping on beds of pine needles. When they awoke, they cavorted with forest creatures and suckled wolf pups. Wine, milk, and honey sprang from ground the women struck with their staffs.

All was calm until the cowherds decided to try to capture Pentheus's mother, Agave. The women suddenly attacked the herdsmen's cattle, ripping them to pieces. The women then raided and looted a nearby village, and the herdsmen barely escaped with their lives.

The messenger implores Pentheus to accept the god and receive his gift. What he witnessed was enough to convince him of Dionysus's power. But Pentheus remains focused on corralling the wayward women. They must be stopped, even if it means killing them.

After the messenger tells his story, Dionysus proposes to show Pentheus the Maenads firsthand. Intrigued, Pentheus wants to hear more. The stranger presses him on his curiosity: Would Pentheus derive pleasure from seeing sights that brought him pain? Pentheus answers in the affirmative. The stranger then tells Pentheus to dress up as a woman—a wig, fawn skin, skirts, and thyrsus—in order to remain undetected, and avoid the same terrifying encounter as the herdsman. When Pentheus exits to don his disguise, Dionysus tells the audience the king will soon be murdered—and by his own mother.


Several important events take place in the third episode: the miracles at the palace, the miracles on the mountain, and Pentheus's decision to go to the mountain to observe the Maenads. With the collapse of the palace and the events on the mountain, Dionysus directly reveals himself for the first time as a truly fearsome god. Pentheus's growing desire to witness the mysteries undermines his own commitment to the traditional social structure he claims to defend. His interest becomes prurient when he agrees to Dionysus's plan to dress up as a woman; with it, his transformation into his more primal nature begins. Moreover, as Dionysus himself points out, Pentheus has begun his own descent into madness: "If his mind is strong, /he'll not agree to put on women's clothes. / But he'll do it, if you make him mad." Pentheus will lose his treasured social status. After all, king or not, to parade about in women's clothing, "mincing," as Dionysus tells his Bacchae, will make Pentheus "the laughing stock of Thebes."

Dionysus's and Pentheus's roles have been explicitly reversed in this episode. The destruction of the palace is not only a literal expression of Dionysus's power but a symbolic crumbling of Pentheus's power—and his mind. The king of Thebes thought himself to be in control, not just of the city but also its newest prisoners. Now, however, Dionysus clearly has the upper hand. It may be argued that Dionysus was never anything but in control. He is, after all, the god of theater, not just wine and fertility. As such, he can easily direct events to play out as he has written them.

A final noteworthy feature is the messenger's description of the Theban women—Dionysius's Maenads—observed performing their rites. He refers to "three groups of dancing women" led by Cadmus's daughters—Agave, Autonoe, and Ino. Three female worshippers believed to be descendants of Cadmus lead actual Dionysian worship in Thebes.

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