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The Bacchae | Study Guide


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Episode 4

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Episode 4 of Euripides's play The Bacchae.

The Bacchae | Episode 4 | Summary



Dionysus's plan is nearing fruition. He beckons Pentheus to enter, and the young king emerges dressed as a female Bacchant. Rather besotted with his new appearance, Pentheus begins hallucinating. He claims to see double: two suns, two seven-gated Thebes, and the stranger now appears as a bull, "with those horns growing from [his] head." Dionysus simply remarks that Pentheus is seeing things—him, in particular—as they ought to be seen.

Without further discussion of his seeming hallucinations, Pentheus turns his attention to his appearance. Does he look good? Does he look like his aunt Ino, or his mother, Agave? When Dionysus fixes an errant hair, Pentheus admits he must have shaken it loose as he practiced his Bacchanalian dance. As Dionysus sets about ordering Pentheus's hair and clothing, the young king proposes that Dionysus be his dresser, adding, "now that I've transformed myself for you."

As Dionysus continues his work, Pentheus considers hiding in the pine trees so as to have the best view of the women, who he imagines must be "going at it like rutting birds, / clutching each other as they make sweet love." Dionysus proposes to guide Pentheus into the forest, telling him, "When you return, someone else will bring you back." Ignorant of his cousin's plan, Pentheus concurs it will be his mother, Agave, who will bring him home. Dionysus agrees, elaborating on the scene: Agave will carry Pentheus home in her arms. A delighted Pentheus declares, "You've really made up your mind to spoil me." Dionysus agrees, once again, but adds he's going to spoil Pentheus "in my own way." Pentheus exits to the mountains.


Only now has Dionysus infected his young cousin with a touch of madness: "Before this your mind was not well adjusted. / But now it's working in you as it should." The fact that possession was within Dionysus's power from the beginning, yet he did not take advantage of it leads the audience to wonder why. Why would the god of ecstasy not simply possess Pentheus, as he did the Theban women, rather than trying to convince the king to embrace the Bacchic religion? His superiority could be easily displayed, yet Dionysus continuously engages Pentheus using reason. Perhaps Euripides wants the audience to associate what is reasonable not simply with what is traditional or socially acceptable, but instead with divine rationality, including special insight and wisdom.

Still another question is why Dionysus still wants to kill his cousin, despite the fact that Pentheus's attitude toward Dionysus has begun to soften. It is quite possible that Pentheus is not possessed by the god; his attitude is a true shift toward the religion. In any case Pentheus, wants to see the forbidden. In this desire, he is sacrilegious. He is a tourist, not a participant. To gawk or spy when the heart is not engaged is disrespectful of the god. Dionysus wants to make an example of him.

As he talks about his appearance and catching the Maenads, Pentheus becomes increasingly self-absorbed. He wonders if he looks the part; he wants to know how to behave. He appears lost in his desires, as though he has forgotten the purpose of his journey. Dionysus caters to the young king's vanity and warns him about his impending doom. Pentheus does not recognize the allusions to his future state. Pentheus ignores every single warning—from Cadmus, Tiresias, Dionysus, the soldier, and the messenger—almost as if he cannot even hear the warnings, as Euripides emphasizes this point: Pentheus is not a believer, so he does not understand what the believers say.

Pentheus' original status and character have completely transformed. No longer a royal authority, he is instead effectively emasculated, a girl trembling with anticipation. He is no longer the titular representative of law and order, but has lost his mind. Pentheus also sees Dionysus, briefly, as he really is, a horned bull, but thinks he is seeing things. Euripides does not solve the problem for the audience, but leaves them to wonder if it is Dionysus and his followers who are mad for engaging in wild revelry, or is it Pentheus who is mad for refusing to believe in the god?

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