The Bacchae | Study Guide


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Episode 5

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Episode 5 of Euripides's play The Bacchae.

The Bacchae | Episode 5 | Summary



The second messenger arrives, one of Pentheus's servants. He declares Pentheus is dead. The chorus leader yells out praise for Bacchus, and the second messenger chastises her. He then relates the horrific story of what happened on the mountain.

Pentheus, Dionysus, and Pentheus's servant hide in a grove of pine trees to watch the Maenads, who are in a valley. Some sit mending thyrsoi, while others chant Bacchic songs. The view is not very good, however, so Pentheus proposes to climb onto the top of a nearby pine tree, where the view will be unobstructed. Dionysus agrees, and he performs an extraordinary feat: He grabs the top of the tree and pulls it down for Pentheus to climb upon. Once Pentheus is securely on top, Dionysus slowly releases it. Now Pentheus is utterly exposed to the women, who see him. Soon a voice calls out from the sky, declaring Pentheus to be an enemy the women must destroy. In a rage, they shake the tree until he falls out. With Agave in command, the women descend upon him. Terrified, Pentheus begs his mother to recognize him. He rips off his wig, to no avail. Foaming at the mouth, and her eyes rolled back in her head, Agave is the first to strike. She rips his arm off, and the rest of the Maenads tear him apart.

With pieces of his body scattered about, Agave grabs Pentheus's head and carries it toward Thebes like a trophy. The king's blood is everywhere.

The second messenger tells the chorus Agave thinks the head belongs to a lion.


Until the moment Pentheus begs his mother not to hurt him, the king does not realize the power Dionysus wields; it is even stronger than the power of a mother's love for her child. It is also in this moment that the facade of power and authority Pentheus has displayed entirely drops away. His callousness and impetuousness were initially filtered through his authority as king. As it becomes more obvious he is losing control of the situation—for example, when he first agrees to dress up as a woman in order to spy on the Maenads—some of his more complicated psychological features come to the fore. Recall that he initially harangued the stranger for appearing so effeminate, and even threatened to cut off the god's hair. By the time he enters the forest, however, he has been transformed.

It is fitting that the events the messenger describes cannot be staged without losing its horror. Only the imagination can do it justice. The audience has been primed for such violent destruction through the previous description of a hunt—the Maenads' tearing a cow apart.

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