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The Bacchae | Study Guide


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Episode 6

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Episode 6 of Euripides's play The Bacchae.

The Bacchae | Episode 6 | Summary



Still in the clutches of Dionysian possession, Agave returns to the palace. Boasting of her kill, she declares she will eat the lion's head. She calls out for all of Thebes to witness her triumph, and for her son and father to share in her glory. She wants Pentheus to nail the lion's head to the palace wall. The chorus weakly humors her. They know the end is near.

Cadmus enters, and Agave does not see his horror. Slowly, he talks her out of her possessed state through a series of questions. As she reenters reality, she realizes the head she cradles in her arms is her son's. Still, she does not know why this is so, and it is up to Cadmus to tell her.

The scene continues with Agave and Cadmus grieving their situation. Cadmus believes Pentheus has had to pay the price for the family's sins, particularly their denial of Dionysus as a member of their family—and as a god. Dionysus enters as himself, not the stranger. He reiterates his justifications for his actions and declares the family members' fates: Agave and her sisters will be banished from Thebes. Cadmus and his wife will be turned to snakes that, with barbarian hordes, will invade Greek cities. Eventually, however, they will be sent to the land of the blessed by the god Ares.

Cadmus and Agave say good-bye to each other, and exit separately.


Whose tragedy is this? Although she does not appear until the end of the play, Agave surely exhibits the signs of a tragic character. Her hubris becomes her downfall, and her punishment is to lose her only son.

At the same time her intense grief suggests Dionysus's actions are not entirely warranted. While it's true Agave's original error was to reject her sister's claims, when Dionysus gets hold of her, her punishment is so severe, the audience is left to wonder if it is proportionate to the original crime. Not only that, but none of Agave's actions in the forest are her own. It is a sad situational irony that the wild abandon that so frightened (and intrigued) Pentheus was the result of divine possession, not free will.

Furthermore, Euripides has the Bacchae sing the praises of the naturalness of the Dionysian religion throughout the play, yet the frenzied women leave their babes at home and suckle wild animals, which are not natural acts in the slightest; they are markedly unnatural. Later, when they pillage the towns, the Bacchae include children in their attacks. The climax of the play brings the ultimate unnatural act—a mother killing her own son. So either way, serving the god or being possessed by the god, Agave loses her humanity, and for this reason perhaps her punishment is inevitable in Episode 6. Through her character's arc, Euripides's shows women have the power to upset the social order, and their maintaining control is vital to a stable society. Oddly enough, the very foundation of civilization, the family order—presumably what Pentheus wanted to preserve and what Dionysus apparently craved—had already been undermined by Agave's initial betrayal of her sister.

Pentheus, too, seems somewhat poor casting in the role of tragic hero. At the outset of the play, he acts like a traditional tragic hero. As the new king, he accepts responsibility for the city, protecting it against what appears to be a clear and present danger from a foreigner. Already the Theban women have generated a crisis by abandoning the city, running off to the mountains, and killing cattle and other bizarre behaviors. It is up to Pentheus to restore order. It is soon clear, however, that Pentheus does not neatly fit the role the audience expects him to fill. For this reason, the audience begins to doubt the young king's motives for pursuing Dionysus and his Maenads.

According to Aristotle's theory of tragedy, the hero finally recognizes the error of his hubris and so passes from ignorance to knowledge. This moment, too, allows the audience some release from the pressures of the emotions building throughout the play. Yet this does not occur, at least so far as Pentheus is concerned. The moment he realizes his error, he is torn to bits.

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