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The Bacchae | Study Guide


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Brief Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Euripides's play The Bacchae.

The Bacchae | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram



Dionysus appears in Thebes in the guise of a charismatic young mortal from Asia. He tells the story of his history, and why he has arrived at the palace gates: His mother, Semele, was Cadmus's daughter. After becoming pregnant with Zeus's child, Dionysus, she was killed. Hera, Zeus's wife, irate with Semele, tricked the young woman into asking Zeus to appear in his true form. As a lightning bolt, Zeus struck down Semele but then secreted his son away to Asia.

Now Dionysus has returned to Thebes for revenge. His aunts, and Agave in particular, ruined his mother's reputation and his birthright. They refused to believe Semele's story. Instead, they insisted an outraged Zeus killed her for having an affair with a mortal man, although she claimed it was the great god.

The newly appointed king, Agave's son and Dionysus's cousin, Pentheus, has himself just returned to Thebes after being away. Pentheus has also refused to acknowledge Dionysus, who is already popular in Asia, and whose followers (called Maenads), led by a golden-haired stranger, have already entered the city. Pentheus does not know the god of wine, theater, and fertility has returned to his ancestral homeland to exact revenge, restore his mother's good name, and initiate Thebans into his religion. As part of his plan, Dionysus has already possessed all Theban women (the Maenads), including Semele's sisters, and driven them into a frenzy, sending them off to the forests of Mount Cithaeron to perform rites associated with the cult of Dionysus. These Maenads' activities also include dancing, drinking wine, and breastfeeding baby animals. Pentheus, who has recently learned of their disappearance, is horrified by news of their conduct. He wants to round them up and end the ecstatic revelries.

After relating his story at the palace doors, Dionysus, accompanied by the Bacchae, who also serve as the play's chorus, concludes with his plan for vengeance. He then leaves the chorus (the Maenads who followed him from Asia) in Thebes to sing his praises while he returns to his new worshipping Bacchae, the women from Thebes, who are singing, dancing, and hunting on Mount Cithaeron, awaiting his return.

Episodes 1–3

Cadmus, now an old man, and his friend, the blind seer, Tiresias, emerge from the palace bedecked in Dionysian regalia. They have become enthusiastic devotees of the god's rituals, but are soon scolded by Pentheus, who refuses to listen to their arguments for embracing the new religion. Pentheus also orders his soldiers to arrest the Maenads, the Bacchae, and the priest (Dionysus disguised as a mortal, called the stranger) he has heard leads the cult.

With his "golden ringlets / and Aphrodite's charms in wine-dark eyes," the stranger had been hanging about the young women in Thebes. Pentheus, worried more Theban women will succumb to this mysterious stranger and his dangerous ways, wants to have him arrested. According to Pentheus, the Maenads' cavorting is certainly not divine inspiration. Instead, their conduct is reflective of nothing more than an excuse to drunkenly disobey Theban law and the social order, and the stranger at the heart of it all has to be stopped.

Dionysus enters once again, having allowed himself to be captured by the soldiers. He has disguised himself as a stranger, a young "wizard" and "conjurer from the land of Lydia" who leads the Bacchants. Pentheus mocks the god in disguise for his androgynous appearance, but it soon becomes clear Pentheus is more than a little intrigued by the stranger, and he tries to interrogate him on the cult's mysteries. When Dionysus refuses to reveal his secrets, however, Pentheus becomes angry and takes him away to be locked up. The Bacchae themselves will be enslaved.

Pentheus's efforts are thwarted, of course, since the god refuses to be controlled. Dionysus razes the palace with a tremendous earthquake, emerging from the rubble to comfort his followers; he explains to them the god has wrought the destruction as punishment to the unbelievers. Pentheus is enraged. He, too, emerges from the rubble, prepared for all-out war against the stranger.

A herdsman enters to deliver astonishing news: an attempt to capture the Maenads has been vanquished, and seemingly with nothing more than sticks. The ecstatic women were resting in the forest, drinking milk, honey, and wine, all miraculously springing from the ground. As soon as they realized they were being watched, the herdsman relates, the Maenads turned to primal violence, chasing the herdsman and descending upon the cattle, which they ripped to pieces with their bare hands.

Episodes 4–5

Pentheus, although intrigued by the story, decides the women must be stopped. Dionysus, noticing the king's curiosity, convinces Pentheus to first observe the rituals for himself. The temptation of seeing the forbidden is too much to resist, and Pentheus agrees. To remain undetected, he also consents to dressing up as a woman. Under Dionysus's spell, they depart for the forest.

A messenger enters to tell the tale of what ensues at Mount Cithaeron: Pentheus watches the Maenads, but his view is obscured, so he proposes to climb a tree for a better view. After bending the tall fir so Pentheus could climb onto it, Dionysus slowly releases it until it stands at its full height once again. It is an excellent view, but Pentheus is also trapped; up so high, he is exposed.

Dionysus alerts the Maenads to the intruder in their midst. In a frenzy, the women, led by Agave, pull a terrified Pentheus down from the tree. As the young king begs his mother to recognize him, Agave tears off his arm. The others rip him apart until he is dead.

In triumph, the Maenads return to the now-ruined palace, the Bacchae singing Dionysus's praises. Agave proudly carries her son's severed head impaled on a thyrsus (fennel staff covered with ivy and leaves and topped by a pine cone), ebullient and boasting about a successful hunt carried out with only their bare hands—the women believe they have killed a lion.

Episode 6

Agave, still deluded, presents the head to her horrified father, Cadmus. He tries to make her see what she has done, but she is still under the god's spell. As he reminds her of her home, her family, and her former life, she begins to emerge from the spell, slowly realizing that what she holds in her hand is not a lion's head, but her son's. She cannot remember killing him, and shrieks in grief when Cadmus tells her. He bemoans the punishment that has befallen his family, calling it excessive.

Now Dionysus appears as himself, a god. He declares that Agave and her sisters are to be exiled from Thebes, and Cadmus and his wife to be turned into snakes. The chorus (the Bacchae) insist the god's punishment is just. Cadmus and Agave bid each other farewell, and exit separately.

The Bacchae Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Dionysus tells his history and reason for wanting revenge.

Rising Action

2 Dionysus overtakes Thebe's women, who become crazed Bacchae.

3 Dionysus, disguised as a priest of Dionysus, enters Thebes.

4 Pentheus plans to capture Dionysus and the Theban Bacchae.

5 Dionysus lets Pentheus capture him.

6 Dionysus breaks out of prison and destroys the palace.

7 A messenger tells of the Bacchae's escape from capture.

8 Pentheus dresses as a woman, so he can spy on the Bacchae.


9 Agave murders Pentheus, believing he is a wild lion.

Falling Action

10 Agave learns she has murdered her own son.

11 The chorus declares her banishment is just.


12 Agave and Cadmus receive their fate from Dionysus.

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