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The Bacchae


Scene III & Interlude III

Scene II & Interlude II

Scene III & Interlude III, page 2

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Scene III

There is a flash of white light and the chorus hears the divine voice of the god Dionysus offstage answering their prayers for justice from the scene before. Dionysus calls on the spirit of the earthquake to shake the palace and the chorus watches the columns of Pentheus' palace collapse. The god summons fire next and the flames on his mother Semele's tomb flare up. The chorus is stunned and flings itself on the ground in mounting hysteria. Dionysus then enters in his disguised form as the Stranger and the chorus' leader and asks the women to rise. The women greet their leader as though he were the god himself and in that moment they unconsciously recognize the twin-position of Dionysus. However they soon revert to addressing their leader as a mortal and ask him how he was set free from the palace stables and the grip of Pentheus. The Stranger, barely bothering to hide his supernatural powers replies that he freed himself. When the chorus mentions knots and chains, Dionysus replies that he used the powers of illusion to trick Pentheus into thinking he was binding him but what the king bound was in fact a bull. The Stranger says that at this point the god Dionysus shook up the palace with an earthquake and started a fire at Semele's tomb.

The audience now begins to hear about the miracles from inside the palace. Once the fire flared up, Pentheus assumed that the whole palace was up in flames and ran around ordering his servants to put out the fire with water. During this confusion Pentheus suddenly remembered his prisoner and ran back to try and seize him. But instead of stabbing the Stranger with his sword, Pentheus is again tricked into piercing shadows on the wall. Finally the Stranger lists the other humiliations Dionysus subjects Pentheus to, such as breaking the palace completely. As the stranger walked out of the ruins he saw Pentheus collapse exhausted to the ground.

As he finishes telling his story to the chorus, the Stranger hears Pentheus' footsteps. The harassed Pentheus enters, ready for battle and carnage, still unwilling to acknowledge the divinity and power of Dionysus. Dionysus asks him to stay calm and reminds him that no matter how many reinforcements arrive, how high the walls, god will triumph. Pentheus continues to hanker for action and is interrupted by a messenger, a cowherd who saw the bacchants at Mt. Cithaeron and who has come to tell his king, Pentheus. The cowherd first asks if he may speak honestly and without fear of punishment for what he says may go against what Pentheus believes. Pentheus reassures him, eager to learn more about the rites he is forbidden to know.

The cowherd saw the three bands of women, including Semele's sisters, sleeping peacefully and decently in the open air. They showed no signs of drunken misbehavior and wantonness. As the sun came up they heard the sound of cattle nearby and sprung up in joy, letting down their hair. They pulled up their fawnskins, donned garlands and played with forest creatures—some even suckled wolf cubs. When they pierced rocks, milk, honey and wine leapt out. The cowherd tells Pentheus that had he been there he would have been convinced of Dionysus's divinity. The excited cowherds got a little ambitious however and decided to try and capture Pentheus's mother Agaue and bring her back to the palace. As they try and ambush Agaue they are discovered by the women. The furious maenads attacked the men and the herds with their bare hands. The cowherds got away, but the unfortunate cattle were torn to bits at the hands of the frenzied women. The cowherd ends his story with another plea that the king receive the new, powerful god, and his gifts, into Thebes. But once again Pentheus ignores the supernatural signs in this story and focuses on the unruliness and madness of the maenads. He is shocked that mere women can yield such power and he decides to capture and kill all of them.

Dionysus steps in at this point and begins to tempt and ensnare Pentheus's imagination. The stranger promises to show Pentheus the rites of the maenads and the king is fascinated. Dionysus further argues that the king must go in disguise and thus avoid the same fate as the cattle. Pentheus is suspicious for a moment but soon capitulates. Dionysus begins to describe each item of the disguise the king must wear: long hair, long skirts, a thyrsus and a fawnskin. Pentheus is thrilled at the opportunity of being able to see first hand all he has imagined and suspected thus far. Dionysus further argues that this covert action is better than spilling blood. Pentheus is ensnared.

Interlude III

The third interlude, like the third scene is also in three parts. Unlike the last interlude, the tone of the chorus is now relieved, triumphant and exhilarated. Once more the chorus goes over the events of the last scene and is heartened by the success of their leader, Dionysus. They imagine themselves to be a deer, running through the forest, free from the clutches of a hunter. 'What is wisdom?' they ask themselves and decide that wisdom is vengeance. They now see the hand of god working and sense that justice is near. They sing about both glorious escape and the sweet joys of divine revenge.

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