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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.
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.
The longest and pivotal scene of the play is divided into three parts: the palace miracles told twice; the cowherd's account of the fantastical activities of the maddened bacchants on the mountain; the second exchange between Pentheus and Dionysus in which Pentheus agrees to dress up as a woman.
The divine voice of Dionysus is heard from offstage and is solemn, grand and terrifying and this commanding and powerful form of the god is directly contrasted with the Stranger, who walks on stage straight after. The Stranger is calm, collected, and even a little amused. Dionysus the god is clearly different from Dionysus in disguise, and yet they are the same. Moreover they exist in their different forms simultaneously, as is shown in the double telling of the same miracles. While the audience and the chorus were hearing the divine god give the command for the earthquake, the Stranger was inside the palace torturing Pentheus.
Since the start of the play Dionysus has been demonstrating the range and intensity of his powers. While the initial powers were benign and peaceful, he is now beginning to show his fearful aspect. Dionysus first uses force to (literally) shake up Pentheus and his palace, then illusion to neutralize Pentheus' brute physical responses. All the series of little illusions—Pentheus wrestling with a bull, running around the palace in panic and battling with shadows—are meant to be somewhat comic. Dionysus is beginning to strip the king of his so called powers and turn him into an object of ridicule.
The toppling of the palace is both a visual symbol for Pentheus's collapsing authority and a sign of the imminent disintegration of his sanity, for Pentheus will soon be dismantled psychologically. Dionysus knows that Pentheus has a rather obsessive fascination with the secret activities of the maenads and so the Stranger uses this to bait the king. Pentheus is completely enraptured with the idea and thus agrees to dress up as a woman. Pentheus's inability to make sensible decisions is clearly exposed. By the end of this scene not only have the roles of king and prisoner inverted themselves, but so have the male-female and hunter-prey relationships. This last switch of hunter-prey is picked up by the chorus in the third and most poetic interlude of the play. The song opens with a sensation of joyful relief, expressed in the simile of a fawn who has escaped its hunter and is running in the forest free and alone. In contrast the chorus' now clamor for sweet revenge. They call their god a hunter who has begun to destroy the impious Pentheus. In just this one simile the chorus points to the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Dionysus and his rites. By recapitulating the recent power shift using bacchic motifs, the chorus turns the story of Pentheus into yet another story of the triumph of their god and thus acts as the perfect propaganda machine.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Bacchae!