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The whole scene, besides a brief exchange of greetings, is taken up by the Second Messenger's account of Pentheus's death, an account delivered to the chorus. The chorus women had called for Pentheus's blood in their last ode, and that is what they got. The mourning messenger enters the palace courtyard and tells the chorus that his master, Pentheus, is dead. The chorus rejoices at the news, shocking the messenger with its bloodthirstiness, and asks him to give an in-depth explanation of the death.
The messenger begins his tale. The three men climbed up the hill and found themselves in a valley looking onto a glen enclosed by cliffs. The women were sitting within the glen and under some fir trees, mending their robes and garlands. Pentheus could not see the throng of women and got impatient for a better view. He tells the Stranger that he cannot see anything and that he wants to climb the cliffs and perch on a tree and thus catch the women in all their shamefulness. In response, the Stranger amazingly lowers a tall fir tree with his hands and puts Pentheus on the tip of the tree. The Stranger then slowly straightens the tree. The moment the tree is straightened, Pentheus is exposed to the maenads and the Stranger disappears. A voice from the heavens declares Pentheus an enemy and commands his furious bacchants to destroy him. As in scene III the divine voice is accompanied by a fiery glow in the heavens and followed by an eerie silence. Led by Agaue, whose mouth is frothing and whose eyes are rolling, the bacchants reach the tree and try to stone the king with rocks and branches. But Pentheus, stuck on a tree, was too high for their missiles. They try to tear out the roots of the tree but do not have a lever strong enough. Finally they form a circle round the tree and use their hands to shake and drag the tree down. Pentheus falls to the ground, helpless. He makes one last effort to save himself and piteously cries out to his mother to recognize him and forgive his errors. But the queen, driven mad by the bacchic rites, does not respond and instead grasps her son's arm and pulls it out if its socket. All the other maenads tear apart his body and scatter the pieces all over the hillside. The crazed mother then seizes her son's decapitated head, as if it is a trophy, and begins to walk towards Thebes thanking Dionysus, whom she refers to as her "fellow hunter." The messenger hastily ends his tale here for he wants to leave before the tragic woman returns.
To maintain the urgency of the moment, the chorus launches into a brief song, first triumphant over Pentheus's death and then acknowledging the horror of a mother ripping up her son.
Pentheus's death in the hands of Dionysus was more or less declared in Dionysus's address to the audience, but the exact, horrific details were withheld until this very last moment. In this climactic scene the messenger vividly and carefully retells Pentheus's gory and brutal sparagmos, or ritual dismemberment. Each particular detail of Pentheus's death reinforces, echoes or builds on previous hints given in the play.
Importantly, this scene can also be seen as a summary of the main characters and dynamics. When the three men reach the glen, Pentheus is unable to see the maenads, the way that he cannot see Dionysus's powers or person throughout the play. It is his own greed and folly of wanting to see what is forbidden that traps him. All of these details suggest that he is not merely a Dionysian scapegoat but actually responsible for his own fate. When Dionysus arches the tall fir tree and releases it slowly, he displays both his supernatural powers and also his self-control and patience. Once Pentheus falls to the ground, he reaches out to stroke his mother's cheek and begs her not to kill him and it is only at this last moment that Pentheus understands the full extent of Dionysus' powers. The god's control over human minds is stronger than even the most fundamental bond between a mother and a son. Pentheus's death turns slightly tragic only at the very end because he seems repentant when he acknowledges his errors. There is no doubt that the audience feels the greatest pathos for his mother Agaue.
This dramatic scene can also be seen as composed of multiple narrative and spatial circles, which then implode into each other. At the core rest the maenads, happy among themselves and in their tasks. They are encircled by Dionysus, Pentheus, and the messenger. The chorus restlessly watches over and encircles this arrangement and finally the audience watches over the chorus. Once the maenads discover Pentheus, he becomes part of the main circle. And, in the same manner, once the chorus hears the news of the messenger, it becomes an active character in the main action of the play.
The norms of Greek theater required that distant, violent actions happen offstage. In The Bacchae this tradition helps add force and shock to the drama instead of diminishing it. A carefully written account told by a compelling voice is ultimately more powerful than an enactment of something as visceral as the dismemberment of a human body. For no theatrical production could stage Pentheus's dramatic dismemberment at the hands of maenads completely convincingly. Such horror could only take place in the imaginations of the audience themselves.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Bacchae!