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Agaue, still possessed by the god, triumphantly enters the palace gates with the head of her son in her arms, thinking it a lion's head. She converses with the chorus rapidly, unable to contain her excitement at the result of her "happy hunting." The chorus echoes her deluded words sadly, but still humoring her madness. The queen is "overjoyed
at achieving great and manifest things" and wishes to share her joy with her father and her son, Pentheus, and asks that they be summoned. She even calls for her son to come and nail the head of her hunt to the wall of the palace. Cadmus enters the palace, bringing with him the rest of Pentheus's remains. He is full of sadness for his daughter and bemoans the destruction of his lineage at the hands of Bromios.
Agaue greets her father happily and continues to boast about her hunt. The father gently brings his daughter's mind back to the present moment and to what she holds in her hands through a series of questions. First he asks her to look at the sky and see if it appears as it always does. The queen replies that the sky is brighter for it seems to have a holy glow. Cadmus then suggests that perhaps there is an excitement inside her that colors what is outside. Once Agaue begins to understand this difference, she comes out of her trance. Cadmus then asks her whom she married and to whom she gave birth. Once she takes his name, Cadmus asks her to tell him what she is holding. She first replies a lion, but then declares "what I see is grief, deep grief, and misery for me!" She does not, however, remember why she holds the head of her son and has to be told by her father, thus intensifying the tragedy of the situation.
At this point a large chunk of the text is missing. The scene picks up with the two still lamenting their fate and examining the reasons for Pentheus's death. Cadmus remembers his grandson fondly and talks of how Pentheus had to pay for the sins of the entire family, for they denied Dionysus at the time of his birth. Once again there is an ellipsis in the text and the scene continues with Dionysus on stage, in his divine form, on the roof of the palace. Dionysus proclaims the future of the family: Agaue will be banished from Thebes while Cadmus and his wife will turn into serpents and invade Greek lands with barbarian hordes. Finally however the god Ares will rescue Cadmus and his wife and send them to the land of the blessed. Cadmus and Agaue lament their fates and exchange tearful final goodbyes.
The chorus chants the last unremarkable five lines of the play and marches off the stage. It sings about the power of the gods and the gods' ability to obtain the improbable. Euripides used the very same verses in three other plays.
The Bacchae is a family tragedy, but as any audience will attest, it is more singularly Agaue's tragedy, which is all the more remarkable given that the queen only appears on stage for one scene. In fact, besides Pentheus, the Cadmus family (Cadmus and Agaue) only appears in the first and last scenes, while the core of the drama exclusively involves Dionysus and Pentheus. By keeping the Cadmus family at the periphery of the main action, Euripides uses them as background, frame and context. They amplify and filter the core events, but have no part in those events as physical characters on the stage. They also serve as commentators and critics (in theatrical terms they are an audience) on the core events and it is largely in the last scene that they get to flesh out various themes. Both members do accept responsibility for what happened to Pentheus, but in two different ways they also criticize Dionysus's justice. Agaue's heart- wrenching grief and murderous guilt testifies to Dionysus's excessive, harsh and cruel revenge. Cadmus reproaches Dionysus twice, directly saying that the god's retributive justice did not fit the offense. However, the god merely brushes these two laments aside with the fatalistic comment that Zeus set up a world of harsh gods.
While Euripides follows a number of formal classical traditions in The Bacchae, such as a complicated chorus and the use of messenger, he diverges quite starkly from Aristotle's ideal of drama. In classical Greek drama, and as defined by Aristotle in his Poetics, there is also a moment of recognition at the very end when our hero, full of hubris, realizes his error and passes from ignorance to knowledge. This is tied to the moment of catharsis for the audience, or the moment of the release of the emotions that had been built up before. Finally, there is a hearty lament. Pentheus does not truly repent and re-evaluate his mistake, nor indulge in metaphysical musings. He merely uses the word "error" in the one line where he begs his mother not to kill him. Importantly, too, the audience does not explicitly learn anything about Dionysus except that he wants Pentheus to show deference toward him. And the main "secret" of the play, Dionysus's disguise, is known from the start. Instead, Euripides writes a shocking, long, and pathos-filled lament. This disproportionate (in classical terms) emphasis on the lament signals two things: both the excessive cruelty and the absolute power of Dionysus.
One of the reasons that the last scene—depicting a demented Agaue proudly brandishing the head of her son—is effective because it is a acted out on the main stage instead of being relayed by messengers. Previously, all the gory, disturbing and violent actions of the play, such as the killing of the cattle and the palace miracles, had taken place offstage and were subsequently retold to the audience as a story. When this scene is actually played out, the audience is still fresh and able to be deeply shocked. Euripides does not flinch from gruesome touches such as having Agaue piece together the son she tore apart. Moreover, in this last gesture, the audience realizes that it is not just Pentheus's body that must be reconstructed but also the moral of the story and the future of both Cadmus and Agaue. Tragically, some pieces will always be missing.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Bacchae!