31 pages 1 hour read


The Bacchae

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 405

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


The Bacchae is an ancient Athenian tragedy by Euripides. The play is generally believed to have been staged (with Iphigenia at Aulis and another play) in 405 BCE by the poet’s son after his father’s death in 407-6 and to have won first prize. The production took place in Athens at the City Dionysia, a festival in honor of Dionysus.

Set in Thebes, the play depicts Dionysus (also known as Bacchus) returning to his mother’s city disguised as a mortal to institute his cult and punish the family members who have denied his divinity. The central conflict between Dionysus and the ruler of his maternal ancestral home explores themes of duality, divine retribution, and the inscrutability of the gods and human life. The title refers to women who follow Dionysus and are referred to as both Bacchants and maenads.

This study guide refers to the 2005 Penguin Classics edition translated by John Davie. Davie translates the Greek verse into English prose, so line references in this guide are approximate. In addition, the ancient texts that have survived into modern times do not include stage directions. Movements of characters on and off stage are reconstructions based on analysis of the plays and what is known about stage production in classical Athens.

Plot Summary

The play begins with a monologue by Dionysus in which he explains that he has come to Thebes from Asia, disguised as a mortal priest of Dionysus from Lydia, to institute his rites and punish the city because his aunts and nephew Pentheus, the city’s acting ruler, have denied his divinity. Dionysus has caused the women to go mad and retreat from the city into the mountains. News of these events prompt Pentheus to return to Thebes. His grandfather Cadmus and Teiresias, a blind seer, have embraced Dionysian worship and urge Pentheus to change course and accept the god, but he refuses, insisting that he will capture and punish both the women and the man from Lydia who Pentheus holds responsible for their transgressive acts. Their debate ends with Teiresias warning Pentheus about the danger of exceeding mortal limits and departing with Cadmus to worship Dionysus.

After the Chorus, made up of Bacchants who have followed Dionysus to Thebes from the east, sings a song of praise, a wary soldier leads in the disguised god, who has been captured. The soldier reports that the Bacchants were spontaneously released from their bonds. When Pentheus threatens him, Dionysus warns him to respect the god, but Pentheus orders his soldiers to lead him into the palace.

The Chorus asks Thebes why they have rejected Dionysus, describes his divine birth, and asks Zeus to destroy the city. Dionysus calls to them from inside the palace, and they urge him to set it on fire. Dionysus emerges from the palace, followed by Pentheus, and orders the king to listen to the messenger who has just arrived, having witnessed the maenads in the mountains attack men in the villages. The messenger urges Pentheus to honor Dionysus, but the ruler is more determined than ever to destroy him.

Dionysus switches tactics, asking Pentheus if he would like to spy on the women in the mountains. Pentheus’ curiosity is immediately peaked, and Dionysus instructs him to disguise himself as a maenad. Though initially resistant, Pentheus finally agrees. Dionysus helps him with his costume, then leads Pentheus into the mountains. After the Chorus sings a celebratory song anticipating Pentheus’ punishment, a messenger arrives to announce that Pentheus is dead. Dionysus led him to the maenads then called for them to destroy Pentheus. Led by Agaue, Pentheus’ mother, the maenads tore him apart. Agaue ripped off his head herself and carried it as a trophy, believing it to be the head of a mountain lion. The Chorus’s celebratory song ends with their acknowledgement that lamentation will follow.

Still in her Dionysus-provoked madness, Agaue enters holding Pentheus’ head and invites the Chorus to feast on her spoils. Disgusted, the Chorus instructs her to show her spoils to the citizens of Thebes. Agaue calls Pentheus and Cadmus to celebrate with her, and Cadmus arrives with Pentheus’ remains. He grieves that her madness is a refuge from the grief she will experience when it lifts. Slowly, he brings her back to her senses, explaining the madness Dionysus inflicted on her and her sisters to punish their lack of belief. Father and daughter grieve their change of fortune. Dionysus appears above the stage, informing Cadmus of the transformation and wandering that await him. Cadmus objects to the harshness of his punishment, but Dionysus is unmoved since Zeus permits the gods to punish mortals. Cadmus and Agaue sing a sorrowful goodbye as she prepares for exile. The Chorus concludes the play, observing that the gods bring unexpected events to pass.