The Plot of The Bacchae
Before the play begins . . .
In Thebes, Zeus takes a fancy to Cadmus’ daughter Semele, and
she becomes pregnant. Semele, duped by Zeus’ wife, asks to see
him in his divine form, and dies in the heat of his blazing glory. Zeus
rescues the unborn Dionysus and sews him into his thigh until it’s
time for the youngest of the Olympian gods to be born. As a new god,
he must seek followers, and he starts in the east before returning to
his Greek hometown of Thebes.
As the play begins . . .
Dionysus (also known as Bacchus) tells us where he’s been and
that the Thebans are refusing to worship him as a god. He has, therefore,
caused all the women to take to the mountains to celebrate him among
nature, and he’s got plans for the men who remain. He’s
dressed himself as a human being and leads a group of Bacchants from
the east, whom we meet in their long introductory song.
The old men Teiresias and Cadmus come out getting dressed up in Dionysian
garb. They’ve decided that if you can’t beat him, you might
as well join him, and, besides, joining the god of wine might be fun.
Theban ruler Pentheus, however, is adamant about keeping the exotic
god away, and is suspicious that the women on the mountain are indulging
in indecent activities. Teiresias and Cadmus try to convince Pentheus
to respond to the god moderately, but they don’t succeed.
Dionysus, disguised as a Stranger, has been caught by Pentheus’
guards, and Pentheus cross-examines the god before imprisoning him.
Dionysus escapes, of course, making it seem as if the palace is crumbling
and ablaze. A Herdsman arrives to tell us about the women on the mountain,
including Pentheus’ mother Agave: they’re living an idyllic
life in tune with nature until they begin ravaging the local livestock
in a bloodthirsty rampage.
Pentheus prepares to take arms again the women, until Dionysus convinces
him he would learn more going in disguise as another female follower
of the god. Pentheus, intrigued, agrees to be dressed as a woman and
heads off to the mountain.
No sooner does a messenger tell us the horrible result of that journey—Agave,
mistaking her son for a mountain lion, rips him limb-from-limb with
her bare hands—than Agave herself appears holding in triumph the
head of Pentheus. Cadmus finally makes his daughter see what she has
done under the influence of Dionysus, and Dionysus reveals himself as
a god and tells the Thebans of his wrath and their fate.