Scene v, Lines 1033-1152
A messenger enters, having come from the mountain. He tells the Chorus Leader that Pentheus is dead. The messenger is in mourning and is disturbed when the Chorus greets the news with elation. The messenger then tells the story of what happened on the mountain, where he went with his master Pentheus and the man he knew only as the stranger. They hid in a glen and observed the Maenads, attending to their magic rods or chanting songs to Dionysus. But Pentheus complained that he could not see them and said he wanted to climb a fir tree to get a better view. Dionysus pulled a high branch down for him, using superhuman strength. Pentheus sat on the branch, and Dionysus allowed it to gently rise up to its full height again. The women saw him immediately; Dionysus vanished but a voice was heard from heaven telling the women to take vengeance on Pentheus. They threw stones and javelins of fir at him but missed their target. Pentheus, however, is helpless, unable to escape.
The women then tried to uproot the tree, using splintered branches, but that failed, too. Then Agave told them to make a circle around the trunk and grip it with their hands. They did so, and they managed to uproot the tree. Pentheus fell from his perch, screaming. His mother was the first woman to attack him. Pentheus pulled off his wig so that she would recognize him, and he pleaded with her not to kill him. But she was foaming at the mouth, completely mad and possessed by the god. She wrenched his arm off. Then all the other Bacchae set upon him and ripped him to pieces. His mother picked up his head and put it on her thyrsus, thinking it was the head of a mountain lion, and carried it around in triumph.
It was a convention of ancient Greek drama that violence was never shown directly on stage. Instead, a violent incident was reported by one of the characters, as happens in this scene. One key contrast is between the regret and mourning expressed by the messenger and the way the Chorus Leader celebrates the news. This is the first time in the play that anyone has sympathized with Pentheus. For the messenger, his death is a disaster for Thebes; this sets up the change of mood that will be apparent in the Exodus. For the
Chorus, however, Pentheus’s death represents a liberation.
The dramatist emphasizes again that Pentheus bears responsibility for what happens to him because the reason he wants to climb the tree is so he can see the “orgies” he believes the Maenads are engaged in. But as the previous lines make very clear, the Maenads are occupied in very innocuous activities, tending to their thyrsuses or singing sacred songs. It is therefore Pentheus’s own prurience and lustful thoughts that lead him on to destruction.