Exodus, Lines 1165-1394
Agave enters with the other Bacchantes. She is covered in blood and carries the head of her son on her thyrsus. She tells the Chorus that they have had happy hunting. She thinks Pentheus’s head is the cub of a wild mountain lion and boasts that she was the one who struck it first, followed by the other daughters of Cadmus. She speaks words of praise to Bacchus, who led them on to capture his prey. She is also convinced that Pentheus her son will praise her for her great deed. The Chorus urges her to show the citizens of Thebes the great prize she has won. Agave does as she is asked, showing Pentheus’s head on the thyrsus, boasting that she and the other women captured and killed their quarry with their bare hands. She calls for her father and asks that someone fetch Pentheus.
Cadmus enters followed by attendants who carry Pentheus’s dismembered body on a bier. They set the bier down in front of the palace.
Cadmus relates how he gathered up the dismembered parts of the body. He and Teiresias has returned from the Dionysus revels in the mountains, and Cadmus was in Thebes when he heard the news. He went straight to the mountains to retrieve his murdered son.
Agave still does not understand what she has done. She tells Cadmus that he is the father of the bravest daughters in the world. She offers her “cub” to her father, so that he too can glory in her triumph.
Cadmus, full of grief, rebukes her, telling her of the dreadful murder she has committed. He says that Dionysus has destroyed them all. Agave does not understand what he is saying and complains about crotchety old age. She again asks that Pentheus be called out so he can see his mother’s triumph.
Cadmus tells her she will suffer when she realizes what she has done. Agave asks why he is reproaching her. As Cadmus talks calmly to her, Agave gradually comes to her senses and realizes that she is holding in her hands the head of her son. Horrified, she asks who killed him. Cadmus explains that she and her sisters are responsible, and explains where the murder happened. When Cadmus explains why Pentheus went to the mountain, and why the women were there, Agave laments that Dionysus has destroyed them all. She asks why Pentheus should suffer for her crime, and he replies that she blasphemed the god, and so everyone has been brought to ruin. Cadmus laments that he now has no son left, no male heir.
He turns and addresses the corpse with words of mourning and regret. His grandson was the dearest man of all to him, and the entire city once stood in awe of him. He was always ready to punish any man who offended his grandfather. Cadmus says that if there is still any man who does not honor the gods, now is the time to look on the death of Pentheus and believe in them.
Agave is now full of grief. She believes her hands are cursed because of what she has done. She asks for a shroud to cover the corpse, and then asks Cadmus to help her in piecing the body together. She places the head on the bier as well, and then covers it with a veil.
Dionysus appears above the palace. He says that the people of Thebes who opposed him will be driven out of the city and become slaves, the captives of war. Turning to Pentheus’s corpse, he says that Pentheus met the death he deserved. He asks the listening citizens to recall that Pentheus abused him, trying to tie his hands. He tells Agave that she must leave the city, as expiation for the murder she committed. Turning to Cadmus, he tells him he and his wife will be turned into serpents. They will turn warlike and lead a barbarian horde that will ravages many cities and face great difficulties when they come home. But in the end, he and his wife Harmonia will be saved by Ares and live among the blessed in Elysium.
Cadmus protests that the sentence is too harsh, but Dionysus will not relent. Cadmus laments to Agave about the miserable fate that awaits them all. Agave embraces him, devastated that she must live in exile, apart from her father. Cadmus says there is nothing he can do to help. With sad farewells, Cadmus and then Agave exit. Agave asks to be lead where she will no longer see the fateful mountain and where there will be no trace of the thyrsus.
The Chorus sings briefly about the gods and how they bring all things to pass according to what they will, even if it is not what men expect.
The full measure of the tragedy is now apparent. If there were any doubt about the extent to which worship of Dionysus has made Agave mad, it is dispelled in this scene. Both the opponents of Dionysus (Pentheus) and his followers lose their reason, and both pay dearly for it. The tragedy extends further, affecting innocent characters such as Cadmus and his wife, who have avoided excess on either side.
The sympathies of the audience may shift during this final scene away from Dionysus, but it would be too simple to say that Euripides is condemning the Dionysian cult. The message appears to be more complex, that blind and exclusive allegiance to one aspect of human nature—either to rationality on the one hand or instinct and the senses on the other—is likely to lead to disaster. The ideal is the balanced life described at times by the Chorus.