Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1150
Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, the king of Thebes, is visited by Zeus and conceives a child. While she still carries her unborn child, she prays to see Zeus in all his splendor. Zeus accordingly appears to her in the form of a bolt of lightning, and Semele is killed instantly. Zeus takes the prematurely born child he fathered and places him within himself. At the proper time, the child is born again and named Dionysus. When he grows up and becomes the god of revelry and wine, men establish a cult for his worship. The cult of Dionysus spreads throughout western Asia but does not initially gain a foothold in Europe. Dionysus, the god-man whom his devotees associate with the vine and with the ecstasies derived from the juice of the grape, decides that Thebes, home of his ancestors, will be the logical place to initiate his cult in the West. At first, Theban resistance to Dionysian behavior encumbers his efforts, and many Thebans refuse to believe that he is a son of Zeus. Pentheus, the king of Thebes and grandson of Cadmus and cousin of Dionysus, dreads the disorders and madness induced by the new cult, and he stubbornly opposes its mysteries, based on orgiastic and frenzied rites of nature.
A group of eastern women, devotees of Dionysus, call on the Theban women to join them in the worship of their beloved god. During the ceremonies, blind Tiresias, an ancient Theban prophet, summons old Cadmus, now withdrawn from public life, to the worship of Dionysus. While performing the frenzied rites, the two old men miraculously regain youthful vigor.
Pentheus, enraged when some of his people turn to the new religion, imprisons all women who are seen carrying bacchic symbols such as wine, an ivy crown, or a staff. He rebukes his aged grandfather and accuses Tiresias of spreading the cult in Thebes. Tiresias champions Dionysus, declaring that wine provides men with a temporary release from the harshness and miseries of life. The Theban maidens, he says, are exalted and purified by the bacchic ecstasies. Old Cadmus seconds the words of Tiresias and offers to place an ivy wreath on Pentheus’s brow. Pentheus brushes it aside and orders some of his soldiers to destroy Tiresias’s house; others he directs to seize a mysterious stranger, a priest of Dionysus, who has a remarkable influence over Theban women.
When the stranger, Dionysus in disguise, is brought before the king, all the Theban women who were jailed suddenly and mysteriously find themselves free in a forest, where they proceed to worship Dionysus. Meanwhile, in the city, Pentheus asks the prisoner his name and his country. Dionysus refuses to give his name but says that he is from Lydia, in Asia Minor, and that he and his followers received their religion from Dionysus. When Pentheus asks to know more about the strange religion, Dionysus says that this knowledge is reserved for the virtuous only. Pentheus impatiently orders a soldier to cut off Dionysus’s curls, which the prisoner says are dedicated to his god. Then Pentheus seizes Dionysus’s staff and orders him to be imprisoned. Dionysus, calm in spite of these humiliations, expresses confidence in his own welfare and pity at the blindness of Pentheus. Before the guards take Dionysus to be imprisoned in the royal stables, he predicts catastrophe for Pentheus. The king, unmindful of this prophecy, directs that the female followers of Dionysus be put to practical womanly labors.
From his place of imprisonment, Dionysus calls out encouragement to his devotees. Then he invokes an earthquake, which shakes the foundations of Pentheus’s fortress. Flames dance on Semele’s tomb. Dionysus appears, mysteriously freed from his prison, and rebukes his followers for any doubts and fears they expressed. He casts a spell on Pentheus, who in his mad frenzy mistakes a bull for Dionysus and chains the animal in its stall while the god-man looks on. Another earth tremor transforms the royal fortress into ruins.
Pentheus, enraged at seeing Dionysus free, orders his guards to shut the gates of the city. A messenger reports that many Theban women, among them Pentheus’s mother, Agave, are on nearby Mount Cithaeron observing Dionysian rites that combine a dignified and beautiful worship of nature with the cruel slaughter of cattle. A battle takes place between the women and Boeotian peasants, but the frenzied women, although victorious over the peasants, do not harm them. Pentheus orders the immediate suppression of the cult. Dionysus offers to lead the women back to the city, but he declares that if he does so the women will only grow more devoted to the man-god.
When Pentheus imperiously demands that his orders be obeyed, Dionysus casts a spell over him that makes the king express a desire to see the women at their worship. In a trance, he resists only feebly when Dionysus dresses him in women’s clothes so that he might not be detected by the women, who are jealous of the secrecy of their cult. Pentheus, in fact, is almost overcome by Dionysus’s charms as the god leads him to Mount Cithaeron.
On the mountain, Pentheus complains that he cannot see the rites because of the thick pine forest. Dionysus immediately bends a large pine tree to the ground, sets Pentheus in its topmost branches, and gently lets the tree return to its upright position. At that moment, the man-god disappears, but his voice booms out to his ecstatic devotees that a great enemy of the cult is hidden in the tall tree. The women, wild with fury, fell the tree with Pentheus in it. Agave, in a Dionysian frenzy, stands over her son. He frantically throws off his feminine dress and pleads with her to recognize him, but in her bacchic trance she imagines him to be a lion. With prodigious strength she tears off his left arm at the shoulder. Her sisters, Ino and Autonoe, join her and together the three women break Pentheus’s body to pieces. Agave places his severed head on her wand and calls upon the revelers to behold the desert-whelped lion’s head.
Cadmus and his attendants carry the maimed body of Pentheus back to the city. The old man feels the deepest pity for his daughter in her blindness. When Agave awakens from her trance and recognizes the head of her beloved son on her wand, she is bewildered and grief-stricken. Cadmus, mourning the violence that occurred, urges all men to comply with the wishes of the Olympian deities.
Dionysus returns in his divine form and prophesies that Cadmus and his wife, Harmonia, transformed into dragons, will overcome many Grecian lands before they die. He shows no sympathy for Agave, who cries out that she is guilty of sinning against him. He dooms her and her sisters to wander without respite until death overtakes them.