Tiresias, the elderly blind prophet, enters dressed as a Dionysian follower. He calls to Cadmus to come out of the palace and join him. Cadmus arrives and greets him warmly, also dressed in Bacchant garbs. Both of them are excited to join in the dance, despite their old age. They’re the only men in Thebes willing to dance for Dionysus. Cadmus tells Tiresias that he can see Pentheus approaching.
Tiresias and Cadmus are the only men in the play who display an open willingness to embrace Dionysus’ godliness and pay him tribute. In fact, they seem genuinely excited to do so. Tiresias is generally a wise figure in Greek mythology, supposedly able to see into the future despite being a mortal.
Pentheus appears, accompanied by his attendants. He has been out of the country for a few days and is furious at the scenes he’s come back to. He complains about Dionysus and the way he has deceived the women of the town. He believes that “drink is at the bottom of it all,” and that it’s making the women promiscuous. He boasts that he’s already imprisoned many of them, and that he will hunt down the rest on the mountain—even his mother, Agave, and his aunts, Ino and Autonoe.
Like Dionysus, Pentheus has just arrived in town, further contributing to the idea that they represent opposites. Pentheus clearly isn’t willing to worship Dionysus and seems to mistrust drunkenness and sexuality. His priority seems to be imposing order on Thebes and undoing Dionysus’ mischievous handiwork—that’s why he’s even willing to imprison his own mother and aunts.
Pentheus goes on, lambasting Dionysus as just some “charlatan magician”; Pentheus vows to put a stop to his mischief and behead him. Pentheus scorns the idea that Dionysus is a god, and says Dionysus and Semele were killed for the latter’s lie that she had slept with Zeus.
Pentheus notices Cadmus and Tiresias and their Dionysian attire. He mocks them, and tells Cadmus he is ashamed of him. He accuses Tiresias of embracing Dionysus so he can make money on the side from burnt offerings and prophecies. The chorus accuses Pentheus of “blasphemy.”
Tiresias argues in Dionysus’ favor, saying the god will be a great power in Greece. He says that the ecstatic rituals of Dionysus bring the “power of second sight.” He also praises Dionysus for the gift of wine, which brings “peace to the troubled mind” and gives people “blessed sleep.” He says Dionysus doesn’t corrupt women, but releases their “true nature,” and that Pentheus is “mad” not to pay tribute.
Tiresias was blinded by the gods, but given “second sight” in return—the ability to see far into the future. His view of wine is undoubtedly skewed, given the physical and mental problems that accompany too much alcohol. Again, there is this appeal to Dionysian ecstasy as not chaos but a restoration of the “true” self. Tiresias thinks Pentheus is mad, and Pentheus thinks Tiresias and Cadmus are mad—these are two competing ideas of what it means to be rational.
Cadmus tells Pentheus that he needs to follow “customs and traditions.” He reasons that, even if Dionysus isn’t a god, it does no harm to act as if he is. Firstly, they’ll avoid divine retribution and, secondly, it will bring honor to their family to be associated with godliness. He reminds Pentheus of the tragic end Pentheus’ cousin Actaeon, who was torn apart by dogs because he bragged that his hunting skills were superior to a god’s.
Cadmus’ belief in Dionysus doesn’t seem to be based on genuine devotion—it’s more of a prudent insurance policy in case Dionysus is a god. He’s also showing hubris, or excessive pride, in wanting to be associated with Dionysus to bring honor to the family’s name.
Pentheus rejects Cadmus and Tiresias’ arguments, ordering his servants to capture the priest—actually Dionysus in disguise—who is leading the women astray. Tiresias and Cadmus leave to pay their respects to the god, and Tiresias predicts that Pentheus’ actions will “end in folly.” The chorus sings further praises of Dionysus, warning that “over-reaching mortals simply shorten their lives.”
Dionysus poses as a priest of his own religion, and keeps this form for most of the play. The implication of the chorus’ words is that Pentheus has foolishly believed his power to be greater than that of the gods, and that this prideful, false belief will bring about his untimely death.
A servant enters, bringing in the enchained Dionysus, still in disguise and willingly held captive. He also tells Pentheus that the imprisoned Bacchae have miraculously escaped their shackles and are now returning to the mountain.
The escape of the Bacchae should help Pentheus see that they have a god on their side, but he’s too impetuous to notice. Their magical escape suggests that Dionysus has power over the material world, able to do the impossible.
Pentheus takes an intrigued look at Dionysus, saying that he is “not entirely unattractive” and praising his skin and hair. Pentheus interrogates Dionysus, who says he has come to Thebes to bring the rituals of his god, Dionysus. Dionysus says only “initiates” may know the secrets of Dionysian “mysteries.”
Dionysus’ evasiveness angers Pentheus. Pentheus cuts off Dionysus’ hair and snatches his thyrsus, before ordering him to be locked up. Dionysus warns Pentheus that he will pay for his “blasphemy.” He says, “put chains on me, and you are binding Dionysus.” He is led off in chains, and Pentheus exits too.
Dionysus’ long hair represents his being in touch—literally and metaphorically—with his women, and thereby his sexual power. Pentheus is trying to emasculate him by cutting it off, and snatching the phallic thyrsus from Dionysus’ grasp. Dionysus is stating his true identity out loud, but only the audience understands what he truly means. Pentheus tries to impose his supremacy on Dionysus through the use of the chains, but Dionysus’ godliness makes this a futile gesture.