The chorus sings about Dionysus’ birth and Pentheus’ betrayal of his origins. The singers call on Dionysus to “come down from Olympus” and free them and their leader (Dionysus in disguise), and punish Pentheus.
One of the functions of the chorus is to raise the dramatic tension of the play, which they do so here by inciting Dionysus to punish Pentheus. Olympus is the mountain home of the Greek gods.
Dionysus calls to the chorus and his other followers from within the palace. He brings about a great earthquake to “shake the roots of the world” and destroy the palace, which goes up in flames and crumbles to the ground. Dionysus is reunited with the fearful chorus, who, like Pentheus, perceive him as a priest. Those in the chorus are in awe of the power of Dionysus; he comforts them.
Dionysus shows the futility of his imprisonment—by destroying the palace from within, he is making more blatant display of his power than if he were to do so from afar. The members of Dionysus’ chorus are terrified of his power but, as his followers, are under his protection. Pentheus’ palace is supposed to project his own power and the rigid structure of Theban society and his rule—its destruction shows that his power means nothing without the support of the gods.
Dionysus explains to the chorus how he escaped from the palace. Apparently, he had deceived Pentheus throughout their interaction. Pentheus thought he had shackled a Dionysian priest, but in fact it was just a bull. Then Dionysus had set the palace ablaze. Pentheus had tried to stab his prisoner, but had only managed to stab the shadows.
Dionysus shows that he’s been in control all along, and is just toying with Pentheus. The “bull” symbolizes Dionysus’ raw masculinity, showing that he is capable of embodying aspects of both men and women. Euripides doesn’t make it clear whether Pentheus was hallucinating or not, leaving it up to the audience whether it is Dionysus’ behavior or Pentheus’ denial of the gods that is “irrational.” Pentheus’ stabbing at the shadows shows that physically he is no match for Dionysus.
Pentheus arrives with his retinue, furious that his prisoner has escaped. Suddenly he notices Dionysus—still in the guise of the Dionysian priest—standing there, and is baffled as to how he can be “free, standing at the gate of my palace?” Pentheus is enraged, and orders his servants to lock all of the city gates. Dionysus says walls mean nothing to a god.
To Pentheus, it’s physically impossible for Dionysus to appear outside the palace so suddenly. This contributes to the destabilization of Pentheus’ mind that Dionysus will later use to his advantage. As Dionysus says, the material world cannot contain the power of a god—there’s no use putting chains on him or enclosing him in walls.
A herdsman arrives with a message from Mt. Cithaeron. He has come to tell Pentheus of what he’s seen: the Bacchae are running wild. He tells Pentheus he saw Agave, Ino, and Autonoe leading three bands of women; at first they seemed to be resting calmly.
This is the first instance in which a minor character arrives to bring news of violence. The fact that Pentheus’ aunts and mother are the leading Bacchae is an extra taunt on Dionysus’ part—they’re the ones who originally denied his godliness and sullied his mother’s name.
But then, continues the herdsman, Agave heard the sound of cattle and sprung to her feet, waking up the rest of the Bacchae. As they woke, some of them “drew gazelles and wolf cubs to their swollen breasts and let them feed.” They fixed up their Dionysian garments and tapped their thyrsi on the rocks, bringing forth water, wine, milk, and honey.
The women of Thebes are deeply entranced by Dionysus, engaging in behaviors far removed from the established order of society. The Bacchae’s nursing of wild animals indicates that they have returned to a more primal state—it’s up to the audience to decide if Dionysian life represents a liberation, as both the chorus and Tiresias (to a lesser extent) implied earlier, or if it is a descent into irrationality and madness. The nursing, though obviously quite strange, momentarily depicts the Bacchae as tender and caring—making their following actions all the more shockingly violent.
Someone from the city asked the herdsman if they should earn the “gratitude of the king” and capture Pentheus’ mother, Agave. They lay in ambush as the Bacchae came by, practicing their rituals, seemingly possessed. The herdsman jumped out at Agave, but she quickly called on the women to turn their thyrsi against the men.
The herdsman thought he would earn grace and favor with Pentheus by capturing his mother, showing that Thebes’ residents usually respect their King. Once again, they thyrsus is a phallic symbol that, when used by the women, represents a disruption of the usual order of male-dominated society. Violence is usually the male domain, but Dionysus has given that power to his female followers.
The herdsman and his group fled from the Bacchae—the women then turned on the nearby herd of cattle. They tore apart the animals—even the bulls—limb from limb with their bare hands. Body parts were strewn everywhere, “dripping from the trees.”
The behaviors of the Bacchae are intended to come across as animalistic and savage—in short, uncivilized. This further poses the question of whether they are “freed” or “mad,” or perhaps both. Interestingly, Euripides never depicts the violent scenes on stage, but instead has messengers describe them in vivid detail. This spurs the audience to examine their own relationship with violence—by watching this play, perhaps they are indulging in violent fantasies of their own.
The Bacchae continued their rampage, heading to nearby villages, where they snatched children and pillaged houses. “Flames danced in their hair,” and the villagers’ weapons were powerless to stop them—their spears drew no blood. The women flung their thyrsus wands at the men, ripping open their flesh. The herdsman says it was clear some god was empowering them. He implores Pentheus to welcome this god, whoever he may be, to Thebes. Making his exit, the herdsman praises Dionysus for his gift of wine.
Here, the Bacchae show themselves as truly distanced from conventional morality—and it’s clear that Dionysus has granted them superhuman abilities, thus demonstrating his power. The Bacchae have lost all respect for human life and treat the men as they did the cattle earlier. This speech represents another warning to Pentheus that he ought to obey Dionysus and pay tribute. The violence in this story presages the violence described at the end by the second messenger.
The leader of the chorus tells Pentheus that there is no god greater than Dionysus. Pentheus tells his servant to go and mobilize the Theban army, declaring “we will not be treated this way by women. It is against nature!”
Ironically, Pentheus sees the Bacchae’s behavior as going against nature, while Dionysus’ followers see his rituals as a return to nature. Pentheus insists on trying to summon all the mortal might of Thebes to combat Dionysus, which already appears doomed to fail.
Dionysus, still posing as the priest, offers Pentheus a last chance to avoid “taking arms against a god.” He warns that there will grave consequences if Pentheus tries to drive the women from Mt. Cithaeron. He says, “if I were you I’d offer up a sacrifice, not a spear: You are a mortal against a god.”
Dionysus lays down the opposition between himself and Pentheus in clear, unambiguous terms, offering Pentheus another chance to avoid tragedy.
Dionysus offers to bring the Bacchae back to Thebes with no bloodshed, but Pentheus doesn’t trust him. Pentheus tells his guard to bring him his armor, and Dionysus to shut up.
Pentheus has no reason to trust Dionysus at this point. He still thinks he can compete with Dionysus, even though all the evidence so far is to the contrary. Pentheus, then, displays an arrogant refusal to see what’s in front of him.
Dionysus cunningly asks whether Pentheus would like to spy on the Bacchae as they “go about their mysteries.” Pentheus says he would pay a lot of money to do so, though it would “pain” him to see them drunk. He suggests that he could hide in the trees, but Dionysus says the Bacchae would “hunt him down” if they discovered him.
It’s notable how quickly Pentheus switches from his militaristic mode to admitting he would like to spy on the Bacchae. This suggests that either his mind is weak and Dionysus is taking advantage of him, or that he harbors a secret desire to experience the Dionysian rituals too, even just as a bystander. It seems that something about the “wild” and “free” behavior of the Bacchae attracts him. This desire suggests that, for all his protestations, his projection of himself as a mighty and powerful ruler is not as strong as he pretends.
Dionysus tells Pentheus that in order for him to spy on the Bacchae, he needs to disguise himself as a woman. Though Pentheus finds the idea shameful, he admits it makes sense. Dionysus instructs him to put on a “wig of flowing hair,” a dress that goes down to his feet, and a headdress. To complete the outfit, he needs a “dappled fawn-skin” and a thyrsus.
Dionysus is seeking to further undermine Pentheus’ identity as a strong male ruler by cunningly convincing him to dress as a woman—there’s no doubt who is control of the situation here. Once again, hair is used to symbolize male effeminateness.
Pentheus hesitates about the cross-dressing plan, but Dionysus says it’s either that or “fight the women and spill blood.” Pentheus goes into the ruins of the palace to think about what he should do. Dionysus makes it clear to the chorus that he intends to drive Pentheus mad and embarrass him. Then, Pentheus will “finally know Dionysus, son of Zeus, a god both terrible and gentle to the world of man.” He, too, enters the palace.
Dionysus explicitly articulates his aim here as bringing irrationality to Pentheus’ “orderly” mind. Dionysus’ statement that he is both “terrible and gentle” could be interpreted in two ways: either he is simply terrible to those who deny his godliness and gentle to those who worship him, or perhaps he is stating that his primary motivation is to disrupt the order of “the world of man” and undermine the values that hold society together.