The chorus sings about gods and honor: “the greatest gift of the gods is honor: to reach your hand in triumph over the heads of the enemy.” The chorus members sing that the gods will crush “men of arrogance.” According to the chorus, everyone in the world competes for wealth and power, but those “who live from day to day” will be the happy ones.
The chorus is comprised of Dionysus’ followers—they’re not a neutral observer of the action. The chorus embodies the view that mortals need to worship the gods and follow their instructions, but that doesn’t mean that the play as a whole reinforces that message. Euripides asks his audience whether Dionysus’ actions, supported by the chorus, are fair and just. It’s obvious that “men of arrogance” is a criticism leveled at Pentheus. The final chorus comment about living day to day is slightly out of keeping with the chorus’ general attitude or the behaviors of Dionysus. Dionysus, himself, is not living from day to day, but seeking revenge for historical events; furthermore, his motivation for that revenge is to unequivocally prove his godly power. So the chorus’ advice is more like a suggestion for how people can avoid the wrath of the gods than a means to a happy life.
Dionysus comes back, ushering out Pentheus, who is dressed as a woman and carrying a thyrsus. Pentheus seems disoriented, telling Dionysus that he appears to be a bull. Dionysus says it’s because he is a god, but Pentheus doesn’t understand him properly. Pentheus asks if he looks like his aunt Ino or his mother, Agave.
Pentheus is losing his ability to perceive the world rationally. His question of whether he looks like his mother or his aunt heightens the tragedy of the events that shortly follow. Once again, Dionysus delights in telling Pentheus the truth without the latter properly following the implications of Dionysus’ words. Suddenly, Pentheus’ military posturing seems entirely inaccessible—he’s more concerned with how he looks as a woman.
Dionysus fixes up Pentheus’ hair, which Pentheus says must have come loose in “all that Bacchic ecstasy there in the palace.” They also make sure Pentheus’ dress is lined up nicely. Pentheus asks which hand he ought to hold the thyrsus in to look “more like a true and proper Bacchante.”
The audience learns that Pentheus, after all his protests and military posturing, has been involved in some kind of Dionysian ritual (“Bacchic” means essentially the same thing, referring to Dionysus’ equivalent Roman god, Bacchus). The play never explains just what went on in the palace, or whether the palace was miraculously reconstructed. It may be that Pentheus is spell-bound by Dionysus, in a way similar to the Bacchae on the mountain.
Dionysus hints that Pentheus is heading towards his death, but the latter doesn’t pick up on the suggestion. Dionysus says Pentheus will be carried back “held in his mother’s arms,” an idea that delights Pentheus. Pentheus, says Dionysus, “will be spoiled.” They leave for the mountains.
Dionysus, of course, is predicting Pentheus’ death at the hands of his own mother, but Pentheus has no idea of the true implications of Dionysus’ words. Just like in their earlier exchanges, Dionysus delights in telling Pentheus the truth about what’s going on, or what’s going to happen without Pentheus properly understanding.
The chorus invokes the “hounds of madness” to run to the mountains and send the Bacchae into a frenzy against “the man in woman’s clothes.” Pentheus, they sing, is walking, is walking “headlong” to his death. If only he had been “pure and pious,” they lament. They call on Dionysus to appear as a bull, a “many-headed serpent” and a “lion in flames”—and to “throw out the net of death.”
The chorus is bloodthirsty, lusting for Dionysus to kill Pentheus. “Headlong” gestures towards Pentheus’ imminent grisly fate. In this moment, audience members have to ask themselves whether they, too, are lusting for the same violence as the chorus.