The imagery of hunting pervades the play. It is first used by Pentheus, who says that the Maenads will “be hunted down /out of the mountains like the animals they are” (lines 227-28). He hopes to have them trapped in “iron nets.” (line 231). Dionysus is also referred to as prey. When he is brought to Pentheus, the attendant says, “We captured the quarry you sent us out to catch.” (line 435). For their part, the Maenads and Dionysus are also referred to as hunters. Almost everyone in the play is either hunter or hunted, or both. Agave refers to her fellow Maenads as “Hounds, who run with me” (line 730), and they eventually hunt down Pentheus. Dionysus refers to Pentheus when he says that “our prey now thrashes / in the net we threw” (line 846-47). The frequency of hunting imagery reveals the savagery inherent in the play, the ruthless, amoral violence practiced by predators.
Dionysus is a god who comes disguised as a human. Pentheus refers to him only as a stranger, not realizing that the newcomer to Thebes is a god. Dionysus is able to disguise himself in many ways, appearing in whatever form he chooses, including as a bull, which he does to confuse Pentheus. Dionysus is also rather soft and feminine in his appearance, with long blond hair. He appears innocuous. But this appearance disguises the enormous power that he is able to wield, and also the savage way in which he punishes his enemies.
Pentheus also appears in disguise, dressing up in the female garb of the followers of Bacchus, with a dress and a curly wig. His disguise, however, weakens him and sets him up for his tragic fall. Whereas Dionysus is in full control of whatever disguise he takes on, Pentheus takes on a disguise because he is helpless in the face of his secret desire to observe what he thinks are the orgies of the Maenads.
The play is fraught with irony. The central irony is that the god Dionysus is in charge of proceedings throughout, even though it appears that he is the one who is being hunted down. The outcome of his struggle with Pentheus is a foregone conclusion. Pentheus is the one who at first appears to have all the power; he captures Dionysus easily, without the god offering any resistance. He binds and imprisons him. But Dionysus, as a god, cannot in fact be bound by anything; ironically, it is Pentheus, who is weak but appears strong, who is the one who is bound, trapped by his own puritanism and the secret desires that such rigid attitudes generate. Pentheus is oblivious of the real situation between him and Dionysus. “I am the stronger here” he says (line 504), but Dionysus’s reply, which Pentheus does not understand, states the real situation: “You do not know what you do. You do not know who you are” (lines 506-07). This is one of a number of examples of irony in the dialogue between the two men. Another example is when Pentheus, disguised as a woman, is about to go to spy on the women in the mountains. Dionysus tells him that someone else will carry him back as an example for all; Pentheus thinks it will be his mother carrying him back in glory; the real meaning of all Dionysus’s words are lost on him.