Scene iii, Lines 576-861
After the Chorus finishes its ode, there is thunder and lightning and the earth trembles. Dionysus calls out to his followers; the terrified Chorus appeals to him to come. There is an earthquake, and the Chorus reports that Pentheus’s palace is collapsing. More thunder and lightning follows, and flames leap up from Semele’s tomb. The Chorus falls to the ground, bowing their heads in the direction of the palace. Dionysus emerges from the ruins and tells the Chorus to rise and not to be afraid. Dionysus talks with the Chorus Leader, explaining that he escaped with ease. He foiled Pentheus by turning himself into a bull in the stable where Pentheus wanted to imprison him. Pentheus tried to rope the bull, while Dionysus sat nearby, watching. Then, Dionysus says, the god Bacchus came (who of course is one and the same as the speaker) and shook the palace. Thinking the palace was on fire, Pentheus rushed around calling for water, and then drew his sword and rushed to the palace, thinking that Dionysus might escape. He stabbed at an illusion created by Bacchus, thinking it was his prisoner. Then Bacchus destroyed the palace completely. Pentheus dropped his sword, exhausted.
Pentheus enters, complaining that his prisoner has escaped. He is surprised to see Dionysus, and asks him how he escaped. Dionysus implies that someone helped him. He means the divine aspect of himself, but Pentheus thinks he is referring to some other unknown person, and he vows to catch him.
After more verbal sparring between the two men, a messenger enters, with a report of what he has seen on Mt. Cithaeron, where the Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus, gathered after they fled Thebes. The messenger, a herdsman, reports that he saw three groups of women dancing. One group was led by Autonoë (a daughter of Cadmus and therefore Pentheus’s aunt), another by Agave (Pentheus’s mother), and a third by Ino (another daughter of Cadmus and therefore also an aunt of Pentheus). After dancing, the women lay down in exhaustion. Agave woke up when she heard the lowing of the cattle, and she roused the other women from sleep. With the help of the god, they performed various miracles. One woman struck her thyrsus against a rock and water poured out; another drove her fennel into the ground and wine sprang out. Others scratched on the ground and milk welled up. Then honey spurted from their wands, or rods.
Put up to it by a man from the city, the shepherds and cowherds laid an ambush for the women. The messenger tried to seize Agave, but she escaped him and called out to the others who in a mob chased the men off. The women were in a mad frenzy. They ran to the cattle and tore heifers and calves to pieces with their bare hands. They even pulled bulls down and tore the flesh off them. Then the women ran to the villages of Hysiae and Erythrae at the foothills of the mountain, pillaging and destroying everything in sight. The men of the village fought back, but their spears drew no blood from the women. But the women drew blood with their wands, and the men ran. The messenger concludes that the women must have been aided by a god, and he counsels Pentheus to welcome the god to Thebes.
The messenger exits, and the Chorus Leader speaks about the great power of Dionysus, but Pentheus, who has been angered by the messenger’s words, does not listen. He orders an all-out assault by his soldiers, including cavalry and archers.
Then follows a dialogue between Pentheus and Dionysus. Dionysus warns him not to take up arms against a god. He would do better to offer the god a sacrifice. Pentheus responds that he will sacrifice the women who follow the god. Dionysus warns him that he will be defeated, and that the only solution is for Pentheus to lead the women back to Thebes without bloodshed. Pentheus fears a trap, and is about to go and put on his armor when Dionysus calls him back, asking him if he would like to see the Dionysian revels on the mountains. Pentheus replies that he would. Dionysus says he must dress in women’s clothes because if the women were to see that he is a man, they would kill him. Pentheus protests but agrees to do so. But then as Dionysus describes what Pentheus is to wear, the king balks. He cannot bring himself to wear women’s clothes but cannot decide what course to take. Giving himself time to think, he tells Dionysus that he will either go the mountain with an army, or take his advice.
Pentheus exits. Dionysus comments that Pentheus is now caught in the net he has thrown and it will cost him his life. He asks that Dionysus (himself in his divine aspect) first punish Pentheus by making him mad so that he will be willing to put on women’s clothes. Dionysus wants to see his enemy paraded through the streets dressed as a woman, so that everyone will laugh at him. He exits, heading for the palace, where he will clothe Pentheus in women’s dress.
This scene divides into three sections: first, the destruction of the palace and Dionysus’s escape; second, the report by the messenger, and third, the encounter between Pentheus and Dionysus.
The first section shows some of the attributes traditionally associated with Dionysus. He is able to disguise himself by taking other forms, hence he can take the form of a bull to confuse Pentheus, and still sit to one side observing his own transformation. Dionysus was also known as a magician who could create illusions and hallucinations, which is why Pentheus hacks away with his sword at a figure that seems to resemble Dionysus but is in fact a mere phantom, created by the god. Throughout all this turmoil Dionysus remains completely calm and unruffled; his power flows from him effortlessly, unlike his human opponent who gets angry and puts out great effort but accomplishes nothing.
More of the traditional attributes of Dionysus emerge in the second section, the report of the messenger. When the women strike the earth or rock with their magic Dionysian rods, three of the liquid substances associated with Dionysus flow: wine, milk and honey. Wine represents Dionysus as the bringer of joy, and milk and honey associate him with the foods that nourish life. The messenger’s report also gives stunning account of the power given to the followers of the god. The weak can become strong, and women can triumph over men; the natural order of things can be upset, but only if the power of the god is resisted.
The final section of this scene shows how cunning Dionysus is in his psychological war against Pentheus. He is fully aware that despite Pentheus’s censorious attitude, the king of Thebes is curious about the Dionysian rites and the eroticism he associates with them. This is an aspect of his personality that he resists; he likes to exert a rigid self-control, but as soon as Dionysus asks him directly whether he would like to see the rites for himself, Pentheus’s self-discipline begins to crumble. He cannot resist, and Dionysus knows it.