Scene iv, Lines 912-976
Dionysus enters and calls to Pentheus to come out and show himself in women’s dress. Pentheus enters. He is wearing a long linen dress over his fawn skin. He carries a thyrsus in his hand and wear a long blond curly wig. He is completely in Dionysus’s power. When he speaks he seems disoriented, saying he sees two suns and Thebes as two cities. He also sees Dionysus as a bull, with horns sprouting from his head. Dionysus replies that Pentheus is simply seeing the god whom formerly he was unable to see.
Dionysus tells Pentheus that one of his curls has come loose from the snood he is wearing (a snood is a kind of bag worn by women at the back of the head to hold the hair), and tucks it back for him. Pentheus allows him to do so; he is very concerned to present the proper appearance. He asks Dionysus the proper way to hold his rod. Dionysus tells him to hold it in his right hand and raise it as he raises his right foot. Pentheus has lost hold on reality and seems to think he is possessed of great strength and could lift the entire mountain. Dionysus lets him think that he could indeed do so, if he wanted to. But they agree that instead, Pentheus will conceal himself and spy on the women.
Pentheus then asks that Dionysus lead him through Thebes. Dionysus says he will lead him but someone else will bring him back. They both agree that he will be brought back by his mother. Pentheus thinks he will be carried back in glory, but Dionysus means something quite different, although he does not tell Pentheus, continuing to encourage him and nourish his delusions. After Pentheus exits, Dionysus addresses Agave and the other Bacchants, saying he is bringing Pentheus for his ordeal, and that he, Dionysus (referring to himself as Bromius) will be victorious.
In this third encounter between Dionysus and Pentheus, Dionysus has gained complete mastery over his hapless human opponent. He has worked successfully on Pentheus’s weak spots and all he has to do now is quite literally lead Pentheus to the slaughter. The doomed Pentheus reveals more of himself than he realizes. He is no longer in his right mind, having lost his habitual self-control. Now his concern about the proper appearance of his dress shows his innate vanity, and he also reveals what’s on his mind when he says to Dionysus, before they have even got anywhere near the Bacchae, that he sees them “among the bushes, / mating like birds, caught in the toils of love.” His interest is entirely prurient; he cannot wait to spy on what he supposes to be their orgies. The conversation between him and Dionysus is full of irony; Pentheus is eager to go forth, and Dionysus encourages him, knowing all the time that Pentheus is going to his death. When Dionysus tells him he will be carried home cradled in his mother’s arms, Pentheus thinks that will be wonderful. Dionysus does not tell him that he will be carried back as a corpse.