Instinct versus Reason
The central conflict sets order, rationality and restraint against instinct and ecstasy, the nonrational side of human experience, the desire to merge with the divine in some form or another. One way of understanding the play is to see it as a psychological drama acted out between these two aspects of the human mind. As ruler of Thebes, Pentheus sees it as his duty to maintain order in civic society. He is concerned that the introduction of a new, ecstatic religious cult will be a threat to law and order, and he seeks to stamp it out. Pentheus also represents the conservatism of established authority set against the more revolutionary energy of the populist cult.
But the play suggests that the mental and physical energy that pours out in the followers of Dionysus—dancing, celebrating, worshipping, tapping into raw, animal-like instincts—is a vital energy that needs to find a mode of expression. Even Pentheus is a kind of closet Dionysiac, fascinated by the stories he has heard of the orgies that the Maenads supposedly have on the mountains (which, in this play, they do not). But Pentheus refuses to acknowledge this tendency in himself, which makes it easy for Dionysus to exploit his weakness and lead him on to his doom. Pentheus makes the mistake of trying to deny and repudiate an entire realm of human experience.
The Need for Balance
In contrast to the rigidity of Pentheus, the two older characters, Cadmus and Teiresias, recognize the need to accommodate the wilder, instinctual energies represented by Dionysus. They represent a balanced perspective that seems to be the view of the dramatist, who presents his play as a terrible warning against excess on both sides. Both Pentheus and the Maenads are guilty of excess, from different sides. Pentheus, for example, is not the best representative of rationality. In fact, he is an emotional man—arrogant, impatient, angry, unable to listen to the advice of others, utterly convinced of his own righteousness. Like repressive, authoritarian rulers everywhere, he is prepared to create disorder in the name of preserving order. For example, he instructs his attendants to go the place where the stranger prophesies and “heave it over, / upside down; demolish everything you see” (lines 348-49). This is not rationality in action but fear—fear of the unknown and of things that cannot be controlled.
On the other side, Agave is not the best representative of the cult of Dionysus, which, as the Chorus often emphasizes, is supposed to bring comfort and joy to humanity. Dionysus emphasizes in his opening speech that he is in fact punishing Agave for not accepting that Dionysus is a god, born of Zeus. Instead, Agave spreads the lie that he is a mere mortal, born of a man and a woman. In this sense, Agave and her son Pentheus have something in common—they both reject the god. For this reason Dionysus has driven Agave and all the women of Thebes mad, leading them to the mountain where they wander around in a frenzy, wearing the clothing of the true Dionysian worshippers. Agave’s delusions lead her in her madness to kill her own son, and so she becomes the victim of the very god she claims in her madness to worship. In the end, everyone loses because balance was not maintained but shaded into fanaticism on both sides.
The Dual Nature of the God
The fate of Agave and Pentheus reveals the traditional double-sided nature of Dionysus. He is a god of both life and death. He is presented as a hunter who can tear men apart; he often appears as bull (as in this play), lion or panther. He is at once ecstasy and horror; infinite vitality and savage destruction. He rewards his followers with bliss but punishes those who oppose him. As he says about himself in the play, he is “most terrible, and yet most gentle, to mankind” (line 861). This is well illustrated in the way that the Maenads are transformed from gentle beings who can manifest milk and honey from rocks and earth just by tapping them with their thyrsus, into possessed demons who take part in an orgy of death and dismemberment.