- “And here I stand, a god incognito,
disguised as man, beside the stream of Dirce
and the waters of Ismenus.”
At the beginning of the play, Dionysus announces his presence in Thebes, the city of his birth. However, he is disguised as a man, and his antagonist, Pentheus, has no idea that this mysterious stranger is in fact the god himself.
- “Like frankincense in its fragrance
is the blaze of the torch he bears.
Flames float out from his trailing wand
As he runs, as he dances,
Kindling the stragglers,
Spurring with cries,
And his long curls stream to the wind!”
The Chorus sings in praise of Dionysus.
“We do not trifle with divinity.”
Teiresias, the old prophet, speaking to Cadmus. Teiresias knows that he must honor the god Dionysus because to ignore him would be to court disaster.
- “Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.”
Dionysus replies to his questioning by Pentheus. Pentheus has just asked him what form the god appeared to him in, and Dionysus replies that the god Dionysus can assume any form he pleases. Pentheus thinks the stranger is just trying to evade answering the question.
- “Displeasure with a man who speaks the truth is wrong.”
Pentheus speaks to the messenger who brings new of the activities of the Maenads on the mountain. The messenger is worried that Pentheus will be angry with him. The irony is that throughout the play, Pentheus becomes angry whenever anyone speaks the truth about Dionysus, whether it is Cadmus, Teiresias or Dionysus himself. Pentheus has such little self-awareness that he is unaware of the irony.
- “One woman
struck her thyrsus against a rock and a fountain
of cool water came bubbling up. Another drove
her fennel in the ground, and where it struck the earth,
at the touch of god, a spring of wine poured out.
Those who wanted milk scratched at the soil
With bare fingers and the while milk came welling up.”
The Messenger reports on what he saw on the mountain. The female worshippers of Dionysus are able to produce miracles, bringing forth from the earth the life-giving fluids associated with the god.
- DIONYSUS: Would you like to see their revels on the mountains?
PENTHEUS: I would pay a great sum to see that sight.
This is the moment that Dionysus, having already detected Pentheus’s prurient nature, decisively exploits it. In allowing himself to be taken over by his desire to see what he imagines to be Dionysian orgies, Pentheus seals his own fate.
- “whatever is god is strong;
whatever long time has sanctioned,
that is a law forever;
the law tradition makes
is the law of nature.”
These lines are sung by the Chorus. They argue that the worship of Dionysus, or of any god, is sanctioned by tradition, and something that is part of cultural tradition is the equivalent of a law of nature, and therefore must be followed.
- “Wherefore, I say,
accept, accept: humility is wise; humility is blest.
But what the world calls wise I do not want.”
The Chorus sings, offering their reflections on the best way to live. They counsel that men should accept the presence and the power of the gods and be humble before that knowledge. The Chorus does not want the kind of wisdom of restraint and repression that is represented by Pentheus.
- “Gods should be exempt from human passions.”
Cadmus speaks to Dionysus, after the god has announced that he is punishing Cadmus and Agave because they blasphemed him. Cadmus’s protests have no effect on Dionysus.