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Euripides builds the principal dynamic of The Bacchae around the conflict between Pentheus and Dionysus, and sets up several interesting parallels between them. Pentheus, the King of Thebes, and Dionysus are both grandsons of old Cadmus, but while Pentheus is his chosen heir, Dionysus is not even recognized by the king, nor allowed in the city. They are both young and powerful and want to establish their authority over Thebes, but the kinds of authority they want to erect conflict with one another. Pentheus wants to establish an earthly, rational authority as the single legal sovereign, so much so that he adamantly refuses to allow even the worship of Dionysus. Dionysus wants to establish his joyful divine authority over the city and contest Pentheus's project of a purely rational civic order. As guardian of social order, Pentheus is repulsed by the cult and disturbed by the idea of women roaming freely in the wild, for the order that Pentheus represents is not just the legal order, but the proper order of all of life, including the supposedly proper control of women. Dionysus is seen as threatening all this, and so Pentheus states that the "effeminate stranger is introducing a new disease for our women and dishonoring their beds." Pentheus continuous refusal to accept Dionysus leads to his downfall. But even though he is obsessed with law and order, Pentheus is also shown to be vain, obstinate, suspicious, and arrogant. The old seer Tiresias describes Pentheus's principal fault well when he says, "do not be too confident that / sovereignty is what rules men nor if you hold an opinion, take that opinion for good sense." In the end, Pentheus too falls victim to Dionysus's madness, and lets his illicit desire to see the maenads carry him to his death.

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