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A servant leads the disguised Dionysus into the palace courtyard and presents him to a very pleased Pentheus. The servant tells Pentheus of the remarkably easy arrest of the Stranger (Dionysus), who did not even attempt to flee but gently offered up his own hands to the guard. Not only did the Stranger exhibit a remarkable coolness at the face of authority but he even smiled at the servant. In fact the Stranger was so well behaved that the servant felt ashamed and was compelled to tell the stranger that he was only working on orders from his master. The servant also tells Pentheus that his other prisoners, the Theban women who were driven mad by Dionysus, had all mysteriously escaped to the mountains to continue their singing and dancing. Those who saw them escape say that the chains came miraculously undone by themselves and the doors unbarred themselves. This last miracle and the Stranger's impeccable behavior impressed the servant, and he tries to hint to Pentheus that the king's behavior might be wrong. But the eager Pentheus is all too happy with his new prisoner and does not pay attention to the many signs of Dionysus's divinity. The aggressive king concentrates on interrogating the prisoner and flaunting his power over him.
Pentheus begins by asking the Stranger where he comes from and on whose authority he now introduces these rites to Thebes. The Stranger tells the king that Dionysus himself initiated him. Pentheus then tries to scornfully insult and pervert the myth of Dionysus's birth and powers. The Stranger remains untouched by anger and states clearly that the god himself instructed him on various bacchic rites. The arrogant king immediately wants to know, and thus mock, these rites but his jibes are brushed away by the calm Dionysus who merely says, "it is not lawful for you to hear—though it is worth knowing." As Pentheus has been impious, continues the Stranger, he is not allowed to know what the rites consist of or what the god's true nature is. Pentheus is enraged when he is denied access to this information and he persists in using other rhetorical tools in the hope of tricking the Stranger, all to no avail. The only thing Pentheus learns is that he is unable to learn anything and has only exposed his own anger and futility. As in earlier scenes, when faced by a foe, Pentheus resorts to crude physical acts: arrest, imprison, and destroy. Pentheus ends their first encounter by promising to cut off Dionysus' hair, destroy his possessions, and lock him up for good. The Stranger calmly states that his god will free him and then chain and punish Pentheus. Pentheus screams that Dionysus to be chained in the dark palace stables at once.
The second interlude or Stasimon is made up of three parts and is simple and direct. The first section reproaches not just Pentheus but all of Thebes for rejecting Dionysus. They once more tell the story of the birth of Dionysus stressing his connection to Zeus and fire. In contrast the second section describes Pentheus's lowly ancestry; the house of Cadmus was said to have descended from a dragon's tooth planted in the earth. Pentheus, a "wild-faced monster" and a murderous man, must be punished. The chorus calls upon its Lord to punish this monster who has locked up its leader in a dark dungeon. The final section meditates on where the god "rearer of beasts" may be. The chorus imagines him to be in Nysa, a mountain associated with a different story of another city that resisted the god. Then the chorus wonders if he is in the wooded recesses of Olympus (home of the Greek gods). The chorus asks if he may be in Pieria, birthplace of the Muses, a region of pleasant rivers and valleys to the north of Mt. Olympus; a common symbol of the relaxation and happiness that Dionysus's worshippers attach to him. Lastly, the Chorus thinks he may be crossing the two rivers Axios and Lydias on his way to Thebes from Olympus.
The principal axis of the play is the relationship between Pentheus and Dionysus, laid out over three episodes. The role and power dynamic of each of the characters is completely reversed during the three encounters. Like a seesaw, the fall of one is at the expense of the other. One may argue that the disparity in power is clearly superficial, for Dionysus has the power to open and orchestrate the entire narrative of the play. As a god he has decided to arrange an illusion to best teach Thebes a lesson and to fully reveal Pentheus's faults. This twin-position of Dionysus as actor and author is demonstrated amply in this scene as Pentheus questions the Stranger on the nature of the god.
In this first of the three rendezvous, a pretty and effeminate Dionysus, the Stranger, enters as the prisoner of the commanding, interrogative Pentheus. Once the two start to converse however, Pentheus begins to lose his authoritative position, for Dionysus is calm and true in all his responses. Pentheus's response to such profundity is of course anger and then force, "you must pay penalty for your foul sophistries!" At some points in this scene, the god seems to give Pentheus room to either learn or repent but Pentheus refuses to see anything in the new religion except his basest, preconceived fantasies.
In a key moment of delicious dramatic irony, as well as psychological revelation, Pentheus sarcastically says that the stranger's god will surely come to rescue him: "Dionysus: Even now he is close by and sees what I suffer. Pentheus: Well, where is he? He is not visible to my eyes. Dionysus: Here, with me, but you, because of your impiety, do not behold him." Pentheus is blinded by his ignorance and doomed by his refusal to see beyond what is right before his eyes. His foolishness is further heightened by the fact that the audience knows who the Stranger really is and begins to understand the impertinence of Pentheus's manner. One should also remember that in all the previous accounts of Dionysus's miracles, listed by Tiresias and the servant, Pentheus also refused to acknowledge the new god's powers. The one thing the king keeps returning to is the power of his authority and his ability to enforce it. In this scene and for the first time in the play, we see the limits of Pentheus's authority. The king cannot even begin to mock the Stranger's beliefs and rites, for he does not and cannot know what they are. Even the arrest of the Stranger was not really Pentheus's success, for the Stranger wanted to be lead to the king and thus walked into the palace himself.
Unlike the first ode, the chorus in this interlude now hankers for action and justice. However, the chorus is not completely bloodthirsty as it does return to a description of various peaceful mountains, rivers and valleys at the very end. Another point to notice is the manner in which the chorus echoes the major point of the second scene: the confrontation of the two principal characters of the play. They devote one verse to Dionysus and the next to his antithesis, Pentheus. Dionysus's divine birth from fire and the heavens is sharply contrasted to Pentheus's bestial and earthy origins. Finally, the chorus's ode forms a neat bridge between two scenes as their cry to Dionysus for justice is answered by his booming divine voice offstage.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Bacchae!