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The Bacchae


Scene III & Interlude III

Summary Scene III & Interlude III


The longest and pivotal scene of the play is divided into three parts: the palace miracles told twice; the cowherd's account of the fantastical activities of the maddened bacchants on the mountain; the second exchange between Pentheus and Dionysus in which Pentheus agrees to dress up as a woman.

The divine voice of Dionysus is heard from offstage and is solemn, grand and terrifying and this commanding and powerful form of the god is directly contrasted with the Stranger, who walks on stage straight after. The Stranger is calm, collected, and even a little amused. Dionysus the god is clearly different from Dionysus in disguise, and yet they are the same. Moreover they exist in their different forms simultaneously, as is shown in the double telling of the same miracles. While the audience and the chorus were hearing the divine god give the command for the earthquake, the Stranger was inside the palace torturing Pentheus.

Since the start of the play Dionysus has been demonstrating the range and intensity of his powers. While the initial powers were benign and peaceful, he is now beginning to show his fearful aspect. Dionysus first uses force to (literally) shake up Pentheus and his palace, then illusion to neutralize Pentheus' brute physical responses. All the series of little illusions—Pentheus wrestling with a bull, running around the palace in panic and battling with shadows—are meant to be somewhat comic. Dionysus is beginning to strip the king of his so called powers and turn him into an object of ridicule.

The toppling of the palace is both a visual symbol for Pentheus's collapsing authority and a sign of the imminent disintegration of his sanity, for Pentheus will soon be dismantled psychologically. Dionysus knows that Pentheus has a rather obsessive fascination with the secret activities of the maenads and so the Stranger uses this to bait the king. Pentheus is completely enraptured with the idea and thus agrees to dress up as a woman. Pentheus's inability to make sensible decisions is clearly exposed. By the end of this scene not only have the roles of king and prisoner inverted themselves, but so have the male-female and hunter-prey relationships. This last switch of hunter-prey is picked up by the chorus in the third and most poetic interlude of the play. The song opens with a sensation of joyful relief, expressed in the simile of a fawn who has escaped its hunter and is running in the forest free and alone. In contrast the chorus' now clamor for sweet revenge. They call their god a hunter who has begun to destroy the impious Pentheus. In just this one simile the chorus points to the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Dionysus and his rites. By recapitulating the recent power shift using bacchic motifs, the chorus turns the story of Pentheus into yet another story of the triumph of their god and thus acts as the perfect propaganda machine.