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As he does in Scene II, Dionysus takes the stage and calls upon Pentheus to enter. Pentheus, "so eager to see what [he] should not see, and strive to achieve what should not be sought," enters dressed as a female bacchant. It is the god Dionysus who now overtly controls the conversation and manipulates Pentheus as he would a puppet. The transvestite Pentheus, stung by a little Dionysian madness, sees everything double and hallucinates, believing that the Stranger is a bull. They converse in couplets, mostly about what Pentheus is wearing and how he looks. The foolish king is very pleased with his costume and asks Dionysus whether he walks and stands like his mother. Dionysus humors the vain and ridiculous king, even tucking in a stray curl. Just as a director would correct an actor, or a parent a child, Dionysus arranges Pentheus's hair, skirt and posture. The god pretends to serve the king but begins to allude that a special fate awaits him. Pentheus is excited about his mission and cannot wait to catch the maenads. With each line, Pentheus's pathetic sense of self- importance grows, as does the violence in Dionysus's warnings. The scene ends with a speedy, dramatic exchange between the two in half-lines, where Dionysus declares that Pentheus will be brought back to Thebes in a special state and at the hands of his mother. Dionysus hustles Pentheus out and declares himself the winner of this contest.
Bloodthirsty and vengeful, this fourth song resembles the third in form but not in tone or metre. The excited women in the chorus summon the spirit of Frenzy and urge it to the mountaintop, which Pentheus, at that moment, climbs towards. They imagine the mad Agaue standing on a cliff, catching the lurking Pentheus and crying out to her fellow maenads to attack him. The chorus' imagining of the scene is not a foreshadowing of the exact details of Pentheus's death, but rather a re-working of the cowherd's account of the attack on the cattle. The chorus sings about Pentheus's vicious impiety and stresses the dangers of failing to honor the gods and lead a balanced life. The chorus summons Dionysus in his awesome, bestial forms of bull, snake, and lion and demands the blood of Pentheus.
In this last encounter between the two principle characters, the audience sees a fully transformed Pentheus. He has compromised his social authority, his sexuality, identity, and even his mind. The king is now ready to be led into Dionysus's hilly realm, chained by fawnskins, garlands and long hair. Pentheus's transformation is not just external but internal, and this is shown by his thinking that he sees a double sun. In the Greek literary tradition, seeing a double sun symbolized insanity and here Pentheus's sighting of the double sun signals the complete disintegration of his mind. Ironically, it is in his mad state that Pentheus sees the true form of the Stranger—as a horned bull. As in many other parts of the play, this inversion of sanity and madness points to the power Dionysus yields over the human mind and the folly of trying to control Dionysus with reason.
This cross-dressing scene has many levels of meanings that are both tragic and comic. If examined in ritual terms, this final encounter can be called two things. First, it is an epiphany, or a true appearance, of the god in his bull- like form (see Symbols). The bacchants crave such an appearance of the god at all times and this is his second such appearance, the first being the divine voice heard in the third scene. Second, it is also a "dedication" of Pentheus as a sacrifice to the god. Pentheus is ritually dressed, prepared, and led to the slaughter, all for the glory of the god. Third, the scene also uses the bacchic ritual structure of procession-to-contest-to-celebration. Pentheus is not mystically transformed or reborn, as in bacchic rituals, for, after all, this is a charade of a ritual. Pentheus is guilty not only of denying Dionysus and insulting him but also of being a sacrilegious imposter who wishes to spy on the god's devotees. This scene suggests that because Pentheus has infringed upon the rituals of Dionysus, it is fitting that he die in a ritual fashion. On yet another level, the god shows how Pentheus—who had all along claimed that bacchic rites were a charade and a cover for drunken misbehavior and sexual transgression—will find out how real these bacchic rituals are. If examined in theatrical terms, this final encounter also becomes richly self- referential, as Euripides calls attention to the theater's creation of illusion, the use of masks, and the place of what is true and what is false. More specifically, this is a comic reference to the tradition in Greek drama of the role of women being played by men. Besides a humorous gesture to theater, this scene also illustrates the more serious and dangerous aspects of that art. Pentheus is shown to completely lose his identity as a man and as a king and end up being seduced by the role he is playing. He is so lost in his part that he cannot see the death that awaits him, even when Dionysus explicitly states it. Here, acting transforms not just one's physical appearance but also one's being. Second, Dionysus, the god of theater, is himself playing a role while directing the entire charade and thus once more demonstrates his mastery over truth, illusion and man. Perhaps actors are truly at the mercy of the theatre gods.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Bacchae!