Scene i, Lines 170-369
The Chorus remains on stage as Teiresias makes his entrance. Teiresias is old and blind, but is dressed in the fawn skin of the Bacchant. He is known for his wisdom. He calls for Cadmus, who enters, similarly clad, and bent nearly double by age. Cadmus says they must worship Dionysus, since he is the son of Cadmus’s daughter. Cadmus and Teiresias both agree that they feel young enough to dance and forget their age. They agree to walk together to the mountains, to join the worship, even though they will be the only men there. Teiresias says that the god desires worship from everyone, not just the young (and, by implication, not just by women).
Pentheus enters, a young man dressed in traditional Greek clothes. He talks to his attendants, saying that when he was out of the city, reports reached him of strange events taking place, with the women of the town going to the mountains to worship a new god named Dionysus. They drink wine and then go off and take part in lustful acts with men. Pentheus says he has captured some of these worshipers and locked them up in prison. He vows to hunt down the rest, including his mother, Agave, thus putting a stop to the cult.
Pentheus then speaks of a stranger, a foreigner who has come to Thebes from Lydia. He is some kind of magician with long hair who spends time with women and girls, beguiling them with the promise of initiating them into his mysteries. Pentheus wants this man (who is in fact the god Dionysus himself, who is in human form) caught and executed.
Pentheus then sees Cadmus and Teiresias looking ridiculous in their Bacchant fawn skins, and he expresses outrage. He blames Teiresias, accusing him of wanting to make a profit from the rites performed to the new god. It is clear that he loathes the worship of Dionysus, referring to it as “these filthy mysteries.” Teiresias fights back, calling Pentheus stupid. He says that at some point Dionysus will have great power throughout Greece, and he praises the god for inventing wine as a gift to men, so allowing them to ease their sorrows. He also says that Dionysus is a god of prophecy, and has also taken over the functions of Ares, the god of warfare. Dionysus can make an army panic before the battle even starts.
Teiresias urges Pentheus to welcome Dionysus to Thebes, saying that he is not a threat to the chastity of women. He insists that he and Cadmus will worship the god, whatever Pentheus might say.
Cadmus tells Pentheus, his grandson, that Teiresias has spoken well. He also urges that Pentheus treat Dionysus as if he were a god, because this will bestow honor on their family, since it will mean that Semele (who was Pentheus’s aunt) was the mother of a god. He reminds Pentheus about the fate of his cousin, Acteaon, who was torn to pieces by his own dogs.
However, Pentheus is not convinced. He speaks angrily, telling his grandfather not to pass on his madness. He vows to make Dionysus pay. Turning to his attendants, he orders that someone go to the place where Dionysus prophesies, and destroy everything. Then he orders the remaining attendants to find the man and arrest him. Pentheus plans to have him stoned to death.
Teiresias calls Pentheus a fool and a madman. He tells Cadmus that they must go and pray that no divine vengeance strike the city because of Pentheus’s stupidity.
Cadmus and Teiresias exit, and Pentheus retires to the palace.
In this scene there is some ominous foreshadowing of the dark side of the god, Dionysus. (In a literary work, foreshadowing occurs when an author indicates through a hint or a clue some aspect of what will happen later in the story.) Up to this point, the emphasis has been on the celebratory aspect of the cult, but the words of Teiresias suggest the danger and destructiveness that lurk beneath the surface. Teiresias mentions that Actaeon, Pentheus’s cousin, was torn limb from limb by his own dogs because of his pride and boastfulness, his belief that his prowess in hunting surpassed that of Artemis, the goddess. Pentheus is being warned of what can happen when a man challenges a god. The other ominous passage is where Teiresias warns that Dionysus is in a sense as powerful as the war god Ares and can vanquish an entire army before it even lifts its weapons.
Pentheus is clearly an arrogant young man who will not listen to anyone. He is set in his beliefs and has no intention of changing them. He is not interested in understanding or learning or compromising. His immediate reaction to something he does not understand is to attempt to crush it. He ignores the advice of his elders.
Flawed though he may be, Pentheus represents the need for order and rationality, as opposed to the wild, instinctual lawlessness of the Bacchae. He sees the worship of Dionysus as a threat to civil order and acts accordingly.
For the audience, the visual contrasts in the characters are very noticeable. Pentheus is young, athletic, and fit. His appearance is impressive, whereas Cadmus and Teiresias are old and decrepit, and look absurd in their fawn skins, with ivy on their heads. But it is the old who possess wisdom. They recognize the power of the god and are able to accommodate themselves to it. In modern parlance, they “go with the flow,” recognizing that what Dionysus represents is an important aspect of human life and must be enjoyed and respected.