Pentheus enters, and several attendants appear, leading Dionysus captive. The attendant says that Dionysus offered no resistance and showed no fear. The attendant felt ashamed of what he was doing, telling Dionysus that was arresting him only because he was acting under orders.
The attendant also reports that the women Pentheus imprisoned are now free. Their chains just snapped apart and the prison doors opened; no human action caused these events. The attendant tells Pentheus that this stranger they have brought to him is full of miracles.
Pentheus orders that Dionysus’s hands be untied. He then begins to interrogate him, demanding to know who he is and where he comes from. Dionysus replies that he comes from Mount Timolus, in Lydia. Pentheus asks him who the new god is that he has imported into Greece, and Dionysus replies that the god is Dionysus, who initiated him into his rites, face to face. Pentheus inquires what the rites are, but Dionysus replies that they can only be disclosed to those who have been initiated. Nor can he disclose what the benefits are that initiates receive.
Pentheus asks what form the god took, and Dionysus replies that the god took any form he wished. When asked whether Thebes is the first city that has been introduced to the rites of Dionysus, Dionysus replies no, that foreigners everywhere are worshiping him. Pentheus replies that foreigners are more ignorant than Greeks, but Dionysus disagrees.
Dionysus goes on to say, under questioning, that his rites are held by night, which gives Pentheus an opportunity to imply that such rites involve lechery. Dionysus continues to parry Pentheus’s questions; he is not intimidated by Pentheus’s position of authority. He inquires about what punishment he is to receive. Pentheus cuts off his long hair, over Dionysus’s protests, who says his hair is holy. Next, Pentheus takes Dionysus’s staff, or thyrsus, which was covered by tendrils of vine or ivy and with a pine cone on top.
Pentheus then says he will place Dionysus under guard in the palace, to which Dionysus responds that the god will free himself whenever he wants. Irked by this and similar responses from Dionysus, Pentheus tells his attendants to seize him. Dionysus warns him not to put any chains on him, but Pentheus says he will because he is the stronger force. Dionysus replies that Pentheus does not know what he is doing and will regret it.
Pentheus does not listen. He orders Dionysus to be taken away and chained up in the stables next to the palace, in the dark. He also promises to sell Dionysus’s female followers into slavery or put them to work at his looms.
After Pentheus exits, Dionysus remains defiant as he is led away, saying that he will gain revenge for the outrage committed against him.
This one-on-one encounter between Pentheus and Dionysus is at the dramatic heart of the play. It is the first of three such meetings between Pentheus and Dionysus in which the disposition of power between them is shown to gradually shift. This first encounter is full of irony, because the one who appears to have all the power (Pentheus) in fact has none, and the one who appears as a victim (Dionysus) cannot in truth be controlled or mastered by any human actor. For a modern performance of the play (although such performances are rare), the general lack of stage directions gives the actors plenty of scope about how to interpret the two roles. Dionysus, although he speaks defiant and menacing words, no doubt retains his calm throughout. (He is referred to as “smiling” at the time of his arrest, [line 439]; in ancient performances, the actor playing Dionysus would have worn a smiling mask throughout.) Dionysus himself says that he is not capable of suffering, so Pentheus’s accusations and rough manner cannot have the same effect on him that it might have on a mere man. For his part, Pentheus is plainly angry at this impertinent stranger and the threat he represents to Pentheus’s authority. However, Pentheus, although he is an impatient man, does not lose his temper and, quite probably, he retains his regal bearing. He likes to think he is in control and is confident that he will emerge as the victor. Needless to say, he has (as Dionysus points out), no idea of what or who he is dealing with.
In psychological terms, Pentheus represents rationality, sobriety, and self-control. The qualities of instinct, passion, desire, joy, abandonment to ecstasy, all of which are part of Dionysus’s realm, are foreign to him. He distrusts and dislikes such qualities, and can see in the Dionysus cult only evidence of immorality. Since he does not understand such human passions, he discounts their power. Nor does it occur to him that the same mysterious power that freed the captive women can also free Dionysus.