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The Bacchae | Episode 2 | Summary

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Summary

Dionysus makes his return in the guise of the Lydian stranger, whose capture, the soldier tells Pentheus, was remarkably easy. As Dionysus enters the palace courtyard, led by the guard who captured him, Pentheus is visibly pleased. For his part, the soldier feels bad for arresting the man, who was extraordinarily polite. He surrendered willingly and laughed as he invited his captors to tie him up.

Although the Bacchic priest has been captured, the Bacchae have escaped and remain at large. They were able to disappear into the forest to continue their revelries. In fact, their disappearance was somewhat miraculous. The chains fell off their feet, and doors opened of their own accord. The soldier comments, "This man here / has come to Thebes full of amazing tricks."

But Pentheus is too excited about interrogating the prisoner to reconsider his plan. He wants to know by what authority the priest has brought these new religious rites to Thebes. Upon hearing it was the god himself who initiated the stranger, Pentheus proceeds to insult Dionysus's birth story. He then demands to know the details of the Bacchic rites, but the stranger declares him unfit to know.

Enraged at the rejection, Pentheus threatens to cut off the stranger's hair, destroy all his religious artifacts, and imprison him indefinitely. When the stranger calmly replies his god will release him and punish Pentheus, the young king loses his last shred of composure. He orders the stranger to be locked away in the palace stables.

Analysis

Pentheus reveals he is hardly in command of his emotions. While the audience may worry that Dionysus represents the irrational, it learns the representative of law and social mores is not himself an entirely reasonable person. It may be Euripides's intention to show that human primal urges are far more ancient than any social construct.

Initially, Pentheus believes he has the upper hand. It becomes clear, however, it is Dionysus—in disguise as the stranger—who is in command. Pentheus cannot recognize this. He cannot control the rites, because he cannot learn them—the stranger refuses to share his knowledge. He does not even know the stranger simply handed himself over in the first place, but instead believes he is in control of the arrest. Unfortunately for Pentheus, authority in the form of a title—King of Thebes—does not translate to the authority provided by knowledge. Someone ill equipped for a position of power, that is, someone young and ignorant, impetuous and arrogant, is unlikely to be truly in control. Instead, the real power is in the hands of the one who knows. In this case, it is Dionysus.

At first glance, Pentheus's combination of fascination with, and repulsion by, the mysterious activities he's heard described seems odd, but it is worth remembering that Dionysian rituals were indeed mysterious. The religion involves group rapture—dancing, wine, music, and some sort of ecstatic release utterly unheard of before now—all of it out in the wilds, away from the orderly confines of the city. Not only that, but the group dresses in peculiar costumes—fawn skin, ivy garlands—and they carry leafy staffs.

The imagination can run rampant when a person has little understanding. For Pentheus, seeing the effeminate stranger only amplifies both his distaste and his curiosity. The stranger's body ("not unsuitable for women's pleasure"), hair (it's long ... It flows across your cheeks" and is "most seductive"), and skin ("You've looked after it") are all inspected and evaluated by the young king. He is both affronted and attracted.

With the stranger's refusal to tell him anything about the rituals, Pentheus's emotions overcome him. He believes he can overpower the god: lock up the stranger, cut off his hair, and take his symbolic thyrsus. Dionysus's response is, in part, to foreshadow Pentheus's impending doom. When Pentheus tells the stranger his name, Dionysus responds, "A suitable name. It suggests misfortune." Throughout their exchange, it is clear the stranger, bound as he may be, is free. It is Pentheus who is imprisoned by his emotions and his overwhelming desire to control the stranger and his followers, and to return Thebes to its former condition of stability.

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