During a confrontation with Pentheus in Episode 2 Dionysus cautions him “Let fools be warned. Place no chains on me.” Explain the symbolic and thematic significance of that statement. There is an abundance of binding imagery in The Bacchae, especially significant in Pentheus’ sexual repression and his relationship with Dionysus. At the start, Pentheus is obsessed with instilling social order and containing his sexual desires, all the while completely oblivious to his true character. Through binding imagery, Pentheus’ repression is exposed and Dionysus exploits these weaknesses, ultimately leading to his destruction. The first time Pentheus appears in the story is when “evildoers” have invaded Thebes and he accuses them of honoring a god whom he does not believe exists (Dionysus). The ideals that are advocated by the Dionysian cult are all the values that Pentheus is both drawn to and fear: sexual promiscuity, freedom, and utter chaos. Upon his return, Pentheus orders all of the criminals to be chained up, bound “in iron fetters” in order to stop them from performing such blasphemous acts. However, Pentheus is utterly ignorant to the higher powers he is up against and his reliance on mortal authority only serves to highlight this foolishness.
Just as Pentheus cannot simply stop the Bacchic movement by binding them in chains, he cannot simply repress his own feelings by trying to repress others more. It is here that Dionysus’ begins to actively exploit Pentheus’ character flaws through mockery. In fact, Dionysus’ powers magically remove the chains from the Maenads and mock Pentheus’ inability to understand the magnitude of the god’s power and authority. Dionysus mockery is evident in his willingness to remain bound under Pentheus’ superficial authority. The complete lack of power that Pentheus holds over Dionysus is almost comical in the face of his arrogance and lack of control.
Through magically removing the chains from the Maenads and allowing them to resume their rituals, Dionysus is demonstrating the magnitude of his supernatural powers—powers that Pentheus still cannot recognize as signs that the god is real and should be respected as such. The most blatant example of pentheus arrogance and misplaced aggressiveness is when Dionysus cautions him “I warn you not to bind me, since I am balanced and you are not.” And to this Pentheus replies, “And I, more powerful than you, bid them to bind you.” The binding to which Pentheus refers holds no power of Dionysus and the utter insignificance of Pentheus’ imagined control is revealed most blatantly. Knowledge is not wisdom. A knowing mind that ignores its own limits has a very short span. Analyze this theme as it has been developed so far.
“Knowledge is not wisdom: cleverness is not, not without awareness of our death, not without recalling just how brief our flare is. He who overreaches will, in his overreaching, lose what he possesses, betray what he has now. That which is beyond us, which is greater than the human, the unattainably great, is for the mad, or for those who listen to the mad, and then believe them.” One of the biggest types of knowledge emphasized in The Bacchae is self-knowledge, and more importantly the necessity of balance in one’s mind. Pentheus possesses none of this balance. His young mind is completely conflicted by a deep, subconscious yearning for the forbidden, both in his sexuality and his lifestyle. Throughout the play, Dionysus and Pentheus are contrasted. One is the intellectual, rational, linguistic knowledge we might call “cleverness”; the other is a more organic knowledge born of physicality, instinct and custom, which we might call “wisdom”. So wisdom is not cleverness. This great opposition is what drives the play and is best brought out in the scenes of dialog between Pentheus and Dionysus. Pentheus is a clever and persuasive man, but he is not wise.
He comes to embody a cluster of attributes that are held in opposition to Dionysus, the god. Pentheus is utterly mortal, and his power pales in comparison to that of Dionysus, and his ignorance of this fact is what destroys his. Teiresias is the only mortal main character who escapes tragedy at the close of the play. There has to be something unique in his character that allows him to be saved. It is the balance of his mind which saves him. He has managed to achieve a balance of both rational and free thinking. He has accepted both parts of human nature and with this complete self-knowledge escapes death. It is not safe to be like Pentheus and be aware only of reason in man’s nature, as he is in the beginning. Nor is it safe to be aware only of the furious passionate side of man, as Agave is while she romps as a Maenad. It is the balance of both that allows one to survive. One must know the limits of their strength and know who they truly are and accept the fragility of their mortal life. Justice is balanced and one must know that “our days are but as dust,” and “to be content with that and love each living part is our only strength.”