Study Guide

Dionysus, Pentheus, and Agave Themes

  • Rules and Order

    No doubt the theme of Rules and Order is a big deal in this myth. For strict King Pentheus, it's everything. The King of Thebes does all he can to keep his city orderly in the face Dionysus' chaotic influence. Unfortunately for Pentheus, he fails miserably, and Dionysus' wild Bacchanals become a fixture in Theban and Greek life for thousands of years. You could interpret the myth as a lesson of what happens when laws become too strict. If people aren't allowed to ever blow off some steam, eventually they're bound to explode.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. In what ways does Pentheus try to keep order in Thebes?
    2. Does Dionysus follow any rules? Explain your answer. 
    3. Do you think Pentheus is right to try and stop the spread of Dionysus' influence? Why, or why not?
    4. In what ways can Dionysus be seen as a foil for the law enforcing Pentheus?
    5. Is this story about the importance of rules, the unimportance of them, or something in between? Explain your answer.
  • Madness

    Dionysus brings a special kind of madness everywhere he goes. It's not just the kind that gets you locked you up in a padded room. (Well it might, but that's not the point.) Dionysus' ritualistic Bacchanals are designed to take his followers into a frenzied state that transports them beyond the normal human world. When the Maenads reach the height of holy madness they become one with him and are capable of awful feats of strength and even magic of a kind. Though it may be horrifying to the law enforcing Pentheus, Dionysus sees his form of madness as a holy rite.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Is Agave to blame for murdering Pentheus in her frenzied state? Why, or why not?
    2. What's the difference between madness and religious fervor? Is there one? Explain your answer.
    3. Why are Dionysus' maddening rituals so horrifying to Pentheus?
    4. Is the madness caused by the Bacchanals of Dionysus a good thing or a bad thing? Explain your answer. 
    5. Check the story of Heracles' madness here. Compare and contrast the theme with the way it pops up in this myth.