Euripides uses hunting as a central motif in the play, and it holds a defining place in several relationships, the roles of hunter and hunted shifting, or reversing, as the relationships change. First, Dionysus begins in the position of the hunted, the quarry of Pentheus and his men. Soon, the god inverts this relationship. Second, the chorus, in its odes, explicitly uses the hunting motif, identifying with the hunted Stranger early in the play, and as his position changes, so does their identification and imagery. This inversion is clearly demarcated in Interlude III. The Chorus first celebrates a fawn's escape from hunters as it races joyfully by the woods and river. But the free fawn changes into the divine hunter, returning for revenge upon his one-time pursuer: "the gods keep/ hidden in subtle ways/ the long foot of time, and/ hunt down the impious one." Third, Agaue returns to the palace, demented, boasting of her catch, which she refers to as "a fortunate quarry indeed." The instant she regains her senses, she stops using the word "hunt," and instead uses the word "murder"—demonstrating once again the fundamental danger contained within Dionysus.
Much of the tension and action of the play comes about due to two important disguises, that is, Dionysus disguised as the Stranger, and Pentheus as the female bacchant. The use of disguise was a comment on theater itself and its powers. More specifically, Pentheus's disguise resonates in other ways. Bacchic ritual often involved costumed enactments representing the death of an old self and the rebirth of a new self dedicated to the deity. Pentheus, not a willing devotee but an impious imposter, is literally killed after being dressed by Dionysus, with no possibility of being reborn into the cult. Pentheus's cross- dressing echoes the common Greek notion of the rite of passage, usually from boyhood to manhood and the position of warrior. In this sense, Pentheus's cross- dressing would have appeared to Ancient Greek audiences as a failed rite of passage, since he never realizes his transformation and induction into the cult.
Nature's Gifts and Curses
Dionysus, in his human form as the Stranger, acts upon people, and in his divine form acts upon nature. These supernatural acts have two distinct modes, which reproduce the duality of his creativity and destructiveness. On the one hand, earthquakes, fires, and flashes of white light destroy the royal palace and wreak havoc. On the other, the maenads experience the positive side of his supernatural powers, receiving the gifts of the earth: wine, honey and milk issue forth from the ground for them.