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The Frogs
By Aristophanes (450-388 BC)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
First Performance
Setting
Characters
Tone
Historical Background
Plot Summary
Themes
Climax
Irony
Greek Theater
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Author's Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012

Type of Work

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The Frogs is a stage comedy that satirizes the quality of Athenian tragic drama in 405 BC, the year after the last of the three greatest Greek tragedians, Euripides, died. The other two, Sophocles and Aeschylus, had preceded him in death.

 
First Performance

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Aristophanes staged The Frogs in 405 BC at winter and spring festivals.


Setting

.......The action takes place at the abode of Heracles, then on the road to Hades, and finally in Hades itself.

Characters

Dionysus: Greek god of drama, wine, and revelry. He plans to bring a dead playwright back from the Underworld to restore quality to Greek drama and show beleaguered Athens how to become great again.
Xanthias: Wise-cracking slave of Dionysus.
Heracles: Greek strongman who tells Dionysus and Xanthias how to get to the Underworld. Heracles (known to the Romans as Hercules) once went there himself to capture Cerberus, a three-headed dog, as one of his twelve labors.
Euripides: Recently deceased Greek playwright.
Aeschylus: Reigning lord of drama in the Underworld.
Sophocles: Another of the deceased playwrights. He was the author of Oedipus Rex and Antigone, two of the most popular and revered of all Greek plays.
Charon: Boatman who ferries the dead across a river to the entrance of the Underworld.
Hades: God of the Underworld. The Underworld is also known as Hades.
Aeacus: Doorman in Hades.
Assistants of Aeacus
Maidservant: Attendant of Persophone, the goddess of the Underworld.
Hostess: Woman who hosts and manages the eatery in the Underworld.
Plathane: Servant in the Underworld who works with the hostess.
Corpse: Dead man in the Underworld. Dionysus asks him to carry his baggage. The dead man refuses because Dionysus does not offer him a big enough tip.
Chorus of Frogs
Chorus of Mystics

Tone

.......As a comedy, the play is lighthearted and mischievous in tone. Episodes of slapstick and humorous wordplay are first rate.

Historical Background

.......At the time that Aristophanes staged the play, Athens was losing the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) to Sparta. A year later (404 BC), Athens surrendered after the destruction of its naval fleet. Aristophanes attributed the decline of Athens to ineffective leadership, weakened freedom of speech, the bellicosity of the Athenian empire, and rejection of traditional values. In earlier times, Aristophanes says, the great playwrights Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides wrote and staged tragedies that called attention to the failings of society and showed the people how to turn these failings into successes. But these playwrights were all dead by 406 BC. Thus he had his idea for The Frogs: to go to Hades to bring back to earth a playwright who will save Athens with the wisdom he imparts in his tragedies. 

Plot Summary

.......The god Dionysus bemoans the mediocrity of tragic plays that Greek authors have been staging lately. These plays cannot compare to those of the deceased tragedian Euripides. But what if Dionysus could bring Euripides back from the dead? Dionysus—the god of stage drama, as well as wine and revelry—decides to go to Hades to attempt the feat. Accompanying him is his trusty slave, Xanthias.
.......First, they stop to see Heracles to get directions. Heracles had once visited the infernal regions to capture Cerberus, the three-headed dog that stands guard at the entrance to Hades. On their way to the house of Heracles, Xanthias complains that the pack he bears on his shoulders is getting too heavy for him even though he is riding on a donkey. To lighten his burden a little, he wants to crack jokes that pack bearers speak in the plays of certain dramatists. But Dionysus doesn't like the jokes and won't let Xanthias tell them. Besides, Dionysus says, it is impossible for Xanthias to be tired from bearing a burden when it is the donkey that is doing all the carrying.
.......When they arrive at the abode of Heracles, the great strongman laughs at the getup of Dionysus. In imitation of Heracles, the foppish god is wearing a lion skin and carrying a club. Dionysus tells Heracles that while reading Euripides's Andromeda, he felt a nostalgic pang—a longing for the dramas of the dead playwright. There is no one left quite like him. When Heracles notes that Iophon is still alive, Dionysus acknowledges that Iophon--the son of Sophocles--is a worthy writer. But even he does not quite measure up to Euripides. (In dramatic competition in 428 BC, Euripides won the first prize and Iophon the second). After they discuss other writers, Dionysus asks Heracles about the trip he made to the Underworld. Dionysus wants to know what friends Heracles stayed with along the way and asks him to recommend shops, rest stops, restaurants, and lodging places with the fewest bugs.
.......When Dionysus asks Heracles which is the quickest route to the Underworld, Heracles tells him he could hang or poison himself, or he could jump off a mountain. Dionysus rejects these measures and inquires how Heracles reached the Underworld. Heracles then gives directions, telling Dionysus about a lake he must cross, the snakes and monsters that line the passageways, and the seas of dung that he will encounter.
.......As Dionysus and Xanthias approach Hades, they meet Charon, the boatman who ferries the dead across the lake to the entrance to the Underworld. After Dionysus steps into Charon's boat, Charon refuses to take Xanthias. As a slave, he must walk around the lake. Charon makes Dionysus man the oars. As they cross the lake, a chorus of frogs begins croaking. The sound annoys Dionysus, and he tells them so. But the frogs say the Muses like their music. (On Mount Olympus near the throne of Zeus sat lesser goddesses known as Muses, who were nine in number. They regaled the Olympians with songs of the gods and of earthly heroes and history.) So do Pan (god of the woodlands) and Apollo (god of music, prophecy, medicine, and the sun). When Dionysus orders them to stop, they croak on. At the other side of the lake, Dionysus pays Charon and meets up with Xanthias. When Dionysus and Xanthias proceed on their journey, they run into a chorus of mystics. When Dionysus asks the way to the house of the god of the Underworld, the chorus tells him he has arrived at his very door. Dionysus entreats entry, identifying himself as Heracles the strong. Aeacus, the doorkeeper, bears a terrible grudge against Heracles for taking Cerberus. Consequently, he threatens the visitor with hell hounds, an asp with a hundred heads, a lamprey (which feeds on the blood of others), and other monsters. While Aeacus runs off to fetch them, Dionysus quakes with fear. Xanthias calls him a coward.
.......“If you're so very brave,” Dionysus says, “take the hero's club and lion's skin . . . and I'll be now the slave, and bear the luggage.”
.......After they trade identities, a maid comes out and addresses Xanthias as Heracles. When her mistress heard of his presence, the maid says, she baked bread, made lentil soup, roasted an ox, made honey cakes, wine, and other goodies. While eating, he will be able to watch dancing girls. Xanthias says he'll be right in and, addressing Dionysus as his slave, orders him to pick up their belongings and follow him. But Dionysus takes back the lion skin, once again becoming Heracles. However, the hostess of the Underworld tavern comes out and tells her associate, Plathane, that Heracles has returned. She says he is the man who entered their tavern once and ate sixteen loaves of bread and great quantities of stew, garlic, fish, and cheese. When she told him the price of his meal, he drew his sword in anger, then left the premises. After she calls for more help, Plathane says he would like to throw the visitor into the “dead man's pit.”
.......Dionysus begs Xanthias to wear the Heracles outfit once again, swearing that he will never again ask him to take it off. With that proviso, Xanthias agrees and they exchange identities once more.
.......Aeacus returns and once more threatens “Heracles.” When Xanthias tells him to keep back, Aeacus calls his monsters. Xanthias then says he is innocent of the charges against him. To support his claim, he suggests that Aeacus torture his slave (Dionysus) to get at the truth. Xanthias recommends methods: “Pile bricks upon him: stuff his nose with acid: flay, rack him, hoist him; flog him with a scourge of prickly bristles.” Aeacus decides in favor of torture and tells Dionysus he must speak the truth while suffering his agony. Dionysus then tells Aeacus that he is a god, the son of Zeus, and says Xanthias is his slave. Xanthias replies that he and Dionysus should both be tortured. If Dionysus cries out in pain, Xanthias says, then he cannot be a god. Aeacus beats both of them in turn, and both pretend not to feel pain. When Aeacus asks Dionysus why tears are running from his eyes, Dionysus says, “There's such a smell of onions.”
.......Unable to determine which one is the god, Aeacus invites them into the abode of the king and queen of Hades. The royal couple will find out the truth.
.......After Aeacus learns that Xanthias is the slave, he seems to bond with him. After all, Aeacus himself is a servant. He admits that he likes to curse his master and eavesdrop on his conversations so that he can blab his master's secrets to everyone. When Xanthias hears people arguing, he asks Aeacus what is happening. The latter says an argument is in progress about who is the better tragic playwright: Aeschylus or Euripides, a newcomer to the Underworld. Before Euripides died, Aeschylus was the Underworld's undisputed master of tragedy, earning him the right to sit next to Hades at supper. But after Euripides died and entered the Underworld, he entertained the ghostly rabble with stories, and everyone went crazy over him. At supper, he demanded the seat occupied by Aeschylus. Hades then decided to hold a contest to determine which playwright deserved the seat.
.......When Xanthias asks why the great playwright Sophocles didn't claim the chair, Aeacus says Sophocles was content to let Aeschylus have it. However, if Euripides defeats Aeschylus in the contest, Sophocles “will fight to the death” against him, Aeacus says.
.......When Aeschylys and Euripides compete, their artistry will be weighed on scales, like meat. Measuring tapes will be applied to words. Levels, wedges, and compasses will also be used. Because Dionysus is an expert in drama, he is to judge the contest.
.......After the contest begins, the two playwrights spar verbally. Euripides declares that his character portrayals are realistic and therefore true to life. He says,
I showed them scenes of common life, the things we know and see,
Where any blunder would at once by all detected be.
I never blustered on, or took their breath and wits away
By Cycnuses or Memnons clad in terrible array,
With bells upon their horses' heads, the audience to dismay.
....... Aeschylus counters that because his characters are virtuous and heroic, they set an example for people to follow. His characters, he says, are
Heroical souls, who never would blench from a townsman's duties in peace or war;
Not idle loafers, or low buffoons, or rascally scamps such as now they are.
But men who were breathing spears and helms, and the snow-white plume in its crested pride
The greave, and the dart, and the warrior's heart in its seven-fold casing of tough bull-hide.
....... The writers go back and forth on originality and on technical and stylistic matters such as meter, verse, and lyricism. Then scales are brought in to weigh the words of the verbal combatants. Euripides and Aeschylus both speak lines about heavy things, such as a ship or a river. But Aeschylus tips the scales in his favor with the weightiest words. So confident now is Aeschylus that he says Euripides may put himself, his wife, his children, and his complete works on the scales; Aeschylus will outdo him with only two lines of verse.
.......Dionysus by now is on the side of Aeschylus. Euripides is too liberal, Dionysus thinks. He embraces the sophist philosophy (see Beware of New Voices under Themes) and fails to uphold traditional moral values.
.......After the two playwrights offer their views on the war Greece is fighting, Dionysus decides to take Aeschylus back to the land of the living. Before leaving, Aeschylus says Sophocles—not Euripides—should now reign as the top playwright in Hades.

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Themes

The Need to Return to Traditional Values

....... Beneath the comedy lies a serious message: the citizens of Athens need to return to traditional values, as expressed in the plays of Aeschylus, if they are to survive as a great people. At the time that Aristophanes staged the play, Athens was losing the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) to Sparta. In 404, Athens surrendered after the destruction of its fleet. Aristophanes attributed the decline of Athens to ineffective leadership, weakened freedom of speech, the bellicosity of the Athenian empire, and rejection of traditional values. In earlier times, great playwrights wrote and staged dramas that called attention to the failings of society and showed the people how to turn these failings into successes. But the greatest playwrightsSophocles, Euripides, and Aeschyluswere all dead by 405. Aristophanes decides to go to Hades to bring back to earth a playwright who will save Athens with the wisdom that the playwright imparts in his plays. 

The Exalted Role of Playwrights


....... As wise observers of human beings and interpreters of their ideas and actions, playwrights hold an exalted position in ancient Greece. The fact that Dionysus is willing to enter the infernal regions to bring back a playwright emphasizes the importance of playwrights to the health of the state.    

Beware of New Voices in Education


....... New voices in education—such as those of the sophists—pose a danger to the state. The sophists were traveling teachers who provided an education for a fee. They maintained that the guiding principles of a society, such as justice and truth, were relative concepts–that is, these principles changed according to the needs of men in a particular time and place. What was right and just in Athens was not necessarily right and just in another society. One man's virtue could be another man's vice. When the sophists urged their students to challenge traditional views of religion, morality, and even the existence of deities, they stirred considerable controversy. Moreover, because the sophists used highly developed rhetorical skills to communicate their ideas, many Greeks accused them of deliberately manipulating words to distort the truth or impose their views on others. Aeschylus associates Euripides with the sophist reputation for corrupting morals when he says that Euripides is guilty of “foisting thy tales of incest on the stage.”
....... The sophists also received criticism for the high fees they charged for their instruction. Other teachers—Socrates, for example—taught their lessons free of charge.

The Folly of Deception


....... Dionysus disguises himself as Heracles, wearing a lion skin and carrying a club, to appear formidable to those he meets on the way to Hades. However, his deception backfires when his enemiesconvinced that he is in fact Heraclesthreaten him. Spooked by their threats, Dionysus makes Xanthias wear the Heracles disguise.

Climax

.......The climax occurs when Dionysus chooses Aeschylus over Euripides because of the former's emphasis in his plays on traditional values and writing standards.

Irony

.......Unintentional irony appears to play a significant role in the play. Consider that Aristophanes satirizes the sophists (represented by Euripides) for cleverly manipulating language to gain the advantage in an argument. But in the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides, Aeschylus—whom Aristophanes extols as the supreme dramatist—uses clever wordplay again and again to attack Euripides.
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Greek Theater: Structure

Definition and Background

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.....The Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage, and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dionysia, the Greeks danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories. One day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue, to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging them in a theater. 
....."A contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the ‘tyrant' whom the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals, and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate them. 

Major Sections of the Theater
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.....(1) A tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron faced the east to allow the audience to view playsusually staged later in the daywithout squinting. 
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors. 
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
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Other Theater Sections

.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery. 
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene. 
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra. 
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus. 
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.

Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Aristophanes centers one of his themes on moral values that playwrights espouse in their dramas. In an essay, argue that moral laws never change; what changes is people's view of morality. For example, slavery was never morally right; people just thought that it was. Use library and Internet research to support your thesis.
  • Write an essay arguing that the sophists of ancient Greece were a good influence, a bad influence, or both. Be sure to include a definition of sophist in your essay. Use library and Internet research to support your thesis.
  • Compare and contrast the comedy team of Dionysus and Xanthias with a comedy team from the movies (such as Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy).
  • Playwrights today not only write stage comedies and tragedies but also movie scripts. What do you think would be the opinion of Aristophanes about modern movies in general? Explain your answer.