Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012Type
.......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.
.......Aristophanes staged The Frogs in
405 BC at winter and spring festivals.
.......The action takes place at the abode
of Heracles, then on the road to Hades, and finally in
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.
Wise-cracking slave of Dionysus.
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
Recently deceased Greek playwright.
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
a comedy, the play is lighthearted and mischievous in
tone. Episodes of slapstick and humorous wordplay are
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
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,
.......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
.......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
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
.......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
.......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,....... Aeschylus counters that because his
characters are virtuous and heroic, they set an example
for people to follow. His characters, he says, are
Where any blunder would at once
by all detected be.
I never blustered on, or took
their breath and wits away
clad in terrible array,
With bells upon their horses'
heads, the audience to dismay.
Heroical souls, who
never would blench from a townsman's duties in peace
or war;....... 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.
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
The greave, and the dart, and
the warrior's heart in its seven-fold casing of tough
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
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.
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
Euripides, and Aeschylus—were 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
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
enemies—convinced that he
is in fact Heracles—threaten
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
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.
Greek Theater: Structure
Definition and Background
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.
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
Sections of the Theater......(1)
A tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area
called a theatron. The theatron faced the
east to allow the audience to view plays—usually staged
later in the day—without
A stage called a proscenium. The
staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to
illuminate the faces of the actors.
An orchestra in front of the proscenium to
accommodate the chorus.
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.
Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
Passage on the left or right through which the chorus
entered the orchestra.
Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make
sacrifices to Dionysus.
Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god"
onto the stage from the heavens.
Study Questions and Essay
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
- 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
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.