First performed in 405 BC at the Lenaea—an annual Athenian festival in honor of Dionysus—The Frogs is one of Aristophanes’ comic masterpieces. It was inspired by the death of Euripides (406 BC), one of the three great Athenian playwrights, and it follows the attempt of Dionysus (the patron god of drama) and his disrespectful slave Xanthias to bring him back to earth from the Underworld. However, this proves a tricky endeavor. First, the two have problems convincing a corpse to help them with their luggage to the Underworld and then Dionysus has to row Charon’s boat in the Infernal Lake by himself, while an irritating chorus of frogs accompanies them with an onomatopoeic song. After encountering a seductive serving-girl and two angry women, the two strange travelers are whipped by Aeacus, usually one of the judges of the Underworld, but here a doorkeeper and loyal servant of Pluto, the ruler of the realm. Finally, the two reach Euripides, but Aeschylus (another great tragedian), is right next to him. To decide which of the two to take back to Athens, Dionysus proposes a contest between the two great playwrights. However, the funny contest decides nothing even after lasting for some time, so finally Pluto forces Dionysus to choose. The god of drama chooses the one he personally prefers: Aeschylus. Leaving the angry Euripides behind, Dionysus, his slave and Aeschylus leave for Athens with an intention to save tragedy and the city—as both things were in dire condition in 405 BC.
Date and Historical Background
The Frogs was first performed in 405 BC at the Lenaea, one of the Athenian festivals of Dionysus; very unusually, it seems to have been given a repeat production very soon after: either at the Dionysia of the same year, or at the Lenaea of the following one. The original production of The Frogs won first prize, Phrynichus being second with The Muses, and Plato Comicus third with Cleophon.
We know this from an ancient prose synopsis (“hypothesis”) prefixed to the play in most of its medieval manuscripts. We also know, from fragments of the losing plays, that all three tragedies shared themes with The Frogs—both political and literary. This shouldn’t strike us as strange: at the time, Athens was running short of money to build and man her ships and was losing the Peloponnesian War against Sparta (Athens would surrender a year or so after The Frogs was first performed).
Moreover, Euripides died in 406 BC, and soon after, Sophocles died as well. Aristophanes’ play was probably in an advanced stage when the latter happened, so he couldn’t make the appropriate adjustments to take account of the situation. And even though he did make a few, some scholars believe that The Frogs is a compromise: originally, they think the play was supposed to be about the contest for the throne of poetry in the Underworld.
Characters and Setting
• Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, and also patron deity of the theatre
• Xanthias, Dionysus’ slave
• Heracles, the greatest Greek hero and brother of Dionysus
• Corpse, an anonymous, recently deceased person
• Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld
• Pluto, the god of the Underworld
• Aeacus, a doorkeeper of the palace of Pluto
• A female servant of Persephone
• Plandokeutria and Plathane, innkeepers
• Aeschylus, the oldest of Athens’ three great tragedians
• Euripides, the youngest of Athens’ three greatest tragedians (recently deceased)
• First chorus of frogs (singing/dancing group in costumes)
• Second (main) chorus of the Eleusinian initiates in the Underworld
The prologue starts before the house of Heracles in Athens; then, most of the first half of the play is set on the road to the Underworld; the tragic contest between Aeschylus and Euripides happens inside the house of Pluto.
Summary of The Frogs
Dressed in the skin of the Nemean Lion and holding a club in his hand, Dionysus knocks on the door of the house of Heracles in Athens. His slave Xanthias, heavily burdened and mounted on a donkey, is beside him.
Immediately after opening the door, Heracles starts smiling at his effeminate half-brother. “I just can't stifle this laughter, seeing a lion's skin thrown over that saffron gown,” he exclaims. “What does it mean? How have club and buskin joined forces? Where in the world were you going?”
Dionysus answers: he is on his way to the Underworld to bring back to life the recently deceased Euripides, and he wants Heracles’ help since he has already been there and returned to earth to tell the tale. Heracles asks why. Dionysus gives an answer that amazes the great hero: apparently, the god of wine and drama felt a passionate desire for Euripides’ poetry after reading a few verses of his “Andromeda.” “The race of great tragedians is now extinct,” explains he. “All who survive are bad.” But what about Iophon, Agathon, Xenocles, Pythangelus?—asks Heracles. In the mind of Dionysus, none of them can compare to Euripides’ genius. To prove his point, he even reads a few verses from one of his plays. Even though Heracles thinks it’s “trash,” he eventually agrees to help his half-brother.
“So, which of the roads will bring us quickest down to the Underworld?”—asks Dionysus. Heracles, still in merry mood, offers a few: hanging, poisoning, slipping from a rock. Finally, he gives him what he has asked for. He tells him that him and Xanthias need to pass across an enormous lake with the help of “an aged mariner,” and “a great slough of ever-flowing dung.” Only afterward, they should see the Initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries (which were celebrated annually in Athens in honor of Demeter, the goddess of fertility). “These will tell you all you wish to know,” Heracles says, “for they live closest by the way to Pluto's door.” (Pluto is, of course, the ruler of the Underworld).
Just as Heracles leaves, a few men arrive with a corpse. Since Xanthias refuses, Dionysus asks the corpse to carry his luggage to the Underworld for him—after all, they are heading in the same direction. However, the corpse asks too much money in return for his services, so Dionysus and Xanthias leave for the Underworld by themselves—after telling the corpse to “drop dead.”
The scene immediately shifts to the shores of the lake in the Underworld. Dionysus gets on board with Charon, the ferrymen. Xanthias is not allowed on the boat since he is a slave, so, he has no choice but to take the longer route and walk around the lake. However, Dionysus seems to get the crueler end of the bargain, since he is made to row the boat himself by Charon. To make matters worse, a Chorus of Frogs accompanies him with an irritating song: “Brekekekex koax koax, brekekekex koax koax…” No matter how much Dionysus begs them to stop, they only grow louder and more annoying. Seeing no way out, he eventually breaks wind and they suddenly become silent.
Soon after, the boat reaches the other shore. Dionysus meets up with Xanthias, who is not that happy to be in the Underworld, surrounded by beasts that even Heracles thought terrifying. His master begs to differ, claiming that he is a warrior just as much as his half-brother, who is jealous because of this. Xanthias tests Dionysus’ bravery by claiming to have seen the Empusa, a monstrous shape-shifting beast. Dionysus soils his pants and calms down only after Xanthias swears three times that the Empusa is gone. At this moment, the two hear a song in the distance: it is, as Heracles had foretold, the Eleusinian initiates, dancing and celebrating their god Iacchus.
After singing hymns of praise to Iacchus and Demeter, the Chorus of Initiates invites Dionysus and Xanthias to dance with them and make fun of three Athenians: Archedemos (who “takes first prize for villainy” for being a foreign politician in Athens), Cleisthenes (for being an effeminate homosexual), and Callias (for being a promiscuous lover of women).
As soon as the dance ends, Dionysus asks the leader of the Chorus for directions. The leader obligingly leads Dionysus (who is still disguised as Heracles) and Xanthias to the door of the Underworld and bids them farewell. “What now?” wonders the god. “How should I knock on the door now? How do the natives here knock on doors?” “Just like Heracles, since you've got his form and temper,” jokes Xanthias. Dionysus knocks and the door is opened by Aeacus, a loyal servant of Pluto, the ruler of the Underworld. Thinking him Heracles because of his attire, Aeacus curses his guest: “O impious, daring, and most shameless wretch. O villain, double villain, and arch-villain—it was you who came before, and stole my dog, poor Cerberus!” He promises to unleash a host of infernal monsters on Dionysus/Heracles. The god soils his pants again, and, afraid of what might happen to him once Aeacus summons the creatures, he exchanges clothes with Xanthias.
Just after this happens, a female servant of Persephone enters. She lets them into the Underworld and starts gushing over Heracles’ return, promising him a divine feast and a few virgin-girls. Xanthias accepts the offer and, fully stepping into his role, orders his “slave” to bring him his baggage. Dionysus would have none of that: he orders Xanthias to swap costumes with him yet again.
At this moment a young waitress by the name of Plandokeutria notices Dionysus/Heracles and identifies him as someone who had once came to her inn and ate up “sixteen loaves and twenty boiled beeves” without paying. She tells her friend, the barmaid Plathana, and the two conspire to immediately report him to the court. Dionysus orders Xanthias to swap clothes with him for a third time.
But just then Aeacus appears with a whip, and tells a few infernal officers to arrest Heracles/Xanthias for another crime: dog theft. Xanthias protests: “I swear by God I'm willing to die, if ever I came here before, or stole anything of yours that's worth a hair. Here, take this slave of mine, and torture him, and if you find that I've done wrong, take me out and kill me.” When Aeacus asks Xanthias how might he torture his slave, Xanthias gets creative: “Every way; tie him to a ladder, hang him, flog him with spikes, flay him, twist him, pour vinegar up his nose, pile up loads of bricks, everything else except—don't beat him with a leek or tender onion.” Seeing no way out, Dionysus reveals his true identity. “Beat him anyway,” says Xanthias, “if he is a god, he won't feel it.” Aeacus thinks this a good idea and starts whipping both of them: the god must be the one who won’t flinch. Neither does, so Aeacus decides to ask Pluto and Persephone for an opinion. “Now you're making sense,” exclaims Dionysus. “I only wish that you had done that before I took those whacks…”
As Dionysus, Xanthias and Aeacus leave to the house of Pluto, the Chorus of Initiates steps forward (“parabasis”) and addresses the dire situation in Athens, offering a few pieces of advice on how it can be changed for the better. They plead for tolerance and beg the citizens of the city to change their ways and return to the good old habits of past generations.
At this moment, Xanthias appears in the company of a servant of Pluto. The two talk about a few common servant worries, and share their antipathy toward their masters. Suddenly, they hear some noise within the house of Pluto: it is some kind of a dispute between two dead souls.
The souls in question are those of the two great playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides, and their dispute concerns the throne of tragedy in the Underworld. We learn that it is a tradition in the Underworld that the greatest dead playwright should always sit on a throne placed next to the ruler of the realm, Pluto. Before Euripides’ arrival in the Underworld, nobody had ever disputed Aeschylus’ right to the throne. However, now that both of them are dead, it’s difficult for the officials of the Underworld to decide who deserves the title “best tragedian” more. So, they have organized a poetic contest. And who better to be their judge than the god of tragedy himself? Before the contest (the so-called agon) begins, Pluto’s servant tells Dionysus that, if it had been left to the souls of the Underworld to decide the victor, Euripides would have probably won, because—after all—the place is populated with “very few respectable men.”
The contest begins. Seated on stools opposite each other, Aeschylus and Euripides attack each other’s art, while defending their own. The latter blames the former for poor dramatic structure and for creating only a few life-like characters; Aeschylus replies that his idealized characters are better than all of Euripides’ because rather then being merely replicas of real-world people, they can serve as models of virtue for new generations. He then attacks Euripides’ prologues as formulaic and every time Euripides quotes a line from them in defense, Aeschylus interrupts him by repeating the same phrase over and over again: “…and lost his little flask of oil.” Euripides counteracts this by pointing out the monotony of Aeschylus’ choral songs, to which Aeschylus responds by mocking Euripides’ lyric monodies with—wait for it—castanets.
Dionysus has problems to side with either one of the two: when Euripides says something, Dionysus claims that he has a point; but when Aeschylus responds, Dionysus takes his side. Finally, he proposes that the verses of the two are weighed against each other. Literally: Dionysus brings a large scale and each of the poets puts their weightiest verses on it. To Euripides’ verses that mention the Argo, Aeschylus replies with verses about the river Spercheios; to those that celebrate Peitho, the goddess of Persuasion, Aeschylus responds with a few on Death; finally, to Euripides’ verse on the power of the mace, Aeschylus answers with one on two crashed chariots. Each time, the balances of the scale tip in Aeschylus’ favor.
Even so, Dionysus hesitates with the final verdict. Pluto arrives and tells him that he must make a choice. He even allows him to take the winner—not the loser—with him to Earth. Hearing this, Dionysus comes up with a final idea: he promises to take back with him to Athens the one with the best advice on how to save the city from its impending doom. Aeschylus gives the more practical answer. Coincidentally, he also seems the author closer to Dionysus’ heart. As the two leave, Euripides scolds Dionysus—a god to whom he has so dedicatedly served while alive—for abandoning him in death. Dionysus replies with two verses taken from Euripides’ plays: “But who knows if to live is not to die? To breathe, to dine, and sleep a rug?”
“Well, then,” says Pluto, “farewell Aeschylus! Go and save our city with noble sentiments, and educate the dunces.” “I'll do it,” replies Aeschylus. “But you hand over my throne to Sophocles to guard and preserve, if I ever come here again. For him I judge to be second in talent. And remember that Euripides, that villainous fellow, that liar, that clown will never sit on my throne not even by accident.” Pluto neither agrees nor disagrees but promises to take a few political leaders to his kingdom as soon as possible—and thus aid Aeschylus in saving Athens. In the concluding words of the play, the Chorus blesses Aeschylus on his way to earth and wishes him to “grant to the city good ideas for great gains.”
A Brief Analysis
The central message of “Frogs”—undoubtedly, one of Aristophanes’ greatest masterpieces—is (in the words Kenneth Dover) “old ways good, new times bad.” Its central issues, on the other hand, are those of how to save Athenian tragedy and the city of Athens itself.
It seems that, in the opinion of Aristophanes, these two are not separate issues. On two occasions, when Heracles and Pluto ask Dionysus why he desires the return of a great tragedian to Earth so much, Dionysus replies with pretty much the same answer: “to save the city.” This reveals Aristophanes’ belief that it is the job of artists to be moral teachers, and not merely to entertain the population. As Ian Storey and Arlene Allan point out, the contest between Euripides and Aeschylus is actually a debate between these two positions and, in a way, it establishes the foundations of Western literary criticism. While Euripides believes that art can exist only for art’s sake, Aeschylus thinks that it can (and should) guide people to their best selves. The dichotomy stands to this day, with both positions prevailing at different times of history.
As can be obvious from the parabasis and the exodos, The Frogs is also a very political comedy. Aristophanes couldn’t have known that Athens was about to lose the Peloponnesian war against Sparta, but he should have probably guessed that the city has already spent too much money to emerge victorious either way. Concerned with the situation, he advocates for a complete change of leaders and political amnesty whenever necessary—and even calls out by name a few political actors at the time. Storey and Allan conclude that The Frogs is not only a “comedy about the city and its leaders, the city and its cults, the city and its poets”—but also an elegant farewell to Athens’ greatness.
There are a few translations of The Frogs available online, both in verse and in prose; if you are a fan of the latter, you can read a modernized version of an anonymous translation for the Athenian Society here. If, however, you prefer poetry, feel free to delve into Gilbert Murray’s rhyming verse adaptation here.
See Also: Aristophanes, Euripides, Aeschylus, Dionysus