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Interactive Curriculum Resource: HomeThemesAuthorsTexts • Sample Series

Frogs - Aristophanes


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Themes: City, Comedy, Poetry, Underworld.


This play begins with the god Dionysos and his slave Xanthias bantering about appropriate sorts of humor. The master on foot and the slave riding a donkey, they arrive at the door of Herakles, and inquire about the way to the underworld. When Herakles inquires into the motive for a visit to Hades, Dionysos replies,“I need a skillful poet. The best are all now dead and the rest are no good” (71-72). Herakles gives them directions for the journey, while Xanthias, despite his master’s disapproval, persists in making wisecracks. A corpse is carried across the stage, and since Xanthias has been complaining about carrying the baggage, Dionysos asks the dead man if he would be willing to take the job. The corpse sits up and asks how much the god would be willing to pay, but declines when he finds the offered fee too low. 


When Xanthias and Dionysos meet Charon, the ferryman to the world of the dead, he induces Dionysos to row the boat himself. When Dionysos complains, Charon responds, “It’s easy: you’ll hear some beautiful songs when you start” (6-7). These “frog-swan” songs come from the frogs that surround the boat, calling themselves “children of marshes and springs” (209). Dionysos at first complains about the frog song, but eventually competes with them and thereby joins in the song himself.  


Upon arriving, Dionysos and Xanthias meet a chorus of initiates, and eventually join in their song and dance as well. Intriguingly invoking Iakchos, a name associated with Dionysos himself, the chorus sings, sometimes in a high ceremonial style, sometimes with a more bawdy tone. 


When Dionysos is mistaken for Herakles (due to the former wearing a costume associated with the latter), Dionysos is berated and threatened with beatings for offenses committed by Herakles. Collapsing in fear, Dionysos gets Xanthias to wear the costume and take the treatment merited by Herakles. When they switch clothing, however, Xanthias as Herakles is offered rewards and pleasures. Exasperated, Dionysos demands his clothes back, but upon being threatened by the Inn-Keeper and others, implores his slave to don again the costume. This interchange culminates in beatings for both Dionysos and Xanthias, both of whom conceal their cries of pain as dramatic poetry recitations. Since they are both so brave, the Doorkeeper exclaims, “In Demeter’s name I’m quite unable to tell which of you is a god” (668), and so invites both into Plouton’s palace. 


Once they have left, the Chorus and Leader give the city their “Best advice and best instructions” (687). Their admonitions to the city include that it “Treat all citizens now the same,” and also “count as kinsmen every one, / Give them all full citizen rights, provided they man [the city’s] ships and fight” (701-2). The Leader voices a concern that the city “treats those citizens who deserve to be thought the best / Just the same as it treats old coins as well as the recent gold ones too.” He continues the analogy to show how the city is mistreating its best citizens: “Those were coins of solid value, no counterfeits of them were found…/ Now, however, they’re obsolete, replaced by lousy coins of bronze,…/ Just the same with citizens too: those…whose conduct is always just,…They’re despised.” 


The final contest takes place between Euripides and Aischylos to decide which is the better tragic poet. Dionysos gets to make the final call, since whichever poet he chooses will be taken back to the upper-world to save Athens. The deceased poets debate and thereby criticize the style and substance of the other’s tragedies. Euripides claims that when he took over the tragic art from Aischylos, she was “bloated from constant bombast” (938), whereas Aischylos counters that he had passed on to his tragedian successor people “good people of noble mind and turned them instead into rabble” (1011). Aischylos entertainingly appends the phrase “miniature oil-jar” to the end of every prologue Euripides quotes. Ultimately, upon having the two poets weigh their words in a scale, Dionysos, having let them know that he “came down to find a poet…to save the city” (1418-19), choses the one his “soul desires to have” (1468). The play ends with Plouton charging the chosen poet to preserve the city “with good ideas” (1502), and the Chorus sending Dionysos and his poet back to the upper world with prayers 


Opening questions:


Why is Dionysos going to the underworld?


Why does Dionysos want to bring back a poet from the underworld?


As portrayed by this play, what is the role of poetry in the city?

Suggested Pairing:


Odyssey by Homer - Books 5, 9-12.

The Book of Jonah
Lucian, True Histories
Virgil, Aeneid - Books 3, 4, 5, 6
Cervantes, Don Quixote - The Cave of Montesinos
Dante, Inferno (selections)
Shakespeare, The Tempest 
Melville, Moby Dick (selections)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World 
T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

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