The Frogs

The Frogs Study Guide

Frogs, or The Frogs, is one of Aristophanes's greatest comedies and is justly celebrated for its wit and keen commentary on Athenian politics and society. It is the last surviving work of Old Comedy and is thus also notable for its heralding a passing era of literature. While it is a comedy, it is also a trenchant political satire and expresses Aristophanes's views on Athenian democracy, the value of poetry, and the need for a return of traditional values.

Frogs won first place at the Lenaea, an annual Athenian dramatic festival and competition honoring Dionysus, beating Phrynichus's Muses and Platon's Cleophon. Uncommon for its time, it was awarded a second performance the following week for the strength of its parabasis. According to the ancient Life of Aristophanes, the poet was officially commended and given a wreath of sacred olive for the lines about the disenfranchised. He may have changed a few of the lines for the restaging. Philonides, a frequent producer of Aristophanes’ plays, produced the play.

A precedent for the play is Eupolis's Demoi, which also featured the resurrection of deceased figures such as Solon, Aristides, and Pericles. It was written in a time of turmoil, as Athens was still at war with Sparta. An oligarchic revolution was replaced with democracy in 411 BCE. Two other events bore significance to the play: Alcibiades, the famed military commander, was sentenced to die in 415 BCE but escaped to the Spartan side, was taken back to Athens, and finally exiled in 406 BCE; and the battle of Arginusae in 406 saw the Athenians defeating the Spartans but finding it impossible to retrieve their comrades on ships wrecked by bad weather, and condemning the military commanders as a group to death. The themes of the decline of Athens and the decline of tragedy as a great form of art are thus intertwined.

The scholar Charles Paul Segal notes that the structure of the play is unique because the first half is a journey archetype, and the second half consists of the contest motif. The nature of Dionysus's evolution from a crass, jesting figure to a weighty arbiter of taste and the fate of Athens has also garnered a great deal of attention.

Scholars do their best to imagine what the play would have looked like performed in its own time. There is speculation as to whether or not the audience would have heard and seen the frogs, or merely heard them off-stage. Charon's boat may have been on wheels, and there may have been a real donkey or a "stick donkey," which would have added to the humorous aspect of Xanthias's complaints about the baggage.

Owing to its entrenched position in the Western canon, it is no wonder that Frogs has been referenced in literature, television, music, and other works of the theater. Most interestingly, the frogs' chant of "Brekekekéx-koáx-koáx" is part of Stanford University's rallying call.