What is the structure of the play's plot?
The play has two major parts. The first is the archetypal heroic journey, in which Dionysus leaves the upper world and ventures down into Hades. He is on a quest to retrieve the poet Euripides, who will return to earth and help Athens with his wise counsel. Dionysus encounters several obstacles and monsters, but makes it to his destination. In the second part, the two poets Euripides and Aeschylus engage in a series of contests in which they critique each other's verse to determine who is the best tragic poet. This fast-paced, quick-witted set of contests is judged by Dionysus, who, through this arbitration, reaches the culmination of his journey as he grows wiser and more discerning. While some critics believe the structure to be off-putting and disunified, others believe the two parts are yoked by Dionysus and his literal and emotional journey.
What are the canonical messages and themes of the play?
In this significant work, Aristophanes deals with a number of overarching themes. He delves into the problems Athens faces, identifying some of the reasons for its decline. With that, he also explores the decline of the art form of tragedy. He offers an argument for the relevance and significance of poetry, and shares his beliefs as to what great poetry can teach the audience. In this particular theme he asserts that traditional values and morality, as exemplified by the poet Aeschylus, are necessary to buffet the distressed city-state. He also looks at the relationships between master and slave, the heroic journey, identity and disguise, ambition, and pride.
What are some of the problems that Athens faces at the time of the play, according to Aristophanes?
The decline of Athens is one of the most prominent themes in the text. Aristophanes provides plenty of reasons for why this occurs, such as: bad military commanders, debauched and wanton poetry, politicians like Theramenes who take the easy way out when things get tough, problems for citizens such as disenfranchisement and punishment, Athens's propensity to elevate lesser citizens to positions of power rather than support those who are worthy, weakness in battle, and more. He hopes that the words of Aeschylus can counter the deleterious effects all of these have had on Athens, and that the city can once more be glorious and powerful.
What insights can the reader gain from Xanthias' status and behavior in the play?
Xanthias is not your average slave -- he is feisty, opinionated, and feels confident in talking back to his master. He serves several important functions in the text. First, he is Dionysus's able-bodied adjutant on the god's trip to the underworld; Xanthias carries his baggage and helps him when threatened by the monster Empusa. He also wears the Heracles costume when Dionysus is needs him to. Second, his character provides insights into the master-servant relationship and how slaves were treated in ancient Greece. Third, he provides comic relief. Because he speaks his mind and tells Dionysus exactly what he thinks of him, he is funny and provocative. His feelings toward Dionysus often mirror the audience's, and he voices such shared feelings and reactions. While he is not significant at all in the second part of the play, he is an indispensable component of the first.
How would the play have been staged in traditional Greek theater?
There were several mainstays of the production of an ancient Greek Old Comedy. The actors would wear masks, most generic but occasionally, if the person was notable, a portrait mask. The clothing was suited to their identities in the play, but in comedies, a few things were added to heighten the humor -a big stomach and a rump, and the phallos, a large penis. It was usually made of leather and was often dangling, sometimes erect if the scene called for it. All the female roles were played by men, who would wear bodysuits depicting female genitalia. Most of the comedies only had three actors, who switched roles. The chorus consisted of twenty-four men, who also wore masks and costumes. They sang with the accompaniment of an aulos, a wind instrument. The chorus also danced if required by the text. The comedy was played through without intermission and was about two hours long.
What is the historical background to the original staging of the play?
The two occasions for which comedies were produced were two festivals honoring Dionysus -the Greater Dionysia, in late March or early April, and the Lenaea, late January or early February. The productions in these festivals were competitions where the great poets would show their new work and compete for the top prize. The Greater Dionysia was held in the Theater of Dionysus on the slope of the Acropolis; both citizens and foreigners attended. The Lenaea was only for Athenians, and was held at the same Theater beginning in the 4th century BCE. Comedy, tragedy, and satyr-drama were performed. The comedies were the least restricted by convention or norm. One of the most important offices in the demos, the choregus, was the sponsor of the chorus. They paid for everything that went into the play, and were thus vehicles for such men to display their wealth. The stipends for the poet and the actors and prizes were paid for by the demos. A poet submitted his draft for the play six months in advance, but revisions occurred frequently. The poet acted as music master, choreographer, and director.
How do the figure and acts of Alcibiades influence the play?
Alcibiades was such a polarizing figure around the time Frogs was written that Aristophanes could not help referring to him both obliquely and explicitly. In the final contest between Euripides and Aeschylus, the topic turns to politics, and Dionysus asks, "So, for starters, which of you has an opinion about / Alcibiades? The city's in travail about him" (101). Alcibiades was an aristocratic military commander who was in charge of the Sicilian Expedition but fled to Sparta to avoid being prosecuted for disrespecting the Eleusinian Mysteries. In 411 he left the Spartans and returned to Athens, where he was elected commander by the Fleet. In 407 he became Supreme Commander but was dismissed after a major defeat. In 404 he was assassinated. At the time of the play, his recall from Athens was continually discussed and debated by the Athenians. Euripides criticizes him, but Aeschylus seems to appreciate his brilliance, and believes that if Athens allowed him, who was like a lion cub, to exist at all, it should "cater to its ways" (101).
What is parabasis, and what does it accomplish in the play?
A parabasis in a Greek comedy is when the chorus comes onstage, removes their masks, and talks to the audience about a weighty topic, usually not related to the action of the play. The Chorus Leader speaks, and the Chorus sings. In the parabasis of Frogs, the information given is all about the trials and travails of Athens. While not directly related to the action, it is actually a very helpful accounting of the reasons why Dionysus needs to go down to Hades and find a poet, and why he ends up choosing Aeschylus. The Chorus speaks of making citizens equal and not disenfranchising them, and brings up the case of those pardoned for their role in the sea battle. At the end of the parabasis, the Chorus Leader bemoans the fact that Athens does not treat its best citizens well, and instead "we choose... / bad people with bad ancestors, / the latest arrivals" (65). The parabasis thus gives the audience (and readers) a look at the historical context of the play and adds weight to its content.
What are the critiques and criticisms of Euripides's and Aeschylus's lyrics and prologues?
Two of the contests deal with the actual parts of the tragedies written by Euripides and Aeschylus -the lyrics and the prologues. A prologue is a monologue or a dialogue preceding the entrance of the chorus, where the topic of tragedy is presented to the audience. Euripides believes that Aeschylus is too obscure in his plots, and makes too many errors, such as saying the same thing twice. Aeschylus's critique is more amusing, showing how all of Euripides's prologue lines are predictable and could all end with the same phrase containing "oil bottle". As for lyrics, Euripides says he can "trim all his lyrics down to a single pattern" (93), prompting Dionysus to ask, "Where did / you collect these rope-winders' songs?" (94). Aeschylus says that Euripides's lyrics are too wanton, that his arias are too suggestive. These critiques might seem a bit obscure to modern audiences, but they are nonetheless incisive and amusing.
How does Frogs utilize specific comedic devices to convey its messages?
Frogs is a masterful example of Old Attic Comedy. It relies on a few devices to achieve its comedic effect. First, it is crass, using humor that revolves around excrement, flatulence, and sex. Second, it uses amusing costumes and cases of mistaken identity, as when Dionysus, dressed as Heracles, is both yelled at and propositioned, and when Xanthias and Dionysus trade the costume and are tortured. Third, it reveals the two sides of Dionysus, making the audience revel in his cowardly nature while appreciating his energy and dynamic personality. Fourth, the contest between the poets uses keen, intellectual humor in the jabs and critiques levied by each. Here the audience recognizes the humor, but it is a far different humor than the one that derives from hearing that Dionysus crapped his pants in fear of the Empusa.