I need a talented poet, / 'for some are gone, and those that live are bad.'
In this statement Dionysus encapsulates one of the major archetypes of the text -- the journey -- and one of its major themes -- Athens's need for a real poet to help them regain their former glory and power. Dionysus believes that a poet of Euripides's stature (he, of course, changes to Aeschylus, but the idea is the same) will help Athens, but that he must descend into Hades to find such a poet since everyone living today is, in Dionysus's damning words, "cast-offs and merely empty chatter, / choirs of swallows, wreckers of their art, / who maybe get a chorus and are soon forgotten, / after having a single piss upon Tragedy" (28). This is the bold and provocative Aristophanes speaking through his protagonist, identifying his peers as insipid and fame-hungry, aware that there are no "potent" poets left whose verse can inspire and instruct. The overall point of Frogs is that Aeschylus's words should be turned to in this time of need, as they offer wise counsel.
An ancient mariner will ferry you across / in a skiff no bigger than this, for a fare of two obols.
In Dionysus's journey, he has to cross over from one realm to the next, where he will encounter numerous obstacles and creatures both helpful and harmful. His passage in the rowboat with Charon, and his paying his fee, is his entry into the liminal space of the river Styx that takes him to Hades. Charon is a figure commonly known to students of Greek mythology, especially those who know of Heracles's journeys. Charon's job, according to the myths, was to ferry newly deceased souls across Styx and Acheron to Hades. He is often depicted as an old man, usually haggard, brusque and irritable in demeanor. His name means "of keen gaze," which is possibly a synonym for death. Frogs is filled with allusions to Greek mythology and the writing of the Greek comedians and tragedians; while it might take a modern reader a great deal of sifting through footnotes to illuminate all of the references, the contemporary viewer of the play would be conversant in all of the allusions.
Exalted Iacchus, inventor of most enjoyable / festive song, come and march along with us / to the goddess...
This quote is found in the part of the text that contains the Eleusinan Mysteries (see Additional Content). Here the chorus moves in their procession, carrying out their sacred rites and worshipping the goddess Demeter. They also evoke Iacchus, which is another name for Dionysus, and ask him to come with them to the goddess. In some Greek mythology, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Demeter. He was commonly seen as the torchbearer in the procession from Eleusis. While this association was well known, in Frogs Dionysus's summoning by the Chorus of Initiates has almost a temptation-like quality to it. He needs to proceed along his way to procure Aeschylus, not dally in the fields with the revelers. He is attracted by their dance but continues to Pluto's door. This encounter between hero-journeyman and ethereal, mystical creatures of another world is a common motif in the journey archetype.
You're the very worst coward on heaven and earth!
Dionysus is, without a doubt, a prideful, self-confident, and arrogant figure. He is a god, of course, but possesses all of the trappings of a self-centered human being afflicted with hubris and shortsightedness. He does anything that will bring him pleasure and avoids anything that is harmful, difficult, or dull. As with any hero (if one might call Dionysus that), he does indeed possess a large flaw: his cowardice. Xanthias comes right out here and says it, identifying his master's shortcoming for the audience. This comes after a particularly crass and humorous instance where Dionysus shits himself due to his fear of the Empusa. Dionysus has always been far from being a noble protagonist, but this is his nadir. It will take his arbitration in the contest between poets and his eventual wise choice to redeem him from his weak, cowardly nature.
And I'll make you a gentlemanly offer: / take my slave here and torture him, and if you catch me / in any wrongdoing, then take me and put me to death.
This is a passage that might seem curious to modern readers, but it was a reality of ancient Greek life that would not have seemed strange at all to the audience of Frogs. Under Athenian law, slaves could not be witnesses in the courts unless the owner gave consent and the testimony was obtained under duress. The owner and the adversary would have previously agreed upon the conditions. The courts were not often apt to accept such offers by an owner and challenges by an adversary. And, as may be expected, citizens could not be tortured but as slaves were not citizens, they were fair game. What makes this scene amusing is the identity game played between Dionysus and Xanthias, and the subsequent torture in all of its buffoonery. Torture was rendered acceptable through the guise of comedy.
First, we think that all / the citizens should be made equal, and their fears removed...Next I say that no one in the city should be disenfranchised.
In 'parabasis', the Chorus steps away from the main action of the play and offers commentary on the political situation in Athens. It is very clear about what it wants to happen. In the first point, they say that all citizens should be equal and any fears of being prosecuted for any offenses they committed under the oligarchy of 411 should be removed (even though there was an amnesty in 410). It also does not want to see anyone lose their voice in the democracy, as well as a few other concerns. The parabasis is an important component of the text, for it articulates the concerns Aristophanes is dealing with thematically. Athens has and is experiencing a great deal of instability, politically and in terms of foreign policy. There are internal and external threats to the democracy, that sacred institution. It is unequivocally important that Athenian citizens do not see any erosion of their rights. Through poetry, Aristophanes is making a potent political statement.
Why, it's like nirvana / whenever I curse my master behind his back!
In this amusing interlude, Xanthias speaks with the slave of Pluto. The slave, gregarious and voluble, speaks of all the ways he tries to subvert his master's authority. He talks behind his back, mutters when he is beaten, meddles in his master's affairs, and eavesdrops and blabs about his findings to outsiders. The audience of Frogs would have recognized these acts of subversion problematic, but they certainly rang true. Xanthias spends his time acting in a similar fashion, revealing Aristophanes's keen understanding of the tense dynamic between masters and servants. Slavery was seen as natural in ancient Greece, and there were many levels of enslavement, but that did not preclude animosity or hostility on the part of both master and slave. Xanthias is a keen voice for the issues inherent in this practice.
But the poet has a special duty to conceal / what's wicked, / not to stage it or teach it.
Aeschylus and Euripides spend time discussing the value of poetry, and both have good points. Euripides explains that his verse helped people think rationally and organize their houses better, and that poetry "[turns] people into better / members of their communities" (79). Aeschylus muses on all the noble poets' ideas and contributions, especially those found in his own work. He says that a poet should make sure that what they are writing has a benefit to the people listening to it, for poetry is profoundly powerful and impactful, not merely entertainment. What is deleterious about Euripides's work is that he "taught people to chitchat and gab" (83) and featured women behaving badly. By contrast, Aeschylus's work is dignified and didactic, and that is why he is ultimately the winner of the contest.
I've had enough too; what I'd like to do is take him to the scales, / which is the only true test of our poetry; / the weight of our utterances will be the decisive proof.
Dionysus cannot seem to choose whose verses are better, so the poets turn to a weighing. This scene was no doubt modeled on Aeschylus's play, Weighing of Souls, where Zeus weighed the souls of Achilles and Memnon. This pyschostasia is also found in Homer and Egyptian mythology. Indeed, Aeschylus and Euripides both have their fates in the balance -who will win the Chair of Tragedy, and who will accompany Dionysus back to the living world? Aeschylus wins this contest because he speaks of weightier things, such as the river, Death, chariots, and corpses, while Euripides spoke of lighter topics. This is a commentary on the type of poetry that Aristophanes believed was necessary to help Athens regain its position of prominence -no mere cleverness or fluff or beguilement, but morality and tradition and seriousness.
It was my tongue that swore: I'm choosing Aeschylus.
Dionysus initially descended to Hades to bring back Euripides, a poet he admired greatly. He even described his desire for Euripides as a "passion" and a "longing" (26). However, after a long series of contests, Dionysus chooses Aeschylus, the older and more traditional poet. He does this because he realizes that Athens does not need the clever wit and "slippery character" (27) of Euripides; rather, Athens needs a poet of wise counsel and intractable morality. Dionysus chooses Aeschylus because he has evolved and come to understand the true nature of tragic poetry and its capabilities. By Aristophanes having his protagonist make this choice, he is making a statement about what his city-state needs. It is unambiguous, and establishes Aristophanes as a rather conservative figure himself. His concern for Athens is also linked to his concern for the decline of tragedy; by pointing to Aeschylus as the winner, Aistophanes also suggests that poetry like Aeschylus's should be returned to.
The Frogs Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Frogs is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Frogs croak. Croaking is the opposite of singing. Good poets, in ancient times, were also good singers. The implication is that most poets of the time were very bad poets. Dionyssios needs to pass through this crowd of bad poets before he gets to...