Dionysus and Xanthias enter. Dionysus is disguised as Hercules and Xanthias rides a donkey with the baggage. Xanthias suggests Dionysus say something amusing to make the audience laugh, and they joke about Xanthias shifting the baggage so he can relieve himself. Xanthias complains that he wants to do what others, like the playwrights Lycis and Ameipsias and Phrynichus can do –hump the baggage.
Dionysus scolds Xanthias for complaining, and they banter about whether the donkey or Xanthias is truly bearing the load of the baggage.
They arrive at the door. Dionysus tells Xanthias to dismount, and knocks. Heracles opens it, wondering who is banging so loudly. He sees Dionysus and begins to laugh, amused at the lion skin getup Dionysus is wearing. He asks Dionysus where he has been, and the latter says he was serving topside with Cleisthenes (the latter often teased for homosexuality). He says he then got a longing. Heracles teases him about this, but Dionysus tells him not to jest.
He says his longing is for Euripides, even though he is dead, and states that "Nobody on earth can persuade me not / to go after him." He plans to go down to Hades because he needs a talented poet; there is no one living that is good. He rejects Iophen because he is unsure, and Sophocles is too mild. Agathon, Xenocles, and Pythangelus are also inadequate.
In the meantime, Xanthias complains further about his shoulder. Heracles asks if there are other poets here that might suffice, but Dionysus rejects them as "cast-offs and merely empty chatter" (28). There are no "potent" poets left (28).
After some gentle ribbing, Dionysus tells Heracles he has come to figure out how to find the friends of his that time he went after Cerberus, and all the places to stay along the way. Despite Heracles's objections to his plan, Dionysus persists. Heracles begins to suggest options for death, offering up hanging and poison and jumping off a building. Dionysus rejects all these and says he plans to go the same way Heracles went.
Heracles tells him how to do it. First, he will come to a large lake and will be ferried across by a mariner. He will then see innumerable frightful beasts, then a river of flowing excrement, then people guilty of all manner of terrible things. Then he will hear pipes and see sunshine, and men and women will be there. They are the Initiates and will tell him everything he needs to know.
Pleased, Dionysus tells Xanthias to get the baggage again and prepare to go. Pallbearers and a corpse enter. Dionysus asks if they want to haul bags to Hades, and one asks how much they will be paid. They cannot agree on a sum, and Dionysus curses him.
Charon rows his boat over and he and Dionysus greet each other. Charon asks where they are going, and Dionysus replies, "To the buzzards!" (34). Charon refuses to take Xanthias because he is a slave, so he takes an alternate route and plans to meet Dionysus at the Withering Stone.
Charon tells Dionysus to help row, and informs him that they will soon hear the songs of the Frog Swans.
Contest with Frogs
A chorus of frogs enters, and leaps around the boat, singing nonsense words like croaks. This was a song they once sung for Dionysus, or Nysean son of Zeus. Dionysus, still disguised as Heracles, mocks them. They respond that the Muses, Pan, and Apollo cherish them. Dionysus says his butt hurts and he wants them to stop singing, but they sing louder about hopping and swimming.
Dionysus finally bellows along with them in the spirit of competition. When the frogs depart, he yells that they will never beat him at the "koax" (the croaking word) and he will vanquish them.
So begins Frogs, one of Aristophanes's greatest comedies and an exemplar of Old Attic Comedy. In this first scene some of the themes of the work are already present –the value of poetry and the ineffectiveness, in Aristophanes's opinion, of the current poets; the journey archetype; the jesting but competitive relationship between Xanthias and Dionysus. However, it would be a mistake to interpret the play in modern terms –i.e., character development, recognizable dramatic elements, etc. –because it is a work of ancient poetry and is thus a product of a time very different from our own. Furthermore, what playwrights intended, what audiences expected, and shared cultural and historical contemporary realities were also quite different and have caused scholars much labor as they try to identify them and translate the language for modern audiences. Part of the critical body of work, and this study guide, on Frogs is looking at the conventions of Greek drama and how the play may have been inspired, staged, and reviewed.
Aristophanes was a keen observer and commentator on the events of his day, which necessitates unpacking some of the references to people and events in Frogs. First, the play was written and is set during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta; the theme of Athens's problems and decline is present throughout the play. The battle of Arginusae occurred in 413 and although it was technically a victory for the Athenians, it came at a huge cost. Slaves were promised their freedom if they would step in a row the ships after all other manpower was exhausted, but it did not prevent Athens from losing twenty-five ships and five thousand men. The eight commanders were sentenced to death, but Athenians soon transferred their guilt onto the two men who ordered the sentences, Theramenes and Thrasybulus. In this first scene, Xanthias references the battle by bemoaning, "Blast my luck, why wasn't I in the sea battle? / Then I'd be telling you to go to hell!" (24).
Two other men associated with Athens's situation are mentioned throughout the play and bear a longer identification. Alcibiades was the naval leader during the war since 411, but went into voluntary exile in 407; the discussion of his recall is important in the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides at the end of the play. The other man, Cleophon, was a demagogue who persuaded the Athenians to reject Sparta's peace offering. The Chorus denigrates his actions.
Aristophanes also references works of famous tragedians and comedians, such as Euripides, Agathon (a playwright successful in his debut who recently left Athens with his lover), Xenocles (the son of the tragic poet Carcinus, whose dramatic work defeated Euripides in 415), and Morsimus (son of the tragic poet Philocles and lambasted for being a bad poet). Charon, not to mention Dionysus and Heracles, is no doubt familiar to students of Virgil's work and the overall pantheon of the Greek gods and goddesses and their accompanying body of myths and stories.
The tumultuous military situation was clearly dire, but, as scholars point out, so was the status of great tragedy. Jeffrey Henderson writes, "Aristophanes considered the situation on the tragic stage to be comparable to the military situation," as Euripides had recently died and Aeschylus had died some forty years past. Aristophanes's belief that Athens needed a poet is manifested in Dionysus's lines (in which he quotes Euripides's Oeneus), "I need a talented poet, / 'for some are gone, and those that lie are bad'" (27) and "But if you look for a potent poet, one who could utter / a lordly phrase, you won't find any left...potent, as in one / who can give voice to something adventuresome" (28). This desire for a poet, initially Euripides, then Aeschylus, links the two parts of the play, the journey to Hades and the contest, together.
The contest with the frogs is celebrated in literature (see "About 'Frogs'"). Questions remain about its staging; some critics suggest there were people dressed up as frogs onstage, while others believe only their voices were heard. Another suggestion is that, in order to mimic actual frogs' antiphonal croaking, one group sang "brekekekex" and the other sang "koax koax" in return. The frogs provide humor in a scene characterized by farce. The play grows more serious as it continues, but the early scenes are paragons of comedy.