Poetry does not exist simply to entertain; rather, according to Aristophanes, it can impart a moral message and instruct its listeners to be better citizens and human beings. The works of the great tragic poets live on (dramatized in the play by Aeschylus being brought back to life) and can shape the characters of Athenians. In their contest, Euripides and Aeschylus boast of their own verse and what it can do: Euripides claims he teaches people to think critically and rationally, and Aeschylus taught them to be bold and yearn to defeat their enemies. Furthermore, as Aeschylus narrates, the noble poets "revealed mystic rites to us", "gave us oracles and cures for diseases" and "good instruction / in tactics, virtues, and weaponry of men" (80). Poetry thus offers life lessons, and is not merely an art form.
The decline of Athens
Aristophanes wrote Frogs during a period of Athens's decline, and his play reflects such tensions. Athens was in the midst of the Peleponnesian War with Sparta, and faced a myriad of troubles with politicians and demagogues. The democracy faced internal and external troubles, and Frogs asserts Aristophanes's view that one of the ways to save it was to bring the poet Euripides (later Aeschylus) back from Hades to counsel the Athenians. Throughout the text Aristophanes attacks those who seek to harm Athens, those who put the wrong people in charge, those who are self-interested, and those who do not help morale. His anxiety for his city-state is apparent even amidst his keen lampooning of officials.
Identity is a major concern of the first part of the play, with a focus on costumes, disguise, misidentification, and concomitant confusion. It is used for humorous purposes and also offers insights into character and the play itself. Dionysus travels in the guise of Heracles, allowing him to ignore any associations with himself and to hopefully attain the same success as Heracles in his underworld tasks. He is keen to slough off the costume, though, and give it to Xanthias when it serves him. Dionysus's identity would have been quite obvious to contemporary viewers, but his attempt to don different disguises and flit between such disguises and his own identity serves to further the assertion that Dionysus has not yet come into his own in the first part of the play, and is on a journey to attain real authority. Aristophanes's focus on identity also allows the audience to grasp the nature of theater itself, as it is self-reflecting device.
Several of the prominent figures in the play display a heightened sense of ambition. Dionysus and Xanthias butt heads as each tries to assert their dominance: Xanthias is trying to resist insubordination by his master, and Dionysus is trying to keep his slave in his place. The balance of power shifts frequently, destabilizing their identities. Aeschlyus and Euripides also seek to exercise their ambitions to be considered the foremost tragic poet, and engage in a lengthy and vitriolic contest. Their literary and political perspectives are put to the mettle, and the result of their clashing ambitions is a clear message regarding what Athens needs to regain its former glory: Aeschylus and his wise counsel. Ambition is thus not always negative, and can be illuminating.
Tradition and morality
While Dionysus originally intended to bring Euripides back with him from the underworld, he realizes that it would be far better for the city of Athens to have Aeschylus, whose works embody tradition and morality. The play espouses the idea that, while Euripides's works might be amusing or technically accomplished or clever, they will not suffice to retain order, good behavior, and procure stability in the demos. Aeschylus, on the other hand, offers intelligence and wisdom, and, as the Chorus says, can "grant fine idea that will bring fine blessings" (107). It is part of Dionysus's journey (both literal and intellectual) that he realizes that tradition and morality are virtues, particularly in a time of unrest.
Dionysus, unsurprisingly as the god of wine and mystical ecstasy, is a wild, energetic, and pleasure-seeking character. He is also crass, boastful, self-indulgent, and cowardly. Although he is wise enough to venture down into Hades for a poet, he does not yet know whom he needs. Along his journey he reveals his flaws and limitations, and is tested. He is chosen to judge the poets' contest and is thus given his own test: can he wisely arbitrate between Euripides and Aeschylus, and choose the one whose verse will help Athens out the most? Thankfully for Athens, Dionysus evolves and matures throughout this contest as he is forced to think deeply about Athens's needs. He chooses the poet that will be best for Athens, thus indicating that while he will no doubt always be a little uncouth and fanciful, he can also be perspicacious and wise.
The value of comedy
Aristophanes was a paragon of Old Comedic literature, keen-witted, clever, insightful, and masterful in his construction of humorous themes. In Frogs he makes a case for bringing back a great tragic poet to assist Athens, but, significantly, he does so through the lens of comedy. In this crass, sometimes silly, play, weighty themes are dealt with in a very effective manner. Aristophanes makes the case that comedy can also be a vehicle for truth and moral messages, that is does not have to simply be lighthearted entertainment.
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.