Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Frogs by Aristophanes

Source of book: I own this.

Aristophanes is generally considered to be the central figure in ancient Greek comedy. He lived roughly from 446 to 386 BCE, his life overlapping significantly with Socrates and Plato, as well as the later years of fellow playwrights Sophocles and Euripides. In fact, the death of Euripides is a central part of the plot in The Frogs.

Greek comedy, particularly the “old style” comedy of Aristophanes, seems in many ways rather modern. Unlike the formal and more or less rigid tragedies, comedies utilized a number of techniques familiar to modern audiences. For example, the “fourth wall” is broken all the time. The audience is expected to interact with the action - and is made the butt of the jokes. While tragedies would tell of legendary figures of the past or myth, the comedies skewered contemporary figures, particularly politicians, although neither philosophers nor poets nor the gods themselves escaped the satire. Even the playwright himself would take a little teasing. 

The Theater of Dionysus in Athens, where The Frogs would have been performed. 

I have had two prior encounters with Aristophanes. Several years ago, I read Lysistrata, which is hilariously naughty, while making a solid argument against war. Before that, I had the opportunity to play Ralph Vaughan Williams’ overture written for a production of The Wasps. (I need to find a copy of that one, because it pokes fun at the court system and habitual litigators.) I wasn’t sure exactly which play I wanted to read, but since I actually had a copy of The Frogs, I chose to go with it.

Overture to The Wasps by Ralph Vaughan Williams

My translation is the 1902 version by Gilbert Murray.

The plot runs roughly thus: Dionysus is devastated by the recent death of Euripides, and decides to set out for Hades to retrieve him. In doing so, he would be following in the footsteps of Hercules. So, he dresses up in a ludicrous parody of Hercules, and seeks advice from that hero. Hercules can hardly speak because he is laughing so hard. Eventually, Dionysus and his servant Xanthias get directions and set off. They meet Charon, the boatman to the underworld, who rows Dionysus across. Xanthias has to walk around the lake carrying all their gear. (A good bit of the humor in the first part comes as a result of the interaction between master and servant. Xanthias is smarter and braver than his clueless master, so he gets many great zingers.)

After braving some monsters, they succeed in gaining entrance to Hades. However, Dionysus’ mission is complicated by the fact that both Euripides and his earlier rival Aeschylus wish to vie for the privilege of coming back from the dead.

So naturally, they have a “poet’s duel” of sorts. They do their best to insult each other while building up their own cases. In the end, Dionysus must make an impossible choice between the two.

There were many enjoyable moments in this play, starting right from the beginning, when Dionysus inquires about how to get to Hades.

Dionysus: ...What road will take us quickest down to Hades. -
And please, no great extremes of heat or cold.

Hercules: Will, which one had I better tell you first? -
Which now? - Ah, yes; suppose you got a boatman
To tug you, with a hawser - round your neck…

Dionysus: A chokey sort of journey, that.

Hercules: Well, then,
There is a short road, quick and smooth, the surface
Well pounded - in a mortar.

Dionysus: The hemlock way?

Hercules: Exactly.

Dionysus: Cold and bitter! Why, it freezes
All your shins numb.

Hercules: Do you mind one short and steep?

Dionysus: Not in the know I’m no great walker.

Hercules: Then just stroll down to Ceramicus…

Dionysus: Well?

Hercules: Climb up the big tower…

Dionysus: Good; and then?

Hercules: Then watch
And see them start the torch-race down below;
Lean over till you hear the men say “Gp,”
And then go.

Dionysus: Where?

Hercules: Why, over.

Dionysus fails to be impressed with these helpful suggestions, however.

Later, with poor Xanthias struggling with his large load, they decide to try to find a porter. Conveniently, a funeral procession comes their way. And hey? Since the corpse is already going their way, why not see if he will help?

Dionysus: Here, sir - it’s you I’m addressing - the defunct;
Do you care to carry a few traps to Hades?

The Corpse: (sitting up)
How heavy?

Dionysus: What you see.

Corpse: You’ll pay two drachmas?

Dionysus: Oh, come, that’s rather much.

Corpse: Bearers, move on!

Dionysus: My good man, wait! See if we can’t arrange.

Corpse: Two drachmas down, or else don’t talk to me.

Dionysus: Nine obols?

Corpse: (lying down again) Strike me living if I will!

Since Dionysus is too cheap even to hire a corpse, Xanthias is stuck with the burden.

The frogs of the title appear as Charon and Dionysus row across the Styx, croaking their song to keep the rowing in time. Aristophanes transliterates their sound as “Co-äx, co-äx, co-äx, Brekekekex co-äx.” This sound is apparently really annoying, because Dionysus can’t take it, and starts singing along with them in an effort to shut them up.

Dionysus looks even more ridiculous later when, out of terror at a supposed monster that he makes Xanthias take on his costume and hides behind him. And then afterward:

Xanthias: You are the greatest coward I ever saw,
Of gods or humans!

Dionysus: I a coward? - I had
The presence of mind to ask you for a sponge.
Few had done more!

Xanthias: Could any one do less?

Dionysus: A coward would still be flat there, sniffing salts;
I rose, called for a sponge, and used the sponge.

Xanthias: That was brave, by Posidon!

Despite his fears, they both make it to the underworld, where Xanthias engages with Aecus, Pluto’s servant, in the age old tradition of servants everywhere: talking smack about their masters.

Aeacus: By Zeus, that’s what I call a gentleman!
That master of yours!

Xanthias: Gentleman? That he is!
There’s nothing in his head but wine and wenches!

Later, in explaining why Dionysus was chosen to judge the poetry contest, Aeacus says that “Goodness is scarce, you know,” then points to the audience, “The same as here!”

Then once the contest starts, the insults fly even thicker.

Aeschylus: I well might take objection to the place;
It’s no fair field for him and me.

Dionysus: Why not?

Aeschylus: Because my writings haven’t died with me,
As his have; so he’ll have them all to hand…

One of more interesting arguments made by the poets is over the purpose of drama. Aeschylus believes that it should be to make men better. But then he goes on to define this bettering in terms of martial honor. He wishes to make men glory in war, to hunger for gore and fighting and glory. And none of this “women in love” thing either. Euripides points out that while this will undoubtedly make Ares happy, Aphrodite might feel left out. It becomes an interesting argument about one vision of masculinity versus another vision of femininity. A bit more progressive too, than one might have supposed for something written 2400 years ago, as Aristophanes is clearly mocking “macho” Greek culture.

Another thing surprising to see in ancient literature was the use of a concept popular today. Anyone with any social life at all has heard the practice of making everything funnier by adding a phrase to the end. Such as “in bed” or “with a chain saw.” Yeah, everyone has heard this one.

Aeschylus does this to Euripides using an “oil can.”

Aeschylus: Just one oil-can.
You write them so that nothing comes amiss,
The bed-quilt, or the oil-can, or the clothes-bag.
All suit your tragic verse! Wait and I’ll prove it.

Euripides: “Aegyptus, so the tale is spread afar,
With fifty youths fled in a sea-borne car,
But, reaching Argos…”

Aeschylus: “...found his oil-can gone!”

And on it goes. No matter what lofty topic Euripides addresses, Aeschylus shows that an oil-can has gone missing.

In another part of the contest, a giant scale is produced, and the poets must put the weight of their words into the balance. So, soaring language is light, while death is heavy. A line about heavy objects trumps light ones. The banter among the poets, Dionysus, and Pluto is delightful.

The final contest requires them to give political advice to Athens. This is where Aristophanes took risks. While technically immune from a claim of libel for things said in a drama, he still ended up getting taken to court by a politician or two. From hints in later plays, it appears he had a pretty good record in court.

This was a fun play to read for all of these reasons. While Greek tragedies can be a bit challenging to get through due to the allusions and constant analysis of the action, the comedies seem remarkably fresh and accessible. (Not that I don’t love the tragedies too.) The Frogs isn’t a bad place to start.

If you want to read my thoughts on the two poetic protagonists:

For more on legendary trips to the underworld:


  1. I can't read this title without thinking of the Modern Major General.

    1. Indeed! A Gilbert and Sullivan reference will always make me smile.