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The Frogs by Aristophanes: Summary, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will summarize, analyze, and discuss the themes from 'The Frogs,' which is a comedic Greek play written by Aristophanes in 405 B.C.

Ancient Greek Comedy

What do you know about Greek mythology? ''The Frogs,'' an ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes, is based on the legends of the Greek God, Dionysus. In addition to mythology, this play alludes to the three greatest Greek dramatists, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. Let's find out more about this play.

Plot Summary

The protagonist of the story is Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, theater, and dance. He is one of the many sons of Zeus. In mythology, he is best known for his lack of convention, foreignness, and large female following.

Concerned about the current state of literature, Dionysus decides to travel to Hades, the underworld, to retrieve the great poet Euripides, who had died a year before this play was written. Dionysus claims, ''I want a genuine poet, 'For some are not, and those that are, are bad.' '''

The Journey

Dionysus sets off on his journey, accompanied by his servant, Xanthias. Xanthias is a character that is used in several of Aristophanes' works to represent slaves. Xanthias is crucial to the journey as he is much more intelligent than Dionysus, but receives no credit and is treated badly.

Dionysus asks his half-brother, Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology), for directions to Hades. Heracles is depicted in Greek mythology as being extremely strong and having fits of rage. After killing his wife and children, he was forced to complete 12 Labours, the final of which was to retrieve Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the gates of Hades.

Heracles sees Dionysus and laughs at his feminine appearance saying, ''O by Demeter, I can't choose but laugh. Biting my lips won't stop me. Ha! ha! ha!'' Heracles suggests that Dionysus get to Hades by killing himself, but Dionysus decides to take the long way.

Charon is the mythological ferry driver who takes the newly deceased over the rivers Styx to Hades. He agrees to take Dionysus, but not Xanthias, as slaves are not allowed in the boat. As Dionysus helps row the boat, he is annoyed by the sound of frogs taunting him through their singing. Xanthias walks around the water and meets him on the other side.

Soon, they encounterAeacus, who according to mythology is another son of Zeus who becomes a judge in Hades. Aeacus mistakes Dionysus for Heracles, who he is still angry with for stealing Cerberus. Fearful of having monsters unleashed at him by Aeacus, Dionysus calls for Xanthias to trade clothes with him, but quickly changes back when a maid invites Xanthias to a feast with dancing virgins.

The Challenge

The maid tells them about a challenge between Euripides and Aeschylus in which they will compete for the title of the Best Tragic Poet in Hades. Dionysus serves as a judge as Euripides and Aeschylus trade verses in an effort to beat the other.

Aeschylus is deemed the winner because his verses about death are heavier. Dionysus decides to bring Aeschylus with him back to Athens. As they leave, Euripides takes Aeschylus' chair as the great poet, but it is apparent that most believe the chair now belongs to Sophocles, who died as Aristophanes was in the middle of writing ''The Frogs.''

Themes and Analysis

''The Frogs,'' which was an award-winning play at the theater competition honoring Dionysus in Athens, pays homage to the great literary figures that had recently passed at the time this comedy was written. The author's message is that literature used to be better than it is today, however, the play seems to go beyond that.

On a deeper level, it suggests that all of Athens has gone downhill in recent years, as some conflicts in the play seem to parallel the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The play suggests that poetry and comedy may provide entertainment value, but more importantly can provide insight, guidance, and comfort during difficult times.

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