Aristophanes, Frogs

LCL 180: 4-5

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Aristophanes

been restaged at the Lenaea of 404. For the restaging Aristophanes probably made only a few minor changes: lines 1251–60, 1431a-b, and 1437–53 seem to contain alternative versions of the text, but passages that would have been inappropriate at the time of the restaging remain, and there are no references to the events of early 404.

In Frogs Dionysus, disguised as Heracles, travels to the underworld with his cheeky slave, Xanthias, in order to retrieve his favorite tragic poet, the recently deceased Euripides. The first part of the play (1–673) chronicles their katabasis (descent to the underworld): a meeting with the real Heracles to obtain directions; Dionysus’ voyage across the lake that leads to the underworld, ineptly rowing Charon’s skiff and engaging in song with a chorus of frogs; comic terrors illustrating Dionysus’ cowardice; the entry of the main chorus of Eleusinian Initiates, who live near the palace of Pluto, god of the underworld; several scenes of the sort that typically occur in the second part of a comedy, after the parabasis, in which Dionysus attempts to avoid the predicaments that await him upon arrival by exchanging his disguise with Xanthias; and finally Dionysus’ admission into Pluto’s palace. 2

After the parabasis (674–737), there is a conversation between Xanthias and a slave of Pluto’s that amounts to a second prologue introducing a new situation: Dionysus has been recruited by Pluto to judge a contest for the underworld Chair of Tragedy between Aeschylus, its longtime incumbent, and Euripides, who upon arrival has laid claim to preeminence in the art. Much of the ensuing

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contest focuses on the rivals’ poetic techniques, with detailed critiques of actual passages from their plays and parody of their characteristic styles. But Aeschylus and Euripides also emerge as representatives of the character, both poetic and civic, of their respective eras, and the decisive test turns on which poet is more able to effect “the salvation of Athens and the continuation of her choral festivals” (1418–19). On this criterion Dionysus chooses Aeschylus, and Pluto tells him that he may take Aeschylus with him back to Athens; Sophocles, also recently deceased, will hold the Chair of Tragedy in his absence. The Chorus of Eleusinian Initiates lead Dionysus and Aeschylus off in a torchlight procession recalling the inspirational finale of Aeschylus’ Oresteia.

Beyond being a landmark in the history of literary criticism, Frogs embraces two transcendent issues, the decline of Athens as a great power and the decline of tragedy as a great form of art, and connects them by portraying tragic poets as both exemplifying and shaping the moral and civic character of their times. His solution to both issues, the resurrection of Aeschylus from the dead, is both pessimistic and optimistic: if there were no longer any living poets who could inspire the Athenians to greatness, at least the works of Aeschylus lived on, and might inspire the Athenians to recapture the virtues that had made their city preeminent in his day.

The decline of Athens and its musical culture were hardly new themes in the comedies of Aristophanes and his contemporaries, and the remedy of resurrecting great men of the past had recently figured in at least two of them: in Eupolis’ Demes (412) the hero Pyronides brings back four great leaders (Solon, Miltiades, Aristeides, and

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DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.aristophanes-frogs.2002