Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754
Wishing to visit the underworld, Bacchus sets out with his slave, Xanthias, to visit Hercules, from whom the god of wine hopes to get directions for his visit to the lower regions. On the way, Xanthias grumbles and moans about his many bundles. Xanthias is actually being carried on a donkey, but he complains until Bacchus loses patience and suggests that perhaps Xanthias would like to carry the donkey for a while.
Hercules, when consulted, suggests that Bacchus allow himself to be killed in order to arrive in the land of the dead. Bacchus wants to go there alive because he is anxious to see and to talk to the great playwrights; the critics tell him that all good writers are dead and gone. He is particularly anxious to meet Euripides. Hercules advises him to be content with the playwrights who are still alive. Bacchus argues that none of them is good enough. After getting directions from Hercules, he starts out, Xanthias still complaining about his bundles.
They come to the River Acheron and meet Charon, who ferries Bacchus across, insisting, however, that Bacchus row the boat; Xanthias walks around the margin of the stream because he dishonored himself by not volunteering for a naval victory. Xanthias tries to excuse himself on the grounds that he has sore eyes, but Charon refuses to listen.
While Bacchus and Xanthias talk to Charon, a chorus of frogs sets up a hoarse croaking, imitating the noisy plebeians at the theater with their senseless hooting. Bacchus sprains his back with his rowing and the frogs think his groans quite amusing.
Safely on the other side, Bacchus pays his fare and joins his slave. The two meet a monster, which Bacchus takes care to avoid until it turns into a beautiful woman. With difficulty, they find their way to the doorway of Pluto’s realm, Xanthias still grumbling because of his heavy bundles.
At the entrance to Hades, Bacchus foolishly pretends to be Hercules—a mistake on his part, for Aeacus, the doorman, raises a clamor over the theft of Cerberus, the watchdog. When Aeacus threatens all sorts of punishments, Bacchus reveals who he really is. Xanthias accuses him of cowardice, but Bacchus stoutly denies the charge.
Bacchus and Xanthias decide to change characters. Xanthias pretends to be Hercules and Bacchus takes up the bundles his slave carries. When, however, servants of Proserpine enter and offer Xanthias a fine entertainment, Bacchus demands his legitimate character back.
Aeacus returns, eager to punish someone, and Xanthias gives him permission to beat Bacchus. Bacchus says that he is a deity and that he should therefore not be beaten. Xanthias counters by saying that since Bacchus is an immortal he need not mind the beating. Aeacus decides they both should be beaten soundly, and he finally decides to take them both to Pluto and Proserpine, to discover who is the deity. Aeacus says Bacchus is apparently a gentleman, and Xanthias agrees wholeheartedly, saying Bacchus does not do anything except carouse.
In Pluto’s realm, they find two dead dramatists, Aeschylus and Euripides, fighting for favor. The rule in Hades is that the most famous man of any art or craft eats at Pluto’s table until some more talented man in his field dies and comes to Hades. Aeschylus holds the seat Euripides is now claiming.
Aeacus says that the dramatists intend to measure their plays line for line by rules and compasses to determine the superior craftsman. The quarreling dramatists debate, accusing each of the other’s faults. Aeschylus says he is at a disadvantage because Euripides’ plays died with him and are present to help him, whereas his own plays still live on earth.
Bacchus offers to be the judge, whereupon each dramatist begins to defend himself. In the midst of their violent quarrel, Pluto appears. Bacchus orders each to recite from his own works. Euripides seems to have the worse of this contest, but Bacchus wisely refuses to judge so as not to make either playwright angry with him. Pluto wearily insists that he pick one winner and take his choice back with him to the upper world in order to stop needless rivalry in Hades.
At last, Bacchus votes for Aeschylus. Euripides complains at the choice. He is consoled, however, when Pluto says he might be sure of a good meal in the underworld, while Aeschylus will be burdened forever with the task of earning his living by his attempts to reform folly and evil in the world above.