Dionysus (di-oh-NI-suhs), the god of wine and revelry, who combines in a farcical fashion many of the defects that the playwright ridiculed in his fellow Athenians—cowardice, egoism, lechery, effeminacy, and laziness—but is, nevertheless, the patron god of the drama. Inspired by a reading of Euripides’ Andromeda, he resolves to journey to Hades to bring the tragic poet back to Athens. To facilitate his entry to the Underworld, he disguises himself as his kinsman Herakles, who had earlier made the dangerous trip. This is a ludicrous idea, because the two are of totally different natures, and Dionysus is terrified of the monsters he sees, or thinks he sees, along the way. Eventually, with the aid of a chorus of initiates into the Mysteries of Dionysus and Demeter, souls who enjoy a favored place in Hades, he enters the realm of Pluto. There he learns that the chair of tragedy, which Sophocles had refused to take from Aeschylus, the elder poet, has been usurped by Euripides, who, upon his arrival in the Underworld, gained the support of the rabble. Aeschylus has challenged Euripides, and Dionysus finds that he has been chosen to judge between them. He has each poet recite lines from his dramas, a situation that allows Aristophanes ample opportunity to parody the defects of each and to have Dionysus make critical comments, some incisive, some obtuse. At last, scales are produced. Because Aeschylus’ verses are the weightier and because he has displaced Euripides in the affections of the god, Dionysus chooses Aeschylus to accompany him to the upper world. The chair of tragedy is left to Sophocles, and Euripides is contemptuously dismissed.
Xanthias (ZAN-thee-uhs), Dionysus’ slave, who has been compared with Sancho Panza. He has a highly comical sense of the many wrongs his master visits upon him but too broad a humor to take them very seriously. He is not above taking mild revenge when the opportunity offers itself, and on several occasions he exhibits a shrewdness that makes Dionysus appear all the more foolish.
Euripides (ew-RIH-pih-deez), the tragic poet, presented in a very unfavorable light as a debaser of poetry and the drama, a purveyor of corrupt ideas and empty rhetoric, a sentimentalist, a weakener of the public morality, and a self-seeking pleaser of the mob. He is allowed, however, to make some telling criticism of Aeschylus’ tragedies before he is defeated.
Aeschylus (EHS-kih-luhs), a tragic poet considerably more dignified than Euripides but not above shrewdness in argument against his opponent. He takes credit for stiffening the moral fiber of his countrymen, but he must bear charges of deficiency in dramatic action and the use of pompous language. His style at its best, however, is deemed far superior to anything Euripides can offer.
Herakles (HEH-ruh-kleez), the demigod, who advises Dionysus on his journey to Hades.
Charon (KAY-ruhn), the ferryman of the dead, who makes Dionysus row across Acheron. He will not admit Xanthias to the ferry, however, and the slave, loaded with baggage, is forced to walk around the lake.
Pluto (PLEW-toh), the god of Hades.
Aeacus (EE-uh-kuhs), usually one of the judges of the Underworld, here presented as Pluto’s porter.
A Landlady of Hades
A Landlady of Hades and
Plathané (pla-tha-NAY), her servant, who attack Dionysus. They mistake him for Herakles, a great glutton, who had robbed them of food.
A Chorus of Frogs
A Chorus of Frogs, who mock noisy spectators at the theater. At the entrance to Hades, they sing of the rain and the marshes.
A Chorus of Initiates
A Chorus of Initiates, who praise the gods of the Mysteries, advise the citizens of Athens, and sing a farewell when Dionysus and Aeschylus return to the upper world.