The Frogs is deservedly one of the best-known plays of Aristophanes. It took the first prize for comedy on first being presented at an annual drama festival in Athens, and it continues over the centuries to retain much of its freshness and exuberance. As a depiction of the foibles and follies of men and gods alike, the play is great satirical fun. The high point of the comedy, however, is the witty debate between Aeschylus and Euripides as to which of them produced the better tragedies. Some knowledge is desirable of Aristophanes’ opinions and the times in which he lived, of the Athenian crisis at the end of the Peloponnesian War, and of Aeschylus and Euripides.
The play starts with the absurdity that Bacchus braves the terrors of the underworld to bring Euripides back to life. On this conceit Aristophanes builds a farcical sequence of situations, all of which defy reason and probability. It is important to know that shortly before Aristophanes wrote The Frogs, Bakchai(405 b.c.e.; The Bacchae, 1781), Euripides’ last play, was produced, in which Euripides portrayed Bacchus (Dionysus), who is both the god of wine and the god of the theater, as a powerful, mysterious, fearless, and vengeful being. It is therefore all the funnier that Aristophanes shows him as a weak, pedestrian, cowardly, and pacific god who is obviously flattered by Euripides and wants him brought back to life to continue the praise. The humor of the first half of The Frogs is devoted to exposing Bacchus as a fraud and, by implication, Euripides himself. The Bacchae was awarded first prize, posthumously; and the chorus of frogs in Aristophanes’ comedy represents the popular clamor that greeted Euripides’ play.
Having thoroughly routed Bacchus, Aristophanes brings Euripides and Aeschylus on stage to engage in comic debate. Euripides is depicted as an upstart in Hades. Recently dead, he tries to wrest the chair of honor from Aeschylus. Obviously, Aristophanes regarded Euripides as a base-born upstart in life as well, for the tragedian also appeared as a farcical character in Acharns(425 b.c.e.; The Acharnians, 1812) and Thesmophoriazousai(411 b.c.e.; Thesmophoriazusae, 1837), and he was made the butt of numerous jokes in other plays. The antagonism was largely due to Aristophanes’ snobbery and conservatism, for he prided himself on coming from landed gentry.
Aristophanes thought that Euripides was partly responsible for the decline in Athenian politics and morality. There is no question that Euripides used tragedy to turn a light on current social issues and effect changes. This is the heart of the matter: The comic poet propagandized for conservatism, while the tragic poet urged reform. The importance of drama in Athenian life cannot be overemphasized. Public oratory and the theater were the only media, the only means of conveying propaganda to large audiences. Aristophanes’ comments against Euripides are far more than mere fun or the prejudices of a clever conservative; in actuality they were part of a battle to control public opinion.
Some of the charges Aristophanes makes against Euripides in The Frogs could be leveled at himself as well. Impiety, near-colloquial verse, sordid passions, and characters who reason sophistically without any sincerity are all a part of his comic art. What Euripides had done in essence was to lessen the difference between tragedy and comedy; but what Aristophanes could not forgive was that Euripides tended to be a left-wing social reformer, tearing away at established institutions.
The truth is that Athenian politics and life did degenerate during Euripides’ long career, but it would be as foolish to blame it on...
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him as on Aristophanes. The real villains were those who initiated the Peloponnesian War and kept it going for twenty-seven years.
The Frogs can be read as a literary, social, or political tract by a very amusing dramatist. On the literary level, Euripides pokes fun at Aeschylus’s bombast and theatricality, while Aeschylus ridicules Euripides’ commonness of diction. When Aeschylus’s lines of poetry are weighed against those of Euripides, the latter is shown quite literally to be a lightweight talent. Socially, Aeschylus is made to represent the old, heroic, patriotic virtues of Athens, whereas Euripides stands for the degenerate contemporary society. Aristophanes hints that Euripides comes of lower-class people, and he states openly that his audience in Hades consists of felons, who love his sophistries.
Nevertheless, it is on the political plane that Aristophanes really indicts Euripides, suggesting that the demagogues learned their twisting logic from Euripides. In fact, the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides is finally settled over who offers the best advice politically. In this, Aeschylus wins hands down, and he is taken back to earth by Bacchus to teach the Athenians virtue. Aristophanes had no intention of playing fair. To him Euripides represented everything corrupt in Athenian society. Moreover, The Frogs was written in a time of crisis, when it was clear to many that Athens either had to make peace with Sparta or be ruled by her. The Peloponnesian War had yet one more year to go. In the middle of the play, Aristophanes makes a direct political plea to the audience, trying to convince Athenians so that they might avoid defeat. The wonder is that, given the author’s bias and the times in which it was written, The Frogs is one of the most delightful comedies of any age.