Aristophanes, the great comic dramatist of Athens, wrote the Frogs for performance at the Lenaia in late February 405 BC, where it won first prize. The play was written against the backdrop of the final stages of the Peloponnesian War (a long and destructive war between Athens and Sparta). The great tragic playwrights Sophocles and Euripides had died just just a few months earlier; Athens was under blockade by Sparta and her allies, and just six months after the production of Frogs the city was defeated in a major sea battle, and surrendered to Sparta.
Aristophanes' Frogs: the end of an era, by Dr Peter Agócs
First performed at the Athenians' winter festival for Dionysus in 405 BC, the year before democratic Athens' final defeat and collapse in the Peloponnesian War, Frogs is perhaps the most astonishing work of a great comic poet and man of the theatre. Most astonishing and relevant for us, because of its peculiar marriage of the traditional with the modern. It's at once about Dionysus and his festival (reflecting the ideological, socially improving function of tragic performance in Athenian culture from the late sixth century onward) and about reading and what would come, in later times, to be called criticism - a play that pits poet against poet (Aeschylus, the master of the old tradition of the generation of Marathon; Euripides, the poet of rhetoric, lightness, cleverness and sophistry) in a clash of wits, literary styles and aesthetic standards, foregrounding questions of critical judgement and taste that still matter to us today.
In a very real sense, it's the first surviving (if parodic) document of explicit ancient Greek theorising about literature. It is a play, intended for performance, which enacts a newly literate society's fascination with texts, canons, education and authorship: themes which still ground raging polemic in our own contemporary debates about criticism and cultural politics. Words and lines are pulled apart and refuted, or literally weighed and measured, in an attempt to find a faultless standard of critical judgement; while tragedy's moral purpose is interrogated in a way that belies the cheerful surface vulgarity of Aristophanes' comic style. As the chorus says to the two protagonists of the poets' quarrel, 'lay out your arguments... and if you're afraid of any ignorance in the audience, don't wory about that, because that's no longer how things stand today. They're all experienced! Each has a book and knows the clever points; their natural skills are top-notch, indeed, they're razor-sharp' (1105-16). This is a play for an Athens that has learned to read and thereby lost its innocence regarding myth and the enchantment of language - a city in which even the traditions of dramatic performance itself can be taken apart for the delectation of an audience of all-knowing readers. In this Athens, judging poetry is one strand in a wider net of social, political and cultural judgement: your taste in music and drama betrays who you are as a person. As Richard Hunter has recently shown, this play shows us the complex skein of social and aesthetic issues in which tragedy, as an institution, and the act of judging tragedy, were implicated.
Like Odysseus in the epic which bears his name, or like Orpheus in search of Eurydice, Dionysus as the god of drama must go down to the Underworld, not to meet Tiresias and learn his future, but to meet the now-dead poets of the past. Among other things, Frogs is a love-letter to a poetic tradition that is reaching the end of its creative phase. Both Sophocles and Euripides died in the months preceding the performance. Early in the play (52-4), Dionysus tells Heracles that, reading Euripides' Andromache, he was suddenly seized by an almost erotic desire for the absent author; there is a sense in which Frogs is really about the ways we love, interpret and pass judgement on authorless texts as substitutes for the author's living voice. The underworld, as Aristophanes presents it, is recognisably the Hades of the mythological and religious traditions of Attica: we meet the familiar gods and demons (Charon on his boat; the chorus of Eleusinian initiates). But it is also, with its innkeepers, lusty chambermaids and testy slaves, a place like the real world: the frog-chorus inhabits not only the river Styx, but the Lenaean marshes: an allusion to the festival at which the play was staged; Aeacus, the implacable mythological judge of dead souls, comes back as the doorman of a shabbily bourgeois Hell, and the poets fight out between themselves the cultural debates raging about poetry and education in the intellectual life of the democratic city. Should drama be about life, or should it idealise reality? What do poets actually teach? Should the language tragic poets use be grand or plain? If we get the answers right, dramatic poetry, it seems, can save the city. Drama and civic life are inextricably connected. The very fact that you could write a comedy about tragedy marks the place that drama, as an institution, occupied in Athenian life. In fact, it's also possible to read Frogs as a critique, by the greatest master of the genre, of the expressive possiblities of comedy.
In the end, Dionysus must decide which of the two warring poets he will take back with him. In the end, the criteria on which he bases his Solomonic judgement (he chooses Aeschylus) are hardly sound. They seem in no way to have the solidity and coherence we should expect from a critic judging poetry. This ambiguity is a key element in the Frogs' illusionless but not disillusioned engagement with criticism and poetry. It's as if, after we've tried all possible 'scientific' methods, examined and weighed every word and taken every prologue and choral strophe to bits, the only proper criterion of judgement that remains is what brings us pleasure. At this point, Aristophanes seems to wink across time at Roland Barthes. Aeschylus wins because he represents a nostalgic vision, un-contaminated by the small-mindedness of daily life, by corrupt and incompetent leadership, and by the losses of war, of a bygone age of Athenian heroism. His return to the upper world not as a book, but in the living flesh, serves as a utopian projection, entirely typical for Aristophanes, of Athens' vision of her own real self at a time when she was in danger of losing her soul. And indeed, a few months later, Lysander's Spartan navy defeated Athens' last fleet at Aegospotamoi: starvation, surrender and tyranny followed. But at the same time it's hard not to read Dionysus' decision as a natural, indeed necessary and inevitable failure of criticism to define what exactly is (or should be) canonical or Classical in poetry. (© Dr Peter Agócs)
1. What do you make of the portrayal of Dionysus in Frogs?
2. What does Frogs tell us about contemporary attitudes to orality and literacy?
3. What can Frogs tells us about contemporary attitudes to death and the afterlife?
4. Do we need to read the play against its historical background?
5. Does Frogs put forward any coherent vision (or ideal) about poetry?
6. What is the purpose of tragedy according to Aristophanes?
- Stephen Sondheim's adaptation >>
- BBC Prom (2010): The Frogs - Invocation and Instructions to the Audience >>
- Translation of Frogs, Wasps, and Women at the Thesmophoria (with introduction and notes): Frogs and Other Plays translated by D. Barrett (Penguin 2007)
- Aristophanes Frogs translated by J. Henderson (Focus 2008)
- General works of criticism
P. Cartledge, Aristophanes and his Theatre of the Absurd (Bristol 1990)
K.J. Dover, Aristophanic Comedy (Berkeley 1972)
M. Griffith, Aristophanes' Frogs (Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature: Oxford 2013)
R. Hunter, Critical Moments in Classical Literature (Cambridge 2009)
K. McLeish, The Theatre of Aristophanes (London 1980)
K. Sidwell, Aristophanes the Democrat (Cambridge 2009)
- Aristophanes in the modern world
E. Hall and A. Wrigley (eds.), Aristophanes in Performance 421 BC- AD 2007: Peace, Birds and Frogs (London 2007)
G. Van Steen, Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece (Princeton 2000)