The Frogs | Study Guide

Aristophanes

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The Frogs | Episode 1 | Summary

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Summary

The door to Pluto's abode in the Underworld is opened by Aeacus, who, seeing Dionysus in his Hercules costume, accuses him of stealing Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades. Aeacus threatens Dionysus: "Roaming hounds of Cocytus / will gnaw your guts to bits!" Terrified to the point of soiling himself, Dionysus gives his Hercules costume to Xanthias who puts it on.

Now a servant girl comes to the door, sees Xanthias as Hercules, and invites him in to a feast at which beautiful girls will be his: "There's a lovely flute girl in there, just for you— / two or three dancing girls, as well." Dionysus, seeing that Xanthias has received a very different greeting, insists on switching costumes again.

As soon as Dionysus puts on the Hercules costume again, he is accosted by Pandokeutria and Plathane, two landladies. The landladies accuse "Hercules" of eating "20 hams" along with dozens of fish and other delicacies and refusing to pay for them. Though the Chorus warns Xanthias, Dionysus once again convinces him to change outfits.

Analysis

In this scene the audience sees a multifaceted shifting of roles. Dionysus and Xanthias pretend, at various points, to be Hercules—and the other characters accept this at face value, even as Dionysus and Xanthias switch costumes three times. This form of comedy was popular in Greek comedy, and so to a certain degree the interactions are predictable.

At the same time, however, changes of costume and behavior raise a question about identity that is prevalent throughout the play. Who is the master and who is the slave? After his first encounter, for example, Dionysus is so frightened that he soils his pants. Xanthias responds by saying to his master: "You're being ridiculous. Get up. Move it, / before some stranger spots you." Having traded places, Dionysus then picks up his servant's burden. To audiences when this play was originally performed, it would have been humorous and ironic to make Dionysus look like a coward, since Dionysus was thought of, during that time, as a powerful god whose initiates worshipped him.

The various characters' different reactions to Hercules are based on their experience with the character in the story of the 12 Labors of Hercules. In that story Hercules was required to go down to the Underworld and bring back Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the gates. According to the myth, Hercules didn't steal the dog but instead was given permission to take it by Hades, who also insisted that the dog not be harmed (it wasn't). Aristophanes has taken some liberties by assuming Hercules was also a big eater, attractive to the women of Hades, and likely to leave without paying his bill.

During this scene Xanthias is advised by the Chorus (as Initiates). While the Chorus does provide insights (for example, "you'll be compelled a second time to carry all the bags"), this section is not the Parabasis. The Chorus in this scene of the play moves the plot forward and speaks for the views of some contemporary people, including the playwright, possibly, by asserting the importance of traditional arts, including traditionally written plays, and also lamenting corrupt public officials and politicians.

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