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The Frogs | Themes

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Return to the Old Ways

According to the character of Dionysus in The Frogs, only the older (now deceased) poets had talent: "I need a clever poet. There's none around. / The ones we've got are all so lousy." Dionysus undertakes his journey to Hades to bring back the famed Euripides who had exhorted the people to greater moral heights. Along the way, the Chorus describes how the Athenians have lost their ability to judge worthy men. They decry the promotion of "useless men from useless fathers ... men who've come here very recently" whom the city would, in the past "never use ... not even as a scapegoat."

Once in Hades, Dionysus is asked to preside over a contest between the poets Aeschylus and Euripides. This provides each character (and the Chorus) with the opportunity to explore how older tragedies positively impacted the moral character of the Athenians. For example, the character of Aeschylus, along with the Chorus, helps communicate the idea that only by returning to older traditions of poetry, art, and morality will Athens survive. This theme is important to Aristophanes, who was writing toward the end of a long war with Sparta—which Athens would eventually lose. In the play Aeschylus, for example, describes his plays as a strong positive moral force: "There were no runaways, no layabouts, / no scoundrels like today." He then adjures the listening audience to "Look back—they've been useful from the start, / the noble race of poets."

Euripides, more practical than Aeschylus, nevertheless believes that his now-defunct style of poetry improved the ability of Athenians to think intelligently and make wise choices: "Now they see everything / and understand it all. Their minds are more profound." As a result, "we help improve the men who live within our cities." Without access to the types of messages, morals, and social models presented in his plays, Euripides suggests, the people of Athens will not understand that "if we reversed our course, we might be saved." Yet, this argument is ultimately rejected in favor of that of Aeschylus, who argues that Athenian survival is dependent on the tradition of his works.

Identity

The theme of identity arises multiple times over the course of the play. Dionysus first appears on stage dressed as Hercules, in lion skin and club. Later, a comic scene has Dionysus and his slave, Xanthias, appearing variously as Hercules and then as one another. The servants and innkeepers in Hades are confused over just who they are dealing with, and are finally convinced that both Dionysus and his slave are actually gods.

Aristophanes uses the identity theme to make his political point. Throughout the play he calls out contemporary politicians for not actually being who they appear to be—talking the talk but not walking the walk so to speak, which is dangerous for society. Within the play, Dionysus pretends to be greater and stronger by portraying Hercules but cannot live up to who he is pretending to be. But when Dionysus finally reveals who he is (the god of theater) he gets his "power" back and rightfully judges the competition between the playwrights, something he is qualified to do. However, in the reverse, Xanthias, though only a slave, is shown to have better qualities and qualities that are underappreciated because of his social position. In this way Aristophanes seems to be showing that the quality of a person isn't dependent on their status, servant or god, but in either case, it is best to not pretend to be something you are not.

Importance of Poetry and Drama

The role of poetry and drama was particularly significant in ancient Greece, when other forms of mass communication were in their infancy. Aeschylus and Euripides were two of the most significant tragic poet playwrights of their time. Both had died relatively recently when Aristophanes wrote The Frogs. No living poet, according to the character of Dionysus, could compete with these great talents. In fact, all of the living poets were "chatterboxes, twittering swallows in a music hall, /mere foliage—disgraces to the artist's craft."

In The Frogs Dionysus undertakes a journey to Hades for the sole purpose of returning poet playwright Euripides to the land of the living where, Dionysus hopes, he will exert a positive influence on Athenians. In Hades a large portion of the Chorus's exposition and the debate (or agon) between Aeschylus and Euripides is dedicated to the important role poetry and drama play in shaping the thoughts and behaviors of the citizens. This is an unusual approach for Aristophanes, whose prior plays (Lysistrata and The Clouds, among others) were dedicated almost exclusively to political satire. Not only does this technique provide multiple opportunities to discuss the importance of poetry and drama overall, but it also allows the playwright to quote extensively from the works of both Euripides and Aeschylus.

Aeschylus, in particular, champions the importance of poetry and theater as a tool for instilling proper values in citizens. He quotes extensively from his own work, offering audiences the opportunity to recall and consider the impact of his tragic plays. He also discusses the significance of poetry and theater as tools for improving life for the Athenians. Orpheus, he says, "taught us rituals and not to kill" while "Musaeus showed us cures for sicknesses / and oracles as well," and Hesiod "taught farming, harvest times, and how to plough." Aeschylus refers to the work of Homer, asking "Where's his renown / ... if not in what he taught, / those useful facts about courageous deeds?"

Questions for Themes

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