68. The Frogs by Aristophanes (405 BC)

Plot : Dionysus, God of drama, seeks Heracles’ advice. He wants to go down to Hades and return with Euripides, as all the current living playwrights are rubbish. After receiving some interesting practical advice, Dionysus and his slave Xanthias reach the Palace of Hades, where a dispute has erupted between Aeschylus and Euripides over who deserves to sit on the Throne of Tragedy, with Sophocles as Aeschylus’ second, and Dionysus and Hades as judges. Will Dionysus choose his avowed favourite , or can Aeschylus persuade him otherwise?

My version was the last of the three Aristophanes plays in the volume Frogs and other plays translated by David Barrett and Shomit Dutta (ISBN 9780140449693)

My thoughts

Lots to like about this play, but also for me some less riveting parts.

Firstly I love how Dionysus asks Heracles on the quickest ways to get to Hades, and he suggests trying hanging, poison, or jumping from a high tower!

Aristophanes makes Dionysus a figure of fun and ridicule, cowardly and even soiling his robes in fear of humans. This is a very irreligious portrayal of a God, and certainly not the vengeful demon Dionysus seen in The Bacchae.

Euripides and Aeschylus must debate each other to convince Dionysus and Pluto who best deserves the throne. I actually laughed out loud when Aeschylus kept inserting the line “lost his little flask of oil” in every one of Euripides’ prologue speeches – I guess you have to be there.  But the discussions of their lyrics’ shortcomings lost me entirely.

I also liked how they literally weighed their poetry, with words like ‘river’ and ‘Death’ weighing more than ‘flights’ and ‘persuasion’ – the  emptiness of the latter weighing virtually nothing at all.

And what about the frogs, you ask? On paper they are just an aside to the main action of the play, possibly only heard off-stage. Unusually they form a second chorus to the play, which would have been a financial and logistic drain on the production, and may be the reason they were kept off-stage.

Diversions/digressions:  Why did Aristophanes (or the translator) use the Roman name Pluto so often in this play instead of the Greek Hades?  According to trusty Google, it is not as simple as that – the name Pluto was used by classical Greek authors as a quasi-substitute for Hades which became more associated as a a name for the Underworld. Pluto is a more benign manifestation and more appropriate in quest tales involving heroes seeking to retrieve people or objects from there.

Favourite lines/passages

The Chorus praises Aeschylus

“Ah how impressive the rage that burns in the heart of

the Thunderer,

Seeing the fangs of his rival exposed in a gesture of hate!

Note how superbly he raves, and with what

independence his eyeballs

in divers directions gyrate!

Words are his weapons: watch out, as the armour-clad

syllables hurtle,

Helmeted, crested and plumed, from the lips of the poet

most high!

Wait for the clash and din as the metaphors collide

and mingle,

The sparks as the particles fly!”                                                                 Chorus, pages 165-166


Personal rating : 6

This was my 100th post on Chronolit.com.  – thanks all for your support – and 68th book review, meaning 1/3 of the time I’m just  chatting with you! Better get on with more reading!

Next :  A collection of Hippocratic treatises on ancient medicine, including the famous Hippocratic oath. Apparently none were written by Hippocrates.

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