Whoever it was that gave Aristophanes the inspiration to write The Frogs, was one hell of a muse. In the play, Dionysos judges a mythic contest between the dead playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides, to determine once and for all, who is the supreme poet (and who shall return from Hades to save Athens from Alkibiades). However, what is the measure of a supreme poet? What makes one body of work greater than another? Dionysos puts it succinctly, “The one of you who has the best advice to give for saving the city is the one that I’ll take back” (The Frogs 577). Which is to say, a poet may be valued according to what he teaches. Needless to say, there are two questions that I wish to address in this essay. First, how are Aeschylean and Euripidean drama portrayed in The Frogs? Throughout the latter half of the comedy, both poets volley biting critiques back and forth at one another, while at the same time, highlighting their own strengths. Second, how accurate are these caricatures of Aeschylean and Euripidean drama? That is, is there textual support for the statements made in The Frogs in the works of Aeschylus and Euripides?
In The Frogs, Aeschylus is continually styled by Euripides as over the top and overwhelming, “stupefy[ing] his audiences with theatrical effects and portentous language” (Dover 176). From the outset of the contest, Euripides speaks of Aeschylus as such:
I know this man. I’ve studied him for a long time.
His verse is fiercely made, all full of sound and fury,
language unbridled uncontrolled ungated-in
untalkable-around, bundles of blast and boast.
(The Frogs 540)
At first, this comment seems well-intentioned, describing Aeschylus’ verse as “fiercely made, full of sound and fury.” However, it turns into an attack on the characteristic complexities and intricacies of language in Aeschylean drama, describing them as “bundles of blast and boast.” In turn, Aeschylus defends his plays claiming that “[they] set heroic examples of warlike courage” (Dover 176). Thus, while Euripides is attacking the merits of Aeschylus’ language, Aeschylus focuses on the values his plays might inspire in the audience. Though, he does mention later that, “For magnificent thoughts and magnificent fancies, we must have magnificent words” (The Frogs 555). Euripides writes of the poet’s responsibility; why the poet is respected among the people of the city:
Because he can write, and because he can think, but
mostly because he’s injected
some virtue into the body politic.
(The Frogs 551)
Aeschylus plays off of Euripides’ comment with a clever retort on the effects of his verse on his audiences :
Mine snorted the spirit of spears and splendor, of white-
plumed helmets and stricken fields,
of warrior heroes in shining armor and greaves and
(The Frogs 551)
This is the image of “warlike courage” that is so important to Aeschylus. Therefore, there is dichotomy being created, separating what Aeschylus holds to be the positive attributes of his plays from the negative criticism of Euripides. When Euripides says that the poet has a responsibility to inject some virtue into the community, he is agreeing with the sentiment that a poet may be valued according to what he teaches. However, in his argument against Aeschylean drama, he does not attack any aspects of what it may teach or bestow on the audience. Rather ironically, he ignores this and focuses on the difficult language of Aeschylus.
Is Aeschylean drama really as heroic and noble as Aeschylus believes it to be in The Frogs? The answer to the first question depends upon the approach one takes. Is Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Electra or even Orestes heroic and noble? No (Note: Aeschylus mentions Persians and Seven Against Thebes as his most heroic and warlike plays... as I am not familiar with them, I cannot offer an opinion on whether they would change my response here). The only main character in an Aeschylean drama that is truly heroic is Prometheus, for his selfless act of sacrifice on behalf of humankind (that he is even an Aeschylean character may be disputed). All the others are self-serving, vengeful, or both. How vicious cycles of revenge could ever be construed as “warlike courage” is beyond me. That being said, Aeschylus does not espouse a philosophy of vengeance, instead, he shows the consequences of such actions, teaching through mis-examples. This is not to say, that Aeschylus does not teach more directly at times, as he does through Athene here:
No anarchy, no rule of a single master. Thus
I advise my citizens to govern and to grace,
and not to cast fear utterly from your city. What
man who fears nothing at all is ever righteous?
(The Eumenides 696-699)
This passage is not only political, it carries a moralistic weight as well. However, it seems to be discouraging “warlike courage.” Therefore, while Aeschylean drama certainly carries noble themes, its reality does not quite fit the depiction in The Frogs.
Is the language as complicated and diffuse as Euripides says it is? Yes, but Aeschylus’ verse is also filled with stunning imagery and beautiful metaphors. Thus, it seems to be a matter of perspective. Aeschylus certainly uses a fair share of intentionally ambiguous and confusing word play, including the following line:
With no man else have I known delight, nor any shame
of evil speech, more than I know how to temper bronze.
At first glance, it is difficult to determine Aeschylus’ intention in these lines. Clytemnestra is obviously speaking of Agamemnon, however, what she says is baffling without an understanding of the tempered bronze metaphor. Hogan offers the suggestion that bronze cannot be tempered as steel can, because if its low melting point. This lends an interesting meaning to the lines, which could be read as: “I would deny my liaison with Aegisthus as soon as I would melt the dagger saved for Agamemnon.” Alternatively, Hogan proposes that the phrase “to temper bronze” may “refer to dipping [it] in order to dye it,” lending the lines a murderously sordid tone: “I shall soon show you how well I can dye [with blood] this bronze, just as well as I can enjoy my man” (63). Such a brilliant play on words is nearly as dazzling as it is grotesque, however, one often needs a skeleton key to gain such insight into Aeschylean verse.
As far as Aeschylus is concerned (in The Frogs), Euripides is a “jabber-compiler... dead-beat poet... rag-stitcher...” (The Frogs 540-541). Nevertheless, Euripides carries a reputation for being more straightforward than his contemporaries, particularly Aeschylus. Dover comments that Euripides, “having Tragedy on a diet and slimmed her down, has introduced matter which falls within the everyday experience of the audience; thus he exposes himself to their informed criticism and at the same time sharpens their critical capacity in their ordinary lives” (176). As Euripides puts it so plainly in The Frogs: “I made the drama democratic” (The Frogs 548). Listening as always, Aeschylus uses Euripides’ defense to criticize Euripidean drama: in contrast to the “warlike courage” he lays claim to, Aeschylus implies that Euripides encourages “women in adultery and men in undisciplined idleness” (Dover 176). One of the most humorous scenes in The Frogs involves Euripides’ prologues and a “lost bottle of oil” (The Frogs 564). To demonstrate (and mock) the monotony of Euripides’ iambics, Aeschylus tags the line “lost his little bottle of oil” to every prologue Euripides recites. Notwithstanding, the contest is not decided by language: concise or otherwise. In the end, the message is what counts, and Dionysos chooses Aeschylus over Euripides on those grounds.
Overall, The Frogs has far more to say about Aeschylus than about Euripides. This may be attributable to Euripides talking more than Aeschylus in the play (i.e. criticizing Aeschylus more than vice versa). Needless to say, from The Frogs, a general impression may be formed of Euripidean drama as concise, sometimes prosy and lacking the heroic lessons that Aeschylus claims. That he is prosy and concise is accurate, seen here: “Be careful, or you will find that tongue of yours may make a serious mistake” (Hippolytus 100-101). However, Euripides is not without purpose. Conacher writes that Euripides is often credited with the breakdown of the traditional structure of Greek tragedies, heralding him “Euripides the destroyer” while at the same time ignoring “Euripides the creator” (3). The breakdown of this structure correlates with Euripides’ rejection of the mythical world view. More than any of his predecessors and most of his contemporaries, Euripides criticized the attitudes and beliefs of Athenian society. Euripidean drama often picks apart the anthropomorphic characterizations of the gods. Aphrodite and Artemis appear in Hippolytus, while Dionysos makes his presence known in Bacchae. All three are portrayed with human elements, despite their inherent differences, and in doing so, Euripides is commenting on the absurdity of trying to nail down a definition of the gods. He is pulling the divine off the ivory tower, mixing the sacred and profane.
Therefore, the depictions of both Aeschylean and Euripidean tragedy in The Frogs are accurate caricatures. The stylistic fervor of each poet is retained and at the same time, certain mannerisms are stretched and parodied. Only one question remains, where is Sophocles? When The Frogs was performed circa 406 BC Sophocles was still living and was arguably one of Athens greatest tragedians. The whole premise behind The Frogs is that Athens has lost all of its great poets, and that Dionysos must travel to Hades to bring one back to life. Perhaps, in between all of the amusing jabs back and forth between Aeschylus and Euripides, Aristophanes was really poking fun at Sophocles....
Conacher, D.J. Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme and Structure. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1967.
Dover, K.J. Aristophanic Comedy. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972.
Hogan, James C. The Complete Greek Tragedies: Aeschylus. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.