The Frogs is my favorite of Aristophanes’s comedies.
It is the only Aristophanean comedy to feature a god at the beginning -Dionysus, the god of the theatre, and his slave Xanthias. As they walk, Xanthias is meta-textually concerned with telling jokes that will make the audience laugh, and laughter presupposes some kind of suffering, though the reverse is not true. Xanthias is concerned with the right kind of comedy while Dionysus is concerned with the right kind of tragedy.
They arrive at the house of Herakles, humorously disguised in a lion’s skin and women’s clothes (accidentally). In foreshadowing of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Dionysus has been fighting in naval warfare, where he read Euripides’s Andromeda (now lost) and he longs to bring the poet back from the dead (Euripides had recently died). Herakles suggests bringing back Sophocles, but Dionysus rejects this as Sophocles is too moderate and even-tempered, but Euripides is a scoundrel for departing his city. Herakles is sobriety, against Dionysus’s drunken infatuation.
Dionysus gets to the point of his visit: he needs guidance on the best (meaning softest and easiest) route to Hades, since Herakles is one of the few mortals to survive and return from the venture. Xanthias will carry his bags into Hades. Perhaps Dionysus’s softness underlies his love of Euripides. Herakles tries to dissuade him with three options of suicide, then tells him of the great lake which Charon will ferry as well as the beasts and sewage and sufferers. Dionysus departs dressed as Herakles so as to pass through Hades better. Dionysus listens to his slave Xanthias when he prefers not to embark on the journey to Hades, however when he speaks to a corpse already headed to Hades about joining him instead, the corpse demands high payment, and thus Xanthias sensibly joins his master and friend.
In allusion to Odysseus, Aeneas, Orpheus, and Theseus, Dionysus ventures down to Hades. They arrive at the great lake and Charon ferries disguised Dionysus across, but not Xanthias, as a slave per Athenian customs. He must walk around the lake. Apparently customs remain the same as above so below in Hades. A chorus of frogs annoys Dionysus across the lake. Passing through the terrors and the initiated at Eleusis, they arrive at Pluton’s gate. They are welcomed into Persephone’s home, but the wily Dionysus trades Herakles costumes with his slave Xanthias, after realizing Herakles was most unwelcome in Hades. Nevertheless, Dionysus is beaten -whipped like a slave.
He learns that Aeschylus and Euripides are engaged in a competition for a throne near Pluton in Hades. Aeschylus originally held the throne, but once Euripides came to Hades, he started impressing the rabble with his tricks. Aeschylus is noted for his gigantic grandeur and fury, while Euripides is noted for his sharp-tongued wit and envy. Eventually, Dionysus must decide who is the superior poet to bring back to Athens, and he surprisingly chooses Aeschylus. Aeschylus wins after criticizing Euripides’s atheism, upon which the foundation for swearing oaths in society is not possible. Recall, there are several oaths broken by Dionysus throughout the play, including the promise of bringing Euripides back from Hades.
The play is a kind of education of Dionysus (Aristophanes’s teacher), moving from his admiration for Euripides to a reborn preference for Aeschylus. His tastes change in the play, and thus Aristophanes is hopeful about the edifying, or rather perhaps corrective effects of the theatre. Dionysus can be changed, and he can help support the just city, and its oath-swearing. His decision is guided by the blunder of having traveled to Hades in the first place, but this blunder may yield fruitful consequences.
These notes have been heavily influenced by Leo Strauss’s book, Socrates and Aristophanes.