Before I start this commentary I must make reference to the translation that I am using, namely the 1987 David Barrett translation published by Penguin Classics. The reason that I am sourcing this book is because while the original text is not subject to copyright, the modern translation is. Even though I do have access to the original text (actually, I just checked my collection of Aristophanes plays in the original Greek and the Frogs is not included, however I am sure I can find it on the internet) it will take me a lot of time and energy to translate the passages that I want to quote, and as such it is better to cite Barrett's translation instead.
Anyway, enough of the legalese and onto the play itself. The Frogs was first performed in Athens in 405 BC, and that was a time of great distress for the city. The 30 year long Peloponesian War was coming to an end and Athens was on the losing side. Her allies had been overrun and captured, her fleet was in shambles, and the only person that could possibly save the city, Alcibaides, had been exiled (as is prone to happen in a democracy). Yet, despite all of the doom and gloom, the festivals were still held, and Aristophanes was still writing plays.
The Frogs is about how the god Dionysius and his slave Xanthias go down to Hades in an attempt to bring one of the old poets back. One of the most insightful aspects of this play is that it gives us a really good insight into who the Athenians considered to be the greatest of the tragic poets. At this time both Sophocles and Euripides had died (and Aeschylus was long dead), and it is interesting to note that it is these three playwrights that Aristophanes names as being the best. This is probably why we have retained their plays and lost the rest (including Agathon, who in a way was also considered a good playwright, but not to the extent of these three). In many ways, the productions of tragedies at this time were nothing compared to the great writers, and in many cases, we can see a reflection of this in our own times. In my own opinion, I am almost ready to suggest that the last work of literature that I have read was American Psycho, which was published in 1989. In my view, there has been nothing written since that I would consider to be a classic or a literary masterpiece. Many of the Athenians of this time were probably thinking the same thing. In a way, Aristophanes says it best:
HERACLES: But surely there are dozens of these young whippersnappers churning out tragedies these days: for sheer verbiage, if that's what you want, they leave Euripides standing.
DIONYSIUS: Small fry, I assure you, insignificant squeakers and twitterers (is this an ancient reference to a popular social media site), like a lot of swallows. A disgrace to their art, If ever they are granted a chorus, what does their offering at the shrine of Tragedy amount to? One cock of the hind leg and they've pissed themselves dry. You never hear of them again. I defy you to find a really seminal poet among the whole crowd of them: someone who can coin a fine resounding phrase. (Page 159)
If we look through the preceding lines, we note a number of famous poets by name, including Sophocles, Euripides, and yes, Agathon as well, but the concern is that they are all gone, all dead, and there is nobody to take their place. So, what is it about these poets that makes them so important, and what sets them out from the other ordinary citizens? Well, once again, Aristophanes says it best:
AESCHYLUS: That is the kind of thing a poet should go for. You see, from the very earliest times the really great poet has been the one who had a useful lesson to teach. Orpheus gave us the mysteries and taught people that it was wrong to kill; Musaeus showed us how to cure diseases and prophesised the future; Hesiod explained about agriculture and the seasons for ploughing and harvest. And why is Homer himself held in such high esteem, if not for the valuable military instruction embodied in his work? Organisation, training, equipment, it's all there. (Page 194)
So, as we can see the idea is that the poet is the teacher of many things, like a jack of all trades. It reminds me a bit of the role of the Bard in Dungeons and Dragons: the one who can do everything, but not all that well. Granted, in those days, pretty much everybody wrote poetically, and it is our understanding that it was Herodotus that first wrote in prose (though I would heavily dispute this because there are a lot of writings that we don't have, and if we look away from the Greek world we discover that the authors of the Bible were writing in prose long before the Greeks). I also wonder if at this time the role of the poet was being replaced by the philosopher. After Aristophanes we have only a handful of plays, but a bucketload of Plato and Aristotle (among others). However, that again is not strictly true since the philosophers were performing their roles as far back as Thales. However, philosophy changed from being a primitive form of scientific exploration to an exposition of morality. This is what philosophy has become these days, a discussion and exploration of morality.
I want to finish off with a few comments on a number of the lighter aspects of the play. We note that slaves seem to play a role in many of Aristophanes' plays as the butt of many of the jokes. It is almost as if slaves are viewed comically, and the fall guy for many of the pranks. It is not strictly true since Dionysius gets his fare share of beatings in this play as well, but it is interesting to see the view of slaves from an Athenian point of view.
There are also some quite humerous anecdotes in this play as well. The first person Dionysius visits is Heracles, namely because Heracles has been to, and returned from, the underworld. However, the only advice that Heracles has for Dionysius is that if he wants to go to Hades then the quickest way there is to kill himself. It is amusing because we are aware that people would go into and come back from Hades in legend, Odysseus did so, as well as Heracles, however Heracles' suggestions are not what we expect. The other amusing part is when Euripides and Aeschylus are competing against each other for who the better poet is. From this play it is suggested that Euripides could have been quite an arrogant person, putting a lot of value in his own works, and considering them to be more literally significant than the works of Aeschylus. It turns out that we have more of Euripides' plays than we do of Aeschylus. However, Aeschylus goes to show that he can pretty much demolish all of Euripides' prologues through the use of the phrase 'lost his bottle of oil'. I can almost imagine the entire audience breaking out in laughter at this, namely because we would do the same thing to our own filmmakers and playwrights (such as the Star Trek drinking gain, where we skull a glass of beer whenever Captain Picard says 'make it so').