The Birds, this play
rather avoids politics than otherwise, its leading motif,
over and above the pure fun and farce for their own sake of the
burlesque descent into the infernal regions, being a literary
one, an onslaught on Euripides
the Tragedian and all his works and ways.
It was produced in the year 405 B.C., the
year after The Birds, and only one year before the Peloponnesian
War ended disastrously for the Athenian cause in the capture
of the city by Lysander. First brought out at the Lenæan
festival in January, it was played a second time at the Dionysia
in March of the same year--a far from common honour. The drama
was not staged in the Author's own name, we do not know for what
reasons, but it won the first prize, Phrynichus' Muses
The plot is as follows: The God Dionysus,
patron of the Drama, is dissatisfied with the condition of the
Art of Tragedy at Athens, and resolves to descend to Hades in
order to bring back again to earth one of the old tragedians--Euripides,
he thinks. Dressing himself up, lion's skin and club complete,
as Heracles, who has performed the same perilous journey before,
and accompanied by his slave Xanthias (a sort of classical Sancho
Panza) with the baggage, he starts on the fearful expedition.
Coming to the shores of Acheron, he is
ferried over in Charon's boat--Xanthias has to walk round--the
First Chorus of Marsh Frogs (from which the play takes its title)
greeting him with prolonged croakings. Approaching Pluto's Palace
in fear and trembling, he knocks timidly at the gate. Being presently
admitted, he finds a contest on the point of being held before
the King of Hades and the Initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries,
who form the Second Chorus, between Æschylus,
the present occupant of the throne of tragic excellence in hell,
and the pushing, self-satisfied, upstart Euripides, who is for
ousting him from his pride of place.
Each poet quotes in turn from his Dramas,
and the indignant Æschylus makes fine fun of his rival's
verses, and shows him up in the usual Aristophanic style as a
corrupter of morals, a contemptible casuist, and a professor
of the dangerous new learning of the Sophists, so justly held
in suspicion by true-blue Athenian Conservatives. Eventually
a pair of scales is brought in, and verses alternately spouted
by the two candidates are weighed against each other, the mighty
lines of the Father of Tragedy making his flippant, finickin
little rival's scale kick the beam every time.
Dionysus becomes a convert to the superior
merits of the old school of tragedy, and contemptuously dismisses
Euripides, to take Æschylus back with him to the upper
world instead, leaving Sophocles meantime in occupation of the
coveted throne of tragedy in the nether regions.
Needless to say, the various scenes of
the journey to Hades, the crossing of the Acheron, the Frog's
choric songs, and the trial before Pluto, afford much opportunity
for much excellent fooling in our Author's very finest vein of
drollery, and "seem to have supplied the original idea for
those modern burlesques upon the Olympian and Tartarian deities
which were at one time so popular.
This article is reprinted
from Aristophanes: The Eleven Comedies. Trans. Anonymous.
London: The Athenian Society, 1922.