More Frogs

If you’ll remember back to Mitchelmore’s erudite contrast between Sophoclean and Euripidean drama, you will recall he specified the following five things as being typically Euripidean as opposed to Sophoclean (and seemingly also, non-modernist and Dickensian):

* Inwardness replaces the mask
* Complicated plotting
* An emphasis on realism
* A fascination with those on the margins of society
* Who and what we are defines us rather than what we do

Although I remain somewhat uncertain of all these (I’m pressed to come up with an idea what a few of them even mean), the fourth one – “A fascination with those on the margins of society” – I found difficult relating to Euripides’ works at all; – unless, of course, by “those on the margins of society”, he was meaning aristocrats – kings and queens, gods and demi-gods and such like – you know, the people who actually appear in his plays. (There’s the odd maid, it’s true, or messenger – just as in Sophocles or Aeschylus – but one can hardly call this a “fascination” – they are just there as a counterfoil, or to move the action along).

I was thinking of the Hecuba: – now here’s a play where the central character is both a woman and a slave – two classes of people who were highly marginal in Greek society. But to say simply that is to distort the play massively. Her being a slave is less to the point that the fact that she was until recently queen of the Trojans, her enslavement being merely that tragic staple, the turning of the wheel of fortune. As for her being a woman – well, it’s true women were marginal figures in Athenian society, but they were certainly not marginal figures in Greek tragedy (which is not, as some seem to like to take it, in any way a duplicate of Athenian society); – in Greek tragedy, their influence abounds. – It’s not like there is an absence of female roles in Sophocles: 3 of his 7 plays even have women’s names as their titles (at least, if we count Women of Trachis), and all except Philoctetes have female roles, many highly prominent. – The other canonical marginal group in Greek society are foreigners – but the great portrayal of foreigners in Greek tragedy is Aeschylus’ The Persians. And is there a more marginal character overall than Oedipus from Oedipus at Colonus – a man whom no one will even have step within the boundary walls of their city-states?

So where did we get this idea of Euripides’ specific delight in marginal characters if they aren’t to be found in his work. Does Aristotle mention it in his Poetics – that’s usualyl the source of all our false opinions about classical drama? – But I don’t recall him ever saying such a thing. – Then where? – Could it … no, we couldn’t have got this opinion from Aristophanes’ Frogs, could we? Is this what we’re basing our views on – a play whose satirical basis is that Athenian morality is being underminded by the degeneration of its tragedians, by an author who is constantly ridiculing Euripides.

Here’s what Aeschylus is made to say of Euripides in Frogs:

My heroes weren’t like these market-place loafers, swindlers, and rogues they write about nowadays; they were real heroes … I depicted men of valour, lion-hearted characters like Patroclus and Teucer, encouraging the audience to identify themselves with these heroes … I didn’t clutter my stage with harlots like Phaedra or Stheneboaea. No one can ever say I put an erotic female into any play of mine … And to think of the other harms [Euripides] has done. Hasn’t he shown us pimps and profligates, women giving birth in temples and sleeping with their brothers and saying that life is not life?


Mentioning Aeschylus’ The Persians, there’s another exchange from Frogs which made me laugh, as a piece of incisive theatrical criticism:

Aeschylus: Then I put on the Persians: an effective sermon on the will to win. Best thing I ever wrote.
Dionysus: I loved that bit where they sang about the days of the great Darius, and the Chorus went like this with their hands and cried “Wah! Wah!”

Makes you feel like you were there!

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5 thoughts on “More Frogs

  1. My old Penguin Classics version of The Persians does not have that precise translation, but it’s close.

    XERXES: Weep and howl.
    CHORUS: We weep and howl.

  2. I wanted to read Aristophanes’ The Acharnians alongside The Persians, to see if there are any parallels – except from the obvious usage of foreigners. Perhaps it’s already well-known that there are – I’ve no idea.

  3. When, as you quote, “Aeschylus” refers to Phaedra being a “harlot”, surely he’s referring to the first of the two Euripidean Hippolytuses. In the first version, Phaedra propositions Hippolytus – that’s what posterity is told about the play (in scholia and the like), as it didn’t survive antiquity. In the second version, Phaedra resists her desire, never telling Hippolytus of it, and is betrayed by her errantly meddlesome ‘nurse’. The second version is supposed to have been written in response to the unpopularity of Euripides’ showing Phaedra as “harlot”-like, and was a prize-winner. (It’s a great piece of dramatic poetry – maybe so was the earlier, unpopular version.)

    So, surely Aristophanes is making “Aeschylus” say something not just harrumphily priggish, but also obtuse (Euripides had corrected the error of his depiction of immodesty), in the context of The Frogs mocking the old-fashionedness of (the real) Aeschylus’s poetry. – and in the same gesture, ridiculing the prudishness of Athenian taste.

    Aristophanes has “Aeschylus” condemning something he (“Aeschylus”) doesn’t understand, something the audience could be understood, by its with-it members, also to have misjudged: Aristophanes is full of this kind of (here: intertextual) cultural criticism.

    “Aeschylus” complains of Euripides’s social coarseness and stage-licentiousness – in a play by the author of the Thesmophoriazusae, Ecclesiazusae, and Lysistrata?! That’s called ‘dramatic irony‘. – also an Aristophanic constant.

  4. You could read it all this way, it’s true; – but I’m not so sure. I think it’s taking things too far.

    a) the audience is immediately directed towards Stheneboaea, rather than Phaedra – and Aeschylus points out (with a great deal of understanding), how she seems curiously like Euripides’ own wife in her whorish ways;
    b) Euripides doesn’t defend Phaedra by suggesting he made a second version; he defends it purely on the basis of the first version (i.e. that he wrote it that way because that’s the way the legend was written – such things happen in life, so how was he meant to portray it)
    c) it doesn’t seem to fit in with either the scene or Aristophanes’ point
    d) scholiasts aren’t to be trusted – particularly on Aristophanes, whom even Athenians of the next generation found incredibly obscure: – this particular claim sounds like a typical scholiast invention to “explain” (as if it needed explaining) why Euripides wrote two completely different versions of the same play
    e) it’s quite obvious that Athenians weren’t prudish in their literary tastes, since it’s Aristophanes’ claim that this is all they watch these days

    Oh, the scholiast may be right here (but they shouldn’t be trusted). I had a quick check on the Phaedra myth. It seems all other extant versions (Apollodorus, Ovid, Seneca) follow Myth 1 – Phaedra coming on to Hippolytus, which I think suggests Euripides might have invented the second version. – Not that that demonstrates in any way what might have motivated him to do so; Greek tragedians may well have “invented” many things we think are inherit to myths – cf. for instance, Sophocles’ Oedipus to Homer: – Homer has almost nothing of what we’d consider important in the Oedipus legend.

  5. Yes, the best argument that I’ve read (way) too much into the two-times mention of Phaedra is that, as you say, “Euripides” doesn’t defend his second, prize-winning version, but rather points out that his portrayal ‘was what really happened, right?’.

    Still think the unfairness/inaccuracy of what “Aeschylus” accuses “Euripides” of mocks the accusation – that “Aeschylus” is a figure of fun – , and that the subtext of the recent history of Aristophanes’s audience’s taste and biases figures throughout The Frogs as a target.

    Given the year of (first) performance, I wonder that political demagoguery isn’t also a context/target of the play’s humor.

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