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Home » , » Can we call Aristophanes ' The Frogs a play in literary criticism? Illustrate.

Aristophanes ' The Frogs a play in literary criticism

Literary discussions are not the type of things one looks for in a comic play. However, Aristophanes' The Frogs is different from the usual trend. He seems here to deal with the things related to literature and theatre. He does this very skilfully, by integrating his views on literature in general and the two poets in particular into the main dramatic action. Dionysus journey to Hades in search of a poet who could 'save the City occupies the centre stage in the play. The patron-god of drama has no alternatives but to go to the nether world, as all the great poets of Athens are by now dead. He later returns with Aeschylus, who he considers is the right person with the right advice for the hapless Athenians. Before he is able to do so, the superiority of Aeschylus against his challenger Euripides has to be established in a keenly-fought contest. The contest between Aeschylus and Euripides over the seat of honour for the best dramatist in the nether world takes place in the agon (agon is the scene in which a debate between two poets takes place. The agon in The Frogs begins at line 895 and continues to 1094.) or the contest- scene, which contains the main bulk of the carefully-designed literary criticism/discussion.

In the agon, the two dramatists dispute on five issues in five rounds. Those are as follows:

In the first round, the stylistic aspects of the two dramatists are brought under scrutiny. Euripides, after his prayer to Ether, formally begins his attack and calls Aeschylus a mountebank and an impostor who 'cheated his audience' 'brought up on Phrymichus'. Referring to two lost tragedies of Aeschylus, the Phrygians and the Niobe, he criticises Aeschylus' use of a veiled and silent extra character:The play would begin with a seated figure, all muffled up- Niobe, for example, or Achilles: face veiled, very dramatic, not a word uttered.

 Encouraged by Dionysus, Euripides continues, Then the Chorus would rattle off a string of odes-four of them, one after the other: still not a syllable from the muffled figure."

He says that the veiled character remains silent till the play is half-way through, and only then

.....we get a speech. And what a speech! A dozen great galumphing phrases, fearsome things with crests and shaggy eyebrows. Magnificent! Nobody knew what they meant, of course."

Euripides contention here is that Aeschylus' plays are slow-  moving undramatic, turgid and obscure. The extra silent characterserves little dramatic purpose; its long silence is as boring as its words are incomprehensible.Notably, there is little reply to these charges of stylistic weakness an indignant Aeschylus rises to counter the criticism, but words fail him. However, he asks Euripides to speak about his own contributions to the dramatic art. Euripides answers with the claim that his plays are lucid and plausible, and have meaning for all. His plots and characters are realistic, and unlike Aeschylus, he has never portrayed in his plays "hippococks or goatstagsor....... or any other mythical monsters".  He has never indulged in high-sounding bombasts and never kept his audience confused as to the identity of a character. He claims that his openings are never difficult, since the very first character gives the background story at once. Aeschylus angrily accuses Euripides of abusing time-honoured dramatic conventions, and says that Euripides 'deserves to die' for this audacity'. But Euripides defends himself saying that he is a realist, bringing tragedy down to earth. He says that he has written for the people, has taught them to speak with fluency, and also to be inquisitive. Aeschylus, says Euripides, is a conservative artist and an ardent admirer of the heroic. Aeschylus retorts by saying that he has always maintained a high heroic standard and incited the citizens to virtue and selfless patriotism.The first round ends inconclusively. In the next two rounds, it is again Euripides who is the first to attack his rival. He alleges that Aeschylus  uses an obscure and repetitious style. He says that aeschylus has a habit of saying the same thing twice over-a thing he himself has never done. There is no irrelevant padding in his prologues. To this, Aeschylus replies by charging him of metrical monotony. He says

 "Even without splitting hairs over every word, I assure you I can demolish any prologue of yours with.. Just one little everyday bottle of oil. You see, the way your prologues are written, you can fit in anything: bottle of oil, pieces of wool, bag of old rag."

And he proves this, too. In each of the six prologues of Euripides that are brought to the test, the main verb is delayed and a subordinate clause completed in such a way that Aeschylus fits into them the half-line 'lost his bottle of oil, and with it completes both the metre and the grammar without much difficulty. The question of metrical monotony is now The question of metrical monotony is now taken up by Euripides. He says that the lyrics of Aeschylus are monotonous, For, in whatever way he begins, he makes them all monotonously alike: His lyries are all the same The fourth round comprises weighing of verses from the works of both the contenders. This round is as amusing, if not more, as Aeschylus' knocking dead one after another Euripidean prologue with the help of a single oil-bottle. Nonetheless, this scene forwards the opinion of Aristophanes or of Dionysus, so to say, that the verse of Aeschylus has more mass, heft and force than that of Euripides. However, this is the absurd way of judging the merits of a poet. Even the slave Xanthias is aware of the absurdity of the whole thing; he exclaims incredulously, "What! weigh out tragedy, like butcher's meat?" Dionysus, too, compares the verse-weighing with "weighing out...... of cheese." The Chorus roundly declares the whole idea as a bizarre one, that it would have never believed such a thing was ever really possible. This scene thus may also be read as a subtle attack on literary critics; they have regularly been made butts of ridicule by many creative authors and in the character of Dionysus we have one such critic, who passes judgements on literature while himself remains utterly ignorant. This may also be an indirect criticism of the judges presiding over the competitions. We may remember here that the judges appointed for the festivals were chosen from among the population through an intricate procedure, and the procedure for deciding the prize-winners was still a more intricate one. The judges were no experts, and the final result reflected only the popular verdict. Aristophanes was perhaps not quite happy with the system that awarded his The Clouds only a third prize among as many competitors. He spoke of this defeat with some bitterness in The Wasps and the rewritten version of The Clouds itself. This must have been one of the reasons for making Dionysus act so ridiculously as the judge. Whatever may be the real intent of the dramatist in this scene. the verse-weighing also cannot decide the winner. None of the two contenders emerges with credit and Dionysus fails to arrive at a conclusion. He does manage to reach a conclusion later, but only by using a new criterion, an extra-literary one: he will take back with him the poet who has the best advice to give for saving the city from the present state of chaos. So, now in the final round, he asks the two contenders about their political plans. Aeschylus impresses upon dionysus in this round, too, and he is declared to be going back to athens with the drama-god. The whole of this debate on literary merits and demerits brings out some of Aristophanes' beliefs and convictions. That he attached great significance to literary art is beyond any shade of doubt. becomes crystal-clear in The Frogs, too, that he considered drama to have a very important social aspect, that it could greatly influence the life of individuals and of a whole nation, that dramatists could   and guide, through their works, a nation to its overall well being. Aristophanes declares his notion of a poet's social and moral roles in no ambiguous terms. He held that a literary artist has a definite mission to fulfil. His Aeschylus says that from the very earliest times, poets have been inspired instructors; Orpheus, Musaios, Hesiod and Homer were all teachers whose works benefitted man. The function of the poet here is to teach, to make man better, and to improve the morals of the citizens.

So, how seriously can we take the literary criticism contained in he Frogs? While acknowledging the validity of certain observations and comments made by Aristophanes, we must bear in mind that what Aristophanes wrote was, and is, a comedy, not a literary critique. The political and literary satires in the play are, no doubt important in themselves, but we must not forget their part in the overall comic design. This is very strongly suggested in the nonsensical contents of the verse-weighing scene, in the manner in which the two contenders carry themselves, the way he holds euripides responsible for all decadence, and the way Dionysus presides over the whole affair With all these hints, the dramatist points to the fact that despite its carrying much truth, the litterary dedate should not be taken too seriously, that the literary discussion is   only a part of the comic design, and not intended to be taken as a very serious one. If we can appreciate it that way, we shall do justice to the great comic master.


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