Monday, August 26, 2013


Mark Griffith, Aristophanes' Frogs. Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xv, 291. ISBN 9780195327731. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Ian C. Storey, Trent University (

Version at BMCR home site


The goal of this series is to make available "studies of individual works that will provide a clear, lively, and reliable account based on the most up-to-date scholarship without dwelling on the minutiae that are likely to distract or confuse the reader" (v). For Aristophanes this is a very welcome development. Monographs aplenty discuss Athenian tragedy at various levels, but for comedy there is nothing like the useful series Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy (Duckworth/Bloomsbury). Griffith's volume may begin to turn that tide.

What I liked about Griffith's work is the fairness and balance with which material is presented and discussed. He pitches the material at the level of the newcomer, presents the details fully, admits where we are still in the dark, and canvasses various explanations, usually leaving the reader to explore further and above all to ask the right questions. Each chapter is followed by a short section on "further reading" that will benefit both student and instructor.

In Griffith's first chapter ("Comedy at Athens") the etymology of "comedy" is assumed as "revel song", and its origin (as Aristotle maintained) is found in communal singing, dancing, and joking (sometime abusive and obscene). But by the time of Aristophanes Old Comedy had become a sophisticated art form in its language, structure, and song. Griffith discusses briefly five other poets whose work bears on Frogs: Crates, Pherecrates, Cratinus, Eupolis, and Phrynichus, and makes the good point that well before Frogsin 405 there existed other comedies featuring Dionysus and with descents into or returns from the Underworld. He might have added that Cratinus' Dionysalexandros is seen by some as directly influencing Frogs, since in both comedies Dionysus disguises his identity, undergoes teasing and ill-treatment, and judges an important contest.

The second chapter ("Aristophanes and His Athenian Audience") again presents a concise and balanced survey of what we can say for certain about Aristophanes and his career. I was pleased that Griffith argues that, although Aristophanes' early plays were produced through others, it was "no secret who the true author was" (29). Traditionalists may be displeased at his acceptance of a low size for the audience (6000-8000) and the likelihood of a trapezoidal orchestra. The caption to Figure I-Ia (11) may mislead one to think that this sketch of a circular theatre represents current ideas; on the previous page he makes it clear that this represents an earlier and traditional view. For more recent reconstructions one should consult the handy monograph by Dugdale.1 Griffith accepts that Old Comedy had considerable freedom and licence to make fun of leaders of the city and the citizens themselves, but throughout his study Griffith admirably demonstrates how skilled Aristophanes is in getting almost all citizens on side.

In his third chapter ("What Happens in Frogs? (The Plot)" Griffith presents a brief survey of the conventional features of Old Comedy, followed by a running commentary on the details of the plot. I do wonder whether "Let's Stop This New-Fangled Education" (56) is a legitimate way to sum up Clouds as we have it, especially given Aristophanes' own claim to sophia and his appearance in Plato's Symposium. He makes the good observation that, when compared with Lysistrata or Dicaeopolis, Dionysus is a "seriously deficient" comic hero. But as audiences would have been familiar with "Dionysus as anti-hero" in comedy and satyr-drama, this may not be much of a problem.2 He draws our attention (76) to the evolution of the plot from "a desperate raid to rescue Euripides" to a contest for the throne of tragedy, on which we finally learn depends the salvation of Athens. He delineates the "crucial moment in the play" at 1009-10, when Aristophanes has Euripides agree readily with Aeschylus that the criteria for a good poet are both technical skill (dexiotes) and making people better citizens (74). Thus the comedy is not a simple opposition between "art for art's sake" and "the moral duty of the poet". And it may load the dice in Aeschylus' favour from the start.

Griffith's work is primarily a monograph about Frogs as a literary comedy. Chapters 4 ("Agôn Sophias: Judging the Arts in Classical Greece"), 5 ("Old and New Styles in Tragedy: Aeschylus, Euripides, and the Rest"), and 7 ("Dionysus' Verdict and the Ending/Message of the Play") form the core of this discussion. He observes both the very competitive nature of Greek culture and the tension between appreciating a right and proper performance of a story and admiring the creation of something bold and different. He identifies three sorts of sophia: 3 (a) truth and accuracy, (b) good moral lessons, and (c) technical virtuosity (91-2). In the end it will be types (a) and (b) that prevail, "with cleverness, technical skill taking a back seat" (114). One suspects that Aristophanes would have applied these same criteria to comedy, with himself taking the prize, although with technical skill more prominent in the discussion.

"Greek theater was musical theater" (132). Here Griffith provides an extended study of the differences in tragic lyric between Aeschylus and Euripides, including the rise of the professional musician, the advent of the "New Music", innovations in aulos-playing, and Euripides' increasing reliance on the singing actor rather than the chorus. Both Euripides' parody of Aeschylus' grand style and Aeschylus' brilliant counterthrust with the monody where a lower-class character laments the theft of her rooster say more about Aristophanes' own abilities than they reveal how the tragic poets composed lyrics.

Griffith regards it as a misreading to assume that reaffirmation of the old styles and rejection of the new is the "message" of the comedy. Rather the play is about "unity and good will at all levels . . . that seems to transcend the previous squabbling and contradictions" (200). But I would have liked more discussion of the choral song at 1482- 99, which praises Aeschylus for possessing synesis (which seems to replace sophia as a criterion), but also describes Euripides as "jettisoning mousike and abandoning the most important aspects of tragedy . . . a man who has gone out of his mind". Given Aristophanes' fondness for and intimate knowledge of Euripides' work elsewhere, let alone Cratinus' wonderful coinage euripidaristophanizon (F 432), this passage stands out for its apparent hostility. Griffith twice observes that Dionysus' initial preference for Euripides is motivated by his kardia ("heart": 54), but his choice for Aeschylus is the product of the desire of his psyche (1468). But I am not sure that I want to push Griffith's distinction (213-14) of psyche as "inner self", since 1468 is a paratragic line and kardia will not scan.

Chapter 6 ("Underworld and Afterlife: Dionysus and Greek Fantasies of Salvation") is something of an intrusion into the analysis of the contest and the judgement, and Griffith might well have reworked the presentation of his material, perhaps moving this discussion of cults and Dionysus to follow his third chapter. Returns from the dead appeared in earlier comedies, and if we knew more about Cratinus' Archilochoi and Wealth-Gods (as well as his Chirons), Aristophanes' Gerytades, and especially Eupolis' Demes, correctly dated to 417 (166), we would be better placed to understand the resurrection of Aeschylus at the close of Frogs. I was pleased to see that Griffith discusses both the Eleusinian cults and the so-called Orphic mysteries, but given the prominence of Iacchos in the latter and at lines 339-413 he might have mentioned the thesis of Tierney that the mystai of the chorus are worshippers at the Lenaia rather than Eleusinian initiates.4 If there is a ritual of initiation in the comedy, then who is it that is being initiated? Griffith considers and rightly rejects several candidates, including Xanthias, finally suggesting the people of Athens. Dionysus has come down to do more than bring a back a dead poet, but "to restore the vigor of the favorite art forms (tragedy and comedy) while also reminding them of the strength and potential of their own citizen body and social institutions" (199).

I would make three suggestions about how the material might have been better presented. First the political level in Frogs needs its own separate chapter. After all, Dicaearchus says that the play was afforded the honour of a second performance "because of the parabasis". We do get a lengthy discussion of the political background in chapter 2 (37-53), but the reader needs to be aware how crucial this is to the play as a whole. Griffith does make it clear that the ultimate criterion of the judgement between the poets depends on who will give the best advice for the city, but Frogs must rank among the most political of the extant comedies. To this end Griffith should do more than just allude to the second production of Frogs. If the arguments of Sommerstein are correct, then this occurred in 404 and was exploited by the Thirty as a means to get rid of Cleophon. More than one critic has argued that the very men for whom Aristophanes pleads in the parabasis would become the oligarchs we call "The Thirty".5 Perhaps the three chapters on the literary theme (4,5,7) could have been condensed to two to achieve more balance.

Second, we need more about the physical and visual aspect of the comedy. The first part of the last chapter ("Reading and Performing Frogs After Aristophanes – Reception", 220-5) does canvass briefly the conventions of performance in the fifth-century theatre, and in his plot summary (72-3) Griffith suggests that an elaborate panoply was presented as the two tragedians prepare for the contest. The scene with the Muse, he admits, will also have allowed for good visual humour, especially if she appears in provocative dress or as an aging harlot. But he needs to do more of this, and again a separate chapter is required. While the rest of chapter 8 was very informative, I am not sure how necessary it was to an introductory study.

Thirdly, there are times when the minutiae should be discussed. I have noted above the need to deal with the date of the second production, and beginners should have more documentation about basic issues that have troubled scholars such as the visible (or invisible) frogs and the lekythion joke.

I noticed the following points in passing. The "slur" against Cleophon (48) is best explained if he was the son of Cleippides and a Thracian woman, born shortly before the passing of Pericles' law on citizenship in 451. Is it possible that Euripides' Bacchae was produced with Frogs at the Lenaia of 405? If so, the Athenian audience (185) might have seen the play before Frogs. Could Aristophanes have learned anything about it while he was writing Frogs? Is it really fair to say (216) that in 405 "an era of comedy (as well as tragedy) was coming to an end", especially given that in the fourth century "theater was flourishing at this time" (226)? Griffith argues that in Pytine "Cratinus . . . had staged the renunciation of his own wayward past" (218), but it is more likely that Cratinus argued successfully that wine is essential to the creation of good comedy (see F 203). Finally, according to Hypothesis Ic Dicaearchus said only that the play was honoured publicly with a second production; there is nothing in the text dating that to "the next year" (220).

On the whole I enjoyed Griffith's monograph very much; students and instructors alike will learn a great deal about Old Comedy, Aristophanes and his rivals, lyrics and performance, the mystery cults and Dionysus' role within them, and the history of the text. Griffith sums up his concept of melding art and society and Aristophanes' versatility in rallying his citizen-body: "but Aristophanes – and Frogs in particular" – is very much of our own time. We need to be saved; and this Dionysus is on the right track towards saving us all with his Art" (255).


1.   E. Dugdale, Greek Theatre in Context (Cambridge, 2008).
2.   A. H. Sommerstein, The Comedies of Aristophanes. Vol. IX, Frogs (Warminster, 1996) 11.
3.   K. J. Dover, Aristophanes Frogs (Oxford, 1995) 12 argues that these terms mean something like "great <poet>/greatness".
4.   M. Tierney, "The Parodos in Aristophanes' Frogs", Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 42 (1935) 199-202.
5.   See I. C. Storey, "Comedy and the Crises", in A. Markantonatos and B. Zimmermann (eds.), Crisis on Stage: Tragedy and Comedy in Late Fifth-Century Athens (Berlin, 2012) 313 n. 19.

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