Though Dionysus is a god, he is portrayed in The Frogs as “effeminate,” incompetent, and cowardly—he repeatedly soils himself at the first sign of danger, for instance, and he’s more than willing to sacrifice Xanthias if it means sparing his own life. To mask his cowardice and other shortcomings, Dionysus dons a robe and lion skin—a costume he’s assembled to disguise himself as his half-brother, the divine hero Heracles. Of course, the costume doesn’t magically transform Dionysus into a braver and more competent character—indeed, without wise, capable Xanthias to guide him and get him out of the many predicaments his incompetence lands him in, it’s doubtful he’d make it to Hades at all. But Dionysus’s successful journey to Hades and his ability to command respect—in and out of his Heracles costume—suggests that, at least in the world of the play, actually possessing positive traits isn’t nearly as important as appearing to possess positive traits.
Xanthias, for instance, is braver, wittier, and more capable than Dionysus, but his low social status as an enslaved person obscures these positive traits and causes other characters to dismiss and mistreat him. The ferryman Charon refuses to let Xanthias board his ferry, for instance, just because Xanthias is a slave. Yet, each time Heracles orders Xanthias to don his Heracles costume, characters immediately treat Xanthias as though he is the divine hero Heracles—despite the fact that nothing truly fundamental about him has actually changed. Thus, The Frogs suggests that looks can be deceiving. Just as an outward appearance of virtue and power can obscure inner moral shortcomings, a person’s social status is no indication of their inner character.
Appearance vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Appearance vs. Reality Quotes in The Frogs
FROGS Brekekekex, koax, koax,
Brekekekex, koax, koax!
Oh we are the musical Frogs!
We live in the marshes and bogs!
Sweet, sweet is the hymn
We sing as we swim,
And our voices are known
For their beautiful tone
When on festival days
We sing out in praise
Of the genial god –
And we don’t think it odd
When the worshipping throng,
To the sound of our song,
Rolls home through the marshes and bogs;
Rolls home through the marshes and bogs.
XANTHIAS Come on, don’t dither. Remember you’re supposed to be Heracles!
DIONYSUS Well, if you’re feeling so brave and heroic, how about taking my place? Here you are, you take the club and lion-skin – a chance to show your courage – and I’ll carry the luggage for you.
XANTHIAS Anything you say. You’re the boss.
[They exchange roles.]
There, how do I look? Xanthias as Heracles! I reckon the part suits me better than it does you, you old coward!
DIONYSUS It’s a very good imitation of a slave dressed up as Heracles. Come on, let me have those bundles.
Well now you’re dressed up just the same as before,
A sight to make anyone tremble,
You must roll your eyes and swagger and roar
Like the god you’re supposed to resemble.
If you flinch or waver or fluff your role
And forget to speak bravely and brag, man,
You’ll be putting those suitcases back on that pole
And going back to your job as a bagman.
These we abuse, and look instead to knaves,
Upstarts, nonentities, foreigners and slaves –
Rascals all! Honestly, what men we choose!
There was a time when you’d have scorned to use
Men so debased, so far beyond the pale,
Even as scapegoats to be dragged from jail
And flogged to death outside the city gates.
Misguided friends, change now, it’s not too late!
Try the good ones again: if they succeed,
You will have shown that you have sense indeed;
And if things don’t go well, if these good men
All fail, and Athens comes to grief, why, then
Discerning folk will murmur (let us hope):
‘She hanged herself, but with a first-rate rope!’
SLAVE He’s a real gentleman, your master, by Zeus.
XANTHIAS Of course. Like all real gentlemen he only understands two things: swigging and frigging.
SLAVE Well, Euripides came along and started showing off to all the other people we’ve got down here, you know, cut-throats, highwaymen, murderers, burglars – a right rough lot they are – and of course he soon had them all twisted round his little finger, with all his arguments and clever talking. So they’ve all started saying he’s the best, and he’s decided to lay claim to the chair instead of Aeschylus.
EURIPIDES I taught them how to apply subtle rules, how to turn a phrase neatly. I taught them to observe, to discern, to interpret; to use spin, to massage the facts; to suspect the worst, to take nothing at face value…
DIONYSUS That’s right: whenever an Athenian comes home nowadays, he shouts at the servants and starts asking, ‘Why is the flour jar not in its proper place? Who bit the head off this sprat? What’s happened to that cup I had last year? Where is yesterday’s garlic? Who’s been nibbling at this olive?’ Whereas before Euripides came along they just sat there staring blankly.
AESCHYLUS Look, you fool, noble themes and sentiments need to be couched in suitably dignified language. If your characters are demigods, they should sound like demigods – what’s more, they should dress like them. I set an example in this respect, which you totally perverted.
AESCHYLUS By dressing your kings in rags so that they appear as objects of pity.
EURIPIDES What harm is there in that?
AESCHYLUS Well, these days you can’t get the wealthy to pay their ship levy. They dress up in rags and claim exemption on the grounds of poverty.
AESCHYLUS And look how you’ve encouraged people to babble. The wrestling schools are empty. And where have all the young men gone? Off to these notorious establishments where they practise the art of debating – and that’s not all they practise either! These days even the sailors argue with their officers; in my day the only words they knew were ‘slops’ and ‘heave-ho’!
So it’s not smart to sit and chat
With Socrates, tossing aside
Artistic merit, shedding all
That’s best of the tragedian’s art.
To fritter away all one’s time
On quibbling and pretentious talk,
And other such inane pursuits,
Is truly the mark of a fool.