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Aeschylus and Euripides Are Dead?

Aristophanes' The Frogs and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead both take as their unifying thematic element references to other previous and well-respected dramas. It is significant, of course, that although the two plays are themselves "comedies," the works on which they draw are tragedies, which are then manipulated to fit into the context of the new drama. In achieving this literary transformation, both authors make use of comic tropes such as satire and parody; they also, however, set tragic elements and themes into their own comic plots, thus completing the process of assimilation. Aristophanes' intentions in this respect seem to differ sharply from Stoppard's, however: not only does Stoppard's drama exhibit far more questioning of accepted truths, but he does not attempt to teach a moral lesson in the same way as Aristophanes. Still, there are remarkable similarities between the two works. Perhaps the most important of the tragic elements which are brought into the comedies are the existential views of death and time; these appear to varying extents in both works, as does the question of free will, which is discussed at great length both by the characters and by the dramas themselves. In addition, though, the metadramatic scenes that become encapsulated here reveal significant differences between the two playwrights' styles, and explain the seeming confusion of genres in the works of both authors.

The plots of these two dramas both rely heavily on the tragedies they incorporate, but it must be noted that Stoppard's drama, while highly original, is entirely dependent upon the occurrences in its predecessor for its artistic survival: without the references to Hamlet, there would be no way of making sense of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In addition, the events into which Stoppard casts his characters are in essence those common in tragedy: both men are fated to an imminent death, and are somehow vaguely aware of their fate, but they can do nothing to prevent it, nor even to actively accept it. Aristophanes, on the other hand, makes use of earlier tragedians and their works in a more relaxed manner: his plot, which is to all intents and purposes a pure comedy, sets the works of several contemporary playwrights up to ridicule, in a attempt to determine which one is 'best'.

There are, of course, obvious similarities between the two works. Both sets of characters, for instance, when first they appear on stage, are in the midst of performing a task which they have been assigned (or fated) to carry out. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make numerous references to their orders and their duty to the king; this sense of duty makes them fulfill the given task, even when it goes against their will. Although the eventual purpose and goal of their actions remains unclear to them, they can well remember being summoned:

 ROS: We were sent for.

GUIL: Yes.

ROS: That's why we're here. (He looks round, seems doubtful, then the explanation.) Travelling.

GUIL: Yes.

ROS: (dramatically: ) It was urgent - a matter of extreme urgency, a royal summons, his very words: official business and no questions asked - lights in the stable-yard, saddle up and off headlong and hotfoot across the land, our guides outstripped in breakneck pursuit of our duty! Fearful lest we come too late!!

(small pause )

GUIL: Too late for what?

ROS: How do I know? We haven't got there yet. . . . (p. 19)

Dionysus and his servant Xanthias are also underway on a journey when presented to the audience by Aristophanes: they are descending into Hades in search of finding Euripides or any other good poet. Admittedly, the journey here seems to have been undertaken out of Dionysus' own free will, or at least his "desire," but one could see his task as a necessity, caused by the terrible state of affairs in Athens at the time, and indeed not a voluntary act at all. Certainly in the case of Xanthias the actions are preordained: his master orders him to carry the luggage or to stand in his place, and he is not even allowed to cross the Styx in Charon's boat. In addition, Dionysus' purpose is made explicitly clear by the time of his arrival at Pluto's palace; he must save Athens from her own spurious whims, if nothing else to insure his own future happiness and continued adoration by the people:

 DIONYSUS: Well now, listen, you two. I came down here for a poet.

EURIPIDES: What do you want a poet for?

DIONYSUS: To save the City of course. If the City isn't saved, there won't be any more drama festivals, and then where shall I be? (p. 208)

Although the portrayal of figures who involuntarily carry out their duties (or their fates, cf. Oedipus) tends to cast these dramas into the realm of tragedy, both works nevertheless come down, in the final analysis, as comedies. One reason for their comic success is the inclusion by both authors of lengthy humorous scenes and attempts to make the audience laugh. The telling of jokes is a topic directly addressed in Aristophanes: the opening lines of Xanthias show him trying desperately to come up with a new and funny joke which will amuse the audience, but which will still effectively describe his position. In the same way, the jokes recounted by Rosencrantz, which all center on death and the ironic humor often dealt out by fate, clearly serve to inform the audience (though not the characters themselves) about the events to come.

In a somewhat less concrete manner, the existentialist theme of forgetting and 'remembrance of things past' also plays a role in both dramas. Once again, in Stoppard's drama this question is of central relevance to the title characters: not only do they have no memory of a true 'home,' but they also are unable to remember what events took place the day before. They believe, and rightly so, that their forgetfulness in these matters is a sign of their approaching fate: their knowledge of past and future has long since disappeared (or indeed never existed), and has left only a dim perception of their present state to guide them through their journey. Dionysus, however, seems also to have "forgotten" certain aspects of his own character: upon several occasions the audience begins to question whether he truly is acting as would a god, and if he has not completely forgotten his own divinity. Indeed, why should any immortal have to ask Hercules the way down to Hades? Xanthias, too, often forgets his place as a slave, acting as if he were the master of his own fate, but then again the reversal of the social order is an ever-recurring device in Aristophanic comedy, so perhaps here it should not be surprising.

The tragic elements that are so evident in these comedies also exhibit many similarities, and their thematic structures, although not the same, seem to be parallel. The ubiquitous references to death and to Hell (or Hades / the Underworld, to be more precise) is a marked feature of both dramas. These portrayals come directly to view in The Frogs, yet the images of death are more powerful in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, perhaps because they are only mentioned in hushed tones and seldom brought to an open discussion. The two characters never come to a true conclusion as to their placement in space or time, but they make numerous allusions to the infernal character of their surroundings; indeed the actions taking place around them seem to contribute to their particular type of punishment, as they note:

 ROS: (At footlights:) How very intriguing! (Turns.) I fell like a spectator - an appalling business. The only thing that makes it bearable is the irrational belief that somebody interesting will come on in a minute. . . .

GUIL: See anyone?

ROS: No. You?

GUIL: No. (At footlights.) What a fine persecution - to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened. . . . (p. 41)

On a side note, this scene strikes me as remarkably similar to the general philosophy expressed in Jean-Paul Sartre's drama No Exit. Instead of a communal Inferno with chambers of fire (and instead of an isolated existentialist's Nothingness), the three characters in Sartre's drama find themselves after death in a comfortable 19th-century drawing room - with only each other for company. As it turns out, this is indeed their form of Hell, for the three proceed to torment each other more mercilessly than any torturer. Until they come to the realization that their punishment already exists within the room, the true torment for these souls comes in their inability to know what will happen to them; they sit and they wait, each expecting some hideous fate, which of course never occurs. In fact, nothing whatsoever happens; no new characters enter, but there is always the hope (and fear) that they will. Guildenstern's comment echoes then the epiphany that dawns on these condemned souls, and the painful pleadings of one in particular, who merely wishes for a change of pace, a knowledge of what is to come:

 GARCIN: Open the door! Open, blast you! I'll endure anything, your red-hot tongs and molten lead, your racks and prongs and garrotes - all your fiendish gadgets, everything that burns and flays and tears - I'll put up with any torture you impose. Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough.

Of course, the tone of the two passages is as opposite as can be: the dry acceptance and good humor of Guildenstern contrast violently with the emotionally charged outpourings of Garcin. This contrast points rather significantly to the difference in genre between the two works: both are existentialist and (to varying degrees) absurdist dramas, yet Sartre's work must be seen as a tragedy (with, admittedly, certain elements of humor and even comedy), while Stoppard's drama leans invariably towards the truly comic, despite its many tragic referents

Aristophanes, too, places the central action of his play in Hades, although the image of the Underworld given here is, for the modern reader at least, not nearly as disturbing as the portrayal of death in Stoppard's work. In his descriptions of Hades, Aristophanes also brings to mind a reference and parallel: the imagery of Dante used in the Inferno (or by Virgil in the Aeneid, though in less detail), which I find is remarkably similar to that in The Frogs. Conceivably, of course, this may have been simply the accepted ancient view of death. Still, it seems to vary greatly from the Underworld in Homer: Hades is, for both Dante and Aristophanes (but not for Homer), a geographically distinct region, with topological features similar to those on earth - meadows, rivers, mountains, lakes, and the sort. In addition, there seems to be a direct parallel between the two portrayals: Aristophanes has Heracles describe the path to Hades for Dionysus, as he says:

 HERACLES: And then you come to the Great Muck Marsh and the Eternal River of Dung - you'll find some pretty unsavoury characters floundering about in that: people who have wronged a guest, or had a pretty boy and failed to pay him, or knocked their mothers about, or punched their fathers on the jaw, or committed perjury .... (p. 161)

Comparing this to Dante's description in Canto VII of the Inferno, in which he comes upon the slimy bog of the river Styx, where the Wrathful and Slothful lie in misery, the similarities are striking:

 The water was a deeper dark than perse,
and we, with its gray waves for company,
made our way down along a rough, strange path.
This dingy little stream, when it has reached
the bottom of the gray malignant slopes,
becomes a swamp that has the name of Styx.
And I , intent on looking as we passed,
saw muddy people moving in that marsh,
all naked, with their faces scarred by rage. ...
And the good teacher said: "My son, now see ...
beneath the slimy top are sighing souls
who make these waters bubble at the surface ..."
Then making a wide arc, we walked around
the pond between the dry bank and the slime,
our eyes still fixed on those who gobbled mud. (Canto VII, ll. 103-129)

Another important tragic element that appears in both Aristophanes and Stoppard's plays is the existential question of time: does time truly pass for the characters in these dramas? In both cases, the answer seems to be no, but for different reasons. Although existentialist to a certain point, Aristophanes understandably does not push this issue to its limits, and as such the true question of temporal reality in The Frogs is left unanswered. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, however, time is a topic directly discussed, even as early as the opening scene, where Guildenstern postulates that "time has stopped dead, and the single experience of one coin being spun once has been repeated ninety times." (p. 16)

There is a larger issue at stake here, however, than the simple question of whether time as a topic is addressed in the dramas. A more helpful approach would be to examine the sense of time through the eyes of the characters themselves, and how they react to its passing, or a lack thereof. In this case, a quote from Kirkegaard sheds light on the difference between the two portrayals:

 Time does not really exist without unrest; it does not exist for dumb animals who are absolutely without anxiety.

In light of this, it seems safe to say that time does not exist for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or, more precisely, that it begins to exist for them somewhat later in the drama, when they first begin to sense and fear the coming of death; in this sense, then, the sudden change in the outcome of the coin toss indicates the beginning of temporality for the two men.

In The Frogs, on the other hand, time exists for Dionysus only in so far as he exhibits anxiety - but does he indeed? In many cases, there is no direct mention of his worry or concern for the success of his mission, but, given the gravity of the discussions about Athens and his eventual choosing of Aeschylus, the staunchly moral poet, it seems clear that Dionysus' purpose is one of great import, both to himself and to the Athenian audience. He does not, however, appear to be in a great hurry to return to the City, as his willingness to stay and share a drink with Pluto indicates. Still, the sense of time passing is made clear at several points throughout the play, and the incorporation of historical deaths that seem well-known to all the characters shows that there is indeed a shared temporal reality at work within the story.

The appearance of metadrama in both Aristophanes and Stoppard is likewise an accepted and obvious fact, but the manner in which these self-conscious elements are portrayed and manipulated is far more complex. In Aristophanes, the process of assimilating the works of such distinguished tragedians into a comic work assures that the "plays within plays" of The Frogs are not only of high quality, but are in themselves funny, since they become satires and parodies of the originals. In Stoppard's work, however, the distinction is not nearly as clear: Hamlet acts as the inspiration for the play, and Shakespeare is quoted in large part when other characters appear on stage, yet the action of Stoppard's comedy is also wholly dependent on the events in the older work. Indeed, were a spectator to see this play without any knowledge of Shakespeare's tragedy, confusion would take the place of amusement, and there would be little reason, it seems, to expect approval or even comprehension.

Outside of these already blurred boundaries between drama and metadrama comes, then, the addition of the "players" or "tragedians," who remove the dramatic reality to yet a third stage. Even this is a questionable case of metadrama, for, as the actors themselves acknowledge, they are never sure of their own identities, and occasionally question the manner in which they should proceed. Guildenstern himself expresses their quandary a few lines before they do, as is illustrated here:

 GUIL: ... A Chinaman of the T'ang Dynasty - and, by which definition, a philosopher - dreamed he was a butterfly, and from that moment he was never quite sure that he was not a butterfly dreaming it was a Chinese philosopher. . . (p. 60)

PLAYER: ....You don't understand the humiliation of it - to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable - that somebody is watching. . . .. (lost ) There we were - demented children mincing about in clothes that no one ever wore, speaking as no man ever spoke, swearing love in wigs and rhymed couplets, killing each other with wooden swords . . . (p. 63)

This confusion of drama and metadrama, or indeed of identity, in the existentialist view of the world, is accompanied, in both works, by a confusion as to the identity of the audience. In The Frogs, there are several references to the audience as an entity separate from the action in the drama; from scene to scene, however, the character of this entity undergoes changes. At first, when Dionysus and Xanthias examine their surroundings on the outskirts of hell, Dionysus is surprised by the tameness of the landscape:

 DIONYSUS: Any sign of those murderers and perjurers he [Heracles] told us about?

XANTHIAS: Use your eyes, sir.

DIONYSUS: [seeing the audience] By Jove, yes, I see them now. (p. 167)

Only a few moments later, however, when the chorus sings an ode to the Muse, they sing in praise of the very same audience, claiming that:

 CHORUS: Here sit ten thousand men of sense,
A very enlightened audience ... (p. 181)

The Aristophanic audience undergoes yet another transformation in the following scene: if we are to disregard the stage directions added by the translator and use common sense in imagining Aristophanes' staging of the play, we see the audience assume their proper role in the poetry trial between Aeschylus and Euripides, where they become what David Barrett calls the stage audience, who applaud and boo and thus determine the outcome of the trial.

The audience is also recognized, to a limited extent, by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: on several occasions, Stoppard's stage directions call for the characters to look directly at the audience yet to make a remark that does not acknowledge its identity in any way. The scene after the discussion with Hamlet is a good example; here, trying to figure out which from which direction the wind is blowing, the two decide:

 ROS: He's at the mercy of the elements. [Licks his finger and holds it up - facing audience.] Is that southerly?

They stare at audience.

GUIL: It doesn't look southerly. What made you think so?

ROS: I didn't say I think so. It could be northerly for all I know. (p. 58)

Only a few lines later, however, the character and identity of the audience has become common knowledge between the two men, and the spectators are even spoken to as such. The stage directions, however, call into question whether the two are really aware of whom they are addressing:

 ... A good pause. ROS leaps up and bellows at the audience.

ROS: Fire!

GUIL jumps up.

GUIL: Where?

ROS: It's all right - I'm demonstrating the misuse of free speech. To prove that it exists. (He regards the audience, that is the direction, with contempt - and other directions, then front again.) Not a move. They should burn in their shoes. . . . (p. 60)

The use of the themes of Death, the Underworld, Nothingness, Time, and other typically existentialist (as well as tragic) conceptualizations in both of these works seems to have a certain motivation, but the authors' exact purpose in mixing the genres of tragedy and comedy remains unclear. To a certain extent, of course, the combining of elements could result from an unconscious confusion of genres in both dramatists. Aristophanes, for instance, exhibits this type of confusion in other places: his play, which seems to start off in a light note, becomes drastically somber by the middle section, when Dionysus' need to save the City becomes clear. In addition, the use of two or even three choruses (in a dramatic form which, by rule, displayed only one such passage) indicates further the possibility of a mixing of several works, as does the strange ordering of the sequences throughout the drama.

Stoppard, too, seems to fall prey to this confusion: in mixing the plots of Hamlet and his own drama, things are generally kept straight, yet the explanations which Guildenstern provides, at the very beginning of the play, read like condensed plots of tragic dramas to be enacted: particularly noteworthy is his postulation that the outcome of the coin toss results from "divine intervention, that is to say, a good turn from above concerning him, cf. children of Israel, or retribution from above concerning me, cf. Lot's wife." (p. 16) Although humorously delivered, this explanation is in fact deadly serious, and invokes not only Biblical references, but classical tragedies (Oedipus, Orestes, Medea) as well.

Another example of confusion occurs, tellingly, in the constant mixing-up and identity-switching of the main characters. In Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mistaken not only by the King, Queen, Polonius, and Hamlet, but by each other as well. In The Frogs, too, this confusion of identity is exhibited, when for example Xanthias takes on the clothes of Hercules (i.e. Dionysus) at the behest of his master, who then assumes the demeanor of a slave. This blurred identity relates clearly to the indistinct boundary between drama and self-consciousness already noted, but it also symbolizes the tragicomic and genre-mixing tendencies exhibited by both playwrights.

Stoppard and Aristophanes are both admirably successful, then, in manipulating the tragic themes and character of their stories into a comic format, and their use of these themes does not, on the whole, cause problems in the workings of the plots. In addition, both plays, though centered around serious topics such as death, fate, and nonexistence (either future or present), still manage to achieve a comic catharsis and, at the same time, to instruct their audience. In Aristophanes, not surprisingly, the action ends on a note that is essentially happy, but with serious undertones.. With Stoppard, though, who naturally makes use of the freedom of form allowed in modern productions, the deaths of the main characters can hardly be called into question, and the ending is essentially somber. In both cases, nonetheless, the events and characters of the plays dramatize what are primarily serious fates in a somewhat lighthearted manner, and thus emphasize through the medium of comedy the overall tragedy of life.

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1992 for Classics 14 at Pomona College.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Aeschylus and Euripides Are Dead?" Website Article. 14 December 1992. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/C14paper3.html>.