The Curious Incident of the Intertextual Debt in the Frogs1

Donna Zuckerberg

Only the most contrarian of Euripidean scholars would claim that intertextual engagement with the tragedies of Aeschylus is not a feature of the later tragedian's work. Fairly explicit references to the Oresteia in Euripides' Electra, Iphigeneia in Tauris, and Orestes make the existence of this engagement difficult to dispute. Consensus has been more difficult to find on the degree to which that intertextual relationship is a prominent theme in Euripides' oeuvre. On the higher end of that spectrum is a work such as Rachel Aélion's 1983 volume Euripide héritier d'Eschyle, a massive 750-page opus arguing that Euripides' career was substantially built upon refashioning Aeschylean material.2 On the lower end are those who argue for the spuriousness of lines 518-44 of Euripides' Electra on the basis that what David Kovacs has called a "tasteless extra-dramatic hit at Aeschylus' Choephori" is not only fundamentally untragic but also textually insecure.3 Most scholars fall somewhere between those two extremes.

Although the existence of this intertextual relationship is widely acknowledged, its nature is less clear. Was Euripides inspired by the creative genius of his predecessor? Was he haunted by the anxiety of influence, wrestling with his secondariness in his own genre? Or was he locked in a competition of sorts, as some scholars have envisioned it, with the deceased poet? In her now-classic study of Euripides’ Orestes, “The Closet of Masks,” Froma Zeitlin frames the relationship in these terms: “Nor is this the first time that Euripides has done battle with the Aeschylean elephant both as an artist and as a thinker. In two other plays, the Electra and the Iphigenia in Tauris, he also assumes the stance of a fascinated antagonist/rival to Aeschylean solutions which he rejects, modifies, or alters.”4

Since the two tragedians were not contemporaries, they were not true rivals in tragic competitions.5 A “battle” in which Euripides and Aeschylus serve as “antagonists” could only ever be a metaphorical one played out through Euripides’ texts – until Aristophanes’ Frogs, where the two tragedians are quite literally in competition with each other for the tragic throne in the underworld. In that comedy, Aeschylus and Euripides both attempt to convince the god Dionysus of the superiority of their artistry; whoever is judged to be the better tragedian will return with the god to Athens to instruct the city.

The Frogs competition covers a wide range of angles of tragic critique, from the tragedians’ favorite tropes to vocabulary choices to choral meters. But Zeitlin’s metaphorical competition with Aeschylus that exists within Euripides’ texts – that is, his extensive intertextual engagement with the works and legacy of Aeschylus – does not play any discernible role in Frogs. In fact, it is never even mentioned. Instead, Aristophanes stresses the differences between the two tragedians, and the question of Euripides’ secondariness to Aeschylus is not raised.

In this essay, I argue that the absence of any mention of Euripides’ adaptations of Aeschylus, like the night-time silence of the dog in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze,” is a striking omission that deserves our attention. Aristophanes was a keen critic of Euripides’ tragedy and often mocked him for his characteristic quirks and tropes. Why, then, did he fail to refer to Aeschylus’ influence on Euripides’ later works?

The only statement in the Frogs that could be construed as a reference to Euripides’ adaptations of Aeschylus is the character Euripides’ statement at the beginning of the competition that he has “examined [Aeschylus] for a long time” (Frogs 836–9):

ἐγᾦδα τοῦτον καὶ διέσκεμμαι πάλαι, ἄνθρωπον ἀγριοποιὸν αὐθαδόστομον, ἔχοντ᾽ ἀχάλινον ἀκρατὲς ἀπύλωτον στόμα, ἀπεριλάλητον κομποφακελορρήμονα.
I know this man and I’ve watched him for a long time. He’s a creator of savage characters, stubborn-mouthed, with an unbridled, uncontrolled, ungated mouth, uncircumlocuitous, brag-bundle-voiced.6

But it is clear from the context that Euripides means only that he is very familiar with Aeschylus’ works and therefore qualified to critique them, just as Aeschylus is equally qualified to critique Euripides. (How Aeschylus came to be so knowledgeable about Euripides is never made clear in the play.)

It is easy to imagine what a joke about Euripides’ adaptation of Aeschylean material would have looked like. Aeschylus could have said that Euripides, for all his supposed novelty, never had an idea that did not originally come from Aeschylus’ own work; Euripides could have responded with a modified version of his claim at Frogs 939–43 that when he received tragedy from Aeschylus, it was “swollen with heavy words” (οἰδοῦσαν ὑπὸ κομπασμάτων καὶ ῥημάτων ἐπαχθῶν, 940), and that he slimmed it down (ἴσχνανα, 941). But we never see that type of interaction. As it exists in the play, Euripides’ declaration refers to the two tragedians’ very different approaches to tragic poetics and vocabulary, not to Euripides’ use of Aeschylean material and content.

Why did Aristophanes not refer to Euripides’ Aeschylean intertexts in the Frogs? One reason might be that Aristophanes did not believe that this trend in Euripides’ later plays was particularly prominent or noteworthy. Attic tragedy was a heavily intertextual genre, and perhaps borrowing from another poet’s works was so de rigeur as not even to merit a mention, let alone a joke. Athenaeus famously reports that Aeschylus himself claimed that his tragedies were just scraps from Homer’s feast (Deipnosophists 8.347e). One could argue that the extent of Euripides’ debt to Aeschylus has been exaggerated by scholars poring obsessively over the few tragic texts that remain to us.

This argument is not implausible when applied to some of the smaller and more speculative instances of Aeschylean intertextuality in Euripides’ works.7 Still other references maybe have been noticed only by the most educated and literate members of Euripides’ audience – for example, the swipe at Aeschylus’ long descriptions of the Argive army and the signs on each of the generals’ shields in the Seven Against Thebes at Phoenissae 751–2, when Eteocles tells Creon that, because the enemy is already at the gates, there is no time to list them all by name.8 But, as a literary critic, Aristophanes would indisputably have been part of the most educated echelon of Athenian theatergoers and attuned to even subtler resonances.9

In any case, it seems indisputable that three of Euripides’ plays – the Electra, Iphigeneia in Tauris, and Orestes – are part of an extensive Euripidean program of responses to Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Isabelle Torrance has argued that these references work on a metapoetic level to establish Euripides’ place in the greater tragic tradition:10

The competitive nature of Greek dramatic performance and the confines of appropriate mythological material necessarily entail conditions in which tragic poets are deeply conscious of their posteriority vis-à-vis previous successful poetic treatments from their common pool of myths… Through intertextuality, metaphor, word‐play, and the language of optics, Euripides invites the audience to consider the difficulties the tragic poet faces in composing a new drama while, by necessity, following in the footsteps of great predecessors. Inevitably, not all members of the audience will respond to these invitations. That does not mean they are not there.

Although Torrance allows that Euripidean audiences may not have been attuned to these subtle intertexts, Aristophanes seems to assume a fairly sophisticated and literate audience for the Frogs – his chorus even makes the (somewhat implausible) claim that everyone in the theater has read copies of the tragedians’ works (1109–18).11

Furthermore, it is these very plays that scholars agree that Euripides certainly interacted with – the Seven Against Thebes and the Oresteia trilogy – that are used throughout the Frogs to confirm Aeschylus’ superiority over Euripides. Aeschylus brags that he made the Athenians warlike and noble by composing the Seven, a play “full of Ares” that made men “in love with being fierce” (Frogs 1021–2). This effect is contrasted with Euripides’ ragged beggar-heroes, who supposedly taught the rich men of Athens how to pretend to be poor and therefore avoid having to pay liturgies (1063–6). Aeschylus and Euripides also take apart, word by word, the opening lines of the Choephoroe (1125–74), and Euripides mocks Aeschylus’ version without acknowledging the influence the play had on his own three versions of Orestes’ story. Significantly, although his primary critique is Aeschylus’ repetitive word use, he also remarks on how κατέρχομαι is an especially infelicitous choice to indicate Orestes’ return from exile, because he comes back in secret (1167–8). Orestes’ quiet, fugitive return is also singled out as a significant point in Euripides’ Electra when Electra argues that Orestes would never have returned home secretly out of fear of Aegisthus (Electra 524–6). The Aristophanic Euripides seems to be interested in commenting on the same Aeschylean plays – and even the same moments in those plays – that the real Euripides adapted and appropriated.

This unmarked similarity between Euripides and Aristophanes’ Euripides – whom we might call “Euripides” – may have been a factor in how scholars have understood the tone of the intertextual relationship between Euripides and Aeschylus. Some scholars have assumed that Euripides’ references to Aeschylus are parodic or mocking, using a kind of sly humor to knock the dead Aeschylus down a peg and insinuate Euripides’ superiority.12 Critics of this view tend to point out that, taken in context, scenes such as Electra’s rejection of the Aeschylean proofs of Orestes’ return are not really very funny.13 This tonal confusion seems almost inevitable, however, in the light of the potential slippage between rewritings of the Oresteia in the plays of Euripides and mocking commentary on the Oresteia done by “Euripides” in the Frogs.

Aristophanes can be seen as an active participant and intermediary in the intertextual “rivalry” between Aeschylus and Euripides, rather than a passive commentator on it. The comedian played a significant role in creating a sense of opposition between Aeschylus as the venerable classic and Euripides as the creative upstart – a duality already clear in the Clouds, where being the sort of person who prefers Euripides to Aeschylus is a sign of an extreme lack of taste and discernment (1363–78). This dichotomy goes as far back as Aristophanes’ first extant comedy, the Acharnians, where Dicaeopolis is very explicit in his opening speech about his preference for Aeschylus but asks Euripides for help, not because his plays are extremely good, but because of the eloquence of his ragged beggar-heroes.14 When Euripides wrote the Orestes, Aristophanes would have already been positioning him as the anti-Aeschylus for several decades.

Zeitlin calls the Orestes a “palimpsestic” text, and it is not difficult to see why when one looks at the complexity of its allusive mechanics.15 Consider, for example, one of the play’s most famous moments, when Orestes holds Hermione hostage on the roof of the skēnē with a knife to her throat. The hypothesis of the play notes that the Orestes has a rather comic conclusion (τὸ δρᾶμα κωμικωτέραν ἔχει τὴν καταστροφήν), which could refer to its similarity to the much-mocked hostage-taking in Euripides’ lost Telephus, in which Telephus uses a knife to hold the infant Orestes hostage. That identification might seem to be a stretch, considering that three decades separate the Orestes from the Telephus’ performance in 438 BCE, but it becomes more plausible when one considers how that particular tableau had become a recurring joke in Aristophanes’ mockery of Euripides over the years.16 The ending of the Orestes therefore reshapes elements of both Aeschylus’ Oresteia and of Aristophanes’ own Euripidean mockeries. In moments such as this, the distinction between Euripides and “Euripides” becomes more difficult to articulate.

The final reason we might have expected to see a reference to Euripides’ intertextual debt to Aeschylus in the Frogs is that the poets of Old Comedy cared a great deal about intertextual debts in general, along with joke theft, plagiarism, and concerns about being derivative rather than original. Aristophanes, Cratinus, and Eupolis often accuse each other of stealing their ideas and staunchly defend their own originality and genius. These anxieties come through in much of the “trash talk” that existed between various comedians, but they are most clearly visible in the rivalry between Aristophanes and Eupolis, the so-called “war between the poets.”17 These accusations of plagiarism are now seen by scholars as primarily part of a performance of exaggerating one’s own originality by countering rivals’ bragging expressions of how unique and unprecedented their comic genius is.18 Nobody “owned” the idea of mocking Cleon, so it could not truly be plagiarized. Instead, comedians constantly accused each other of being creatively parasitic while borrowing and remodeling material from each other’s works.19

But Aristophanes’ rivals did not only accuse him of stealing from them: they also accused him of excessive borrowing from Euripides. A scholion on Plato’s Apology notes that Aristophanes’ comic rivals “made fun of him for ridiculing Euripides while at the same time imitating him” (ἐκωμῳδεῖτο δ᾽ ἐπὶ τῷ σκώπτειν μὲν Εὐριπίδην, μιμεῖσθαι δ᾽ αὐτόν) and mentions that Aristophanes responded to this criticism in his Women Claiming Tent-Sites by claiming that, although he shared stylistic similarities with the tragedian, Euripides was far more vulgar than he was.20 Aristophanes’ long-standing habit of parodying Euripides, it seems, had opened him to criticism for being derivative.

It is not clear that tragedians had the same level of obsession with originality. But the importance of originality as a criterion for greatness in the Frogs contest is marked at the very beginning of the duel, when Dionysus warns the two contestants not to say anything that someone else might say (μήθ᾽ οἷ᾽ ἂν ἄλλος εἴποι, 906). For the most part, Aristophanes allows his “Euripides” character to be original, with newfangled, made-up gods (890) and a new, more realistic style of tragedy that contrasts with Aeschylus’ old-fashioned grandeur. When Euripides is subjected to insinuations about lack of creativity, the specific claim is not that he borrowed too much from greater predecessors but rather that he used a ghostwriter. Both Dionysus and Aeschylus refer to Cephisophon (Frogs 944, 1408, 1452–3), whom later biographers of Euripides claimed was a slave who wrote Euripides’ plays with him and for whom Euripides’ wife left him.21 But allegations that Euripides’ cleverest lines may not have been written by him do not amount to accusations that one’s entire career is that of a second-rate parodist. Surprisingly, Aristophanes spared Euripides the criticism that he himself could not avoid: that by creatively adapting and responding to another playwright’s work he had put himself permanently in the shadow of his more original predecessor.22

In summary, we should be surprised not to hear this intertextual dog barking in the Frogs. The extent to which Aristophanes was aware of and implicated in concerns about originality and influence, coupled with his positioning of Euripides and Aeschylus as rivals and his possible complicity in Euripides’ own extensive appropriation of Aeschylus’ works, suggests that a joke about that intertextual debt would have been natural for us to expect.23

We will never know whether the audience in the Theater of Dionysus noticed or cared about the joke’s absence, and any hypothesis about why Aristophanes did not make such a joke would be little more than speculation. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, I will not be using the silence of the dog to solve any mysteries: there is always a degree of uncertainty in arguments from silence. But as with the silent Aeschylean characters whom Euripides mocks at Frogs 911–20, silence can sometimes be an effective communicator.


1An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the 112th CAMWS annual meeting in March 2016.

2Although Aélion 1983 is a useful text, the author has been accused of overreaching; Lloyd 1984 writes that she is “often tendentious” in her arguments about Euripidean allusions to Aeschylus.

3The scholarship on this issue is extensive. See, e.g., Kovacs 1989, arguing vehemently for the spuriousness of this section (which he brackets in his Loeb edition of the play), and Davies 1998 for a fair treatment of both sides.

4Zeitlin 1980, 53.

5Although revivals of Aeschylus’ tragedies would probably have been performed in the same festivals as Euripides’ works, the two are unlikely to have been in direct competition during Euripides’ lifetime; see Biles 2006–7. Foley 2008, 17, has suggested that both Aeschylean revivals and Aristophanic mockery of tragedy might have led Euripides to “dabble in increasingly self-conscious allusions to earlier tragedy.”

6All translations are my own.

7See, e.g., Thalmann 1993 on the influence of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon on Euripides’ Hecuba.

8ὄνομα δ᾽ ἑκάστου διατριβὴ πολλὴ λέγειν, / ἐχθρῶν ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῖς τείχεσιν καθημένων (It would be a great waste of time to tell the name of each man when the enemy are set up at our very walls).

9Revermann 2006, 101, argues that allusion in drama creates “various strata of connoisseurship, creating a theatre of what may be branded ‘layered inclusion’ which manages not to alienate any viewer.”

10Torrance 2013, 61–2.

11Revermann 2006, 119–20, uses this notorious moment to argue that the competence of theater audiences in Athens increased over the course of the fifth century, although he admits that “The argument over whether and how much this particular remark is to be considered tongue-in-cheek is unlikely ever to cease” (120).

12To list just a few examples, Hammond 1984, 382, calls the recognition scene “malicious ridicule” of Aeschylus, and Goldhill 1986, 247, also writes that the scene “mocks” Aeschylus.

13See, for example, Wright 2005, 255: “there is more to the Electra’s recognition-scene than point-scoring; it is a serious demonstration of Euripides’ awareness of his literary predecessors and the self-conscious highlighting of his own originality – meta-tragedy instead of paratragedy.”

14Platter 2007, 56–7, 150–1.

15Zeitlin 1980, 54.

16Jendza 2015 argues that the use of swords in the Orestes is a response to Aristophanes’ comic mockery in the Thesmophoriazusae. See Zuckerberg 2014 for a fuller treatment of the argument that Aristophanic parody influenced Euripides’ later works.

17On this interaction see especially Bakola 2008. The play that is the focus of this controversy is Aristophanes’ Knights. A scholion on the play mentions that Cratinus accused Aristophanes in his Pytine of stealing material from Eupolis: “After hearing [that Aristophanes called him a babbler] Cratinus wrote the Pytinē, showing that he wasn’t a babbler; in it he attacks Aristophanes for using Eupolis’ material” (ταῦτα ἀκούσας ὁ Κρατῖνος ἔγραψε τὴν Πυτίνην, δεικνὺς ὅτι οὐκ ἐλήρησεν· ἐν ᾗ κακῶς λέγει τὸν Ἀριστοφάνην ὡς τὰ Εὐπόλιδος λέγοντα, Cratinus, Pytine fr. 213 = Σ Kn. 531a). Eupolis, in a fragment from the Baptai (fr. 89 = Σ Cl. 554a), also claims to have collaborated with Aristophanes on the Knights, and Aristophanes responded to these insinuations in Clouds 551–6 by accusing Eupolis of more or less copying the Knights in his Maricas. It is hard to know to what extent we should take any of these concerns seriously; Heath 1990, 153, argues that despite similarities between the Knights and the Maricas, the latter was “certainly not a mindless reproduction.”

18Heath 1990, 152, argues for the construction of a “comic repertoire” from which all comedians could draw while accusing each other of plagiarism.

19Ruffell 2011, 362–3, develops a brilliant conceptual model for this kind of interaction whereby comedians effectively play on each other’s jokes.

20Scholion Areth. (B) on Plato Apology 19C.

21Lefkowitz 2012², 96–7, 101.

22Farmer 2017, 193–4, notes the similarity in the kind of tragic borrowing done in Euripides’ Electra and Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae but distinguishes between the two by framing Euripides’ concern as one of “belatedness” while Aristophanes’ is one of “dependence.”

23It is equally unlikely that Aristophanes did accuse Euripides of plagiarizing Aeschylus in a lost play that made fun of the tragedian, such as the Proagōn or Dramas, and chose not to recycle the joke in the Frogs. The Frogs is full of jokes about Euripides recycled from earlier Aristophanic comedies. Euripides’ ragged, crippled beggars appear in the Acharnians and Peace before the Frogs; his licentious female characters appear in the Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae before the Frogs; his vegetable-selling mother is in the Acharnians, Thesmophoriazusae, and Frogs; and his prayers to unusual gods and mockery of Hippolytus 612, “my tongue swore, but my mind remains unsworn,” are in both the Thesmophoriazusae and Frogs. We might say with relative security that if a joke about Euripides’ debt to Aeschylus does not appear in the Frogs, it probably did not feature prominently in any of Aristophanes’ many mockeries of Euripides.

Works Cited

Aélion, R. 1983. Euripide, héritier d’Eschyle. 2 vols. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Bakola, E. 2008. The Drunk, the Reformer and the Teacher: Agonistic Poetics and the Construction of Persona in the Comic Poets of the Fifth Century. PCPS 54:1–29.

Biles, Z. 2006–2007. Aeschylus’ Afterlife: Reperformance by Decree in 5th C. Athens? ICS 31–32:206–242.

Davies, M. 1998. Euripides’ Electra: the recognition-scene again. CQ 48:389–403.

Farmer, M. 2017. Tragedy on the Comic Stage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Foley, H. 2008. Generic Boundaries in Late Fifth-Century Athens. In Revermann and Wilson, eds. Performance, Iconography, Reception: Studies in Honour of Oliver Taplin (15–36). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldhill, S. 1986. Reading Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hammond, N. 1984. Spectacle and Parody in Euripides’ Electra. GRBS 25:373–387.

Heath, M. 1990. Aristophanes and His Rivals. G&R 37:143–158.

Jendza, C. 2015. Bearing Swords and Razors: Paracomedy in Euripides’ Orestes. AJP 136:447–468.

Kovacs, D. 1989. Euripides, Electra 518–44: Further Doubts About Genuineness. BICS 36:67–78.

Lefkowitz, M. 2012². Lives of the Greek Poets. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lloyd, M. 1984. The Influence of Aeschylus on Euripides. CR 34:18–9.

Platter, C. 2007. Aristophanes and the Carnival of Genres. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Revermann, M. 2006. The Competence of Theatre Audiences in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Athens. JHS 126:99–124.

Ruffell, I. 2011. Politics and Anti-Realism in Athenian Old Comedy: The Art of the Impossible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thalmann, W. 1993. Euripides and Aeschylus: The Case of the Hekabe. CA 12:126–159.

Torrance, I. 2013. Metapoetry in Euripides. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, M. 2005. Euripides’ Escape-Tragedies: A Study of Helen, Andromeda, and Iphigenia among the Taurians. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zeitlin, F. 1980. The Closet of Masks: Role-Playing and Myth-Making in the Orestes of Euripides. Ramus 9:51–77.

Zuckerberg, D. 2014. The Oversubtle Maxim Chasers: Aristophanes, Euripides, and their Reciprocal Pursuit of Poetic Identity. Doctoral dissertation, Princeton University.


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