Who in Hell is Heracles?
Dionysos' Disastrous Disguise in Aristophanes' Frogs
Why, on his famous trip to the underworld in Aristophanes' Previous commentators have seen Dionysos' disguise as Frogs, does Dionysos disguise himself as Heracles? symbolic of a loss of his own identity: Dionysos is not himself, so he tries to be Heracles. Gradually, they argue, by an initiatory journey through the underworld, Dionysos sheds this identity of Heracles and wins a sense of his own true identity. One problem with such an explanation, however, is that scholars do not agree on what it means for Dionysos to be (or not to be) Heracles. Segal and others have argued that the Heracles disguise signifies the coarse physical comedy characteristic of Old Comedy, a buffoonery Dionysos supersedes as he regains his own identity. Other scholars argue for an opposite meaning: the disguise represents Dionysos' return to the sturdy civic values of Old Comedy from the sophistic decadence of Euripidean theatre. Whether Dionysos is moving away from or back to Old Comedy, these scholars see him as the embodiment of the Spirit of Comedy, seeking a new identity through a journey to the underworld. A number of scholars, most recently Lada-Richards (1999), explain Dionysos' achievement of a new identity through the familiar pattern of the initiation ritual, with its three-part rite of passage: separation, liminality, reaggregation. Dionysos' Heracles disguise represents his confusion about his old identity, an identity that is replaced by a new, more mature and authentic identity by the end of the play. Dionysos' new maturity allows him to be a fit judge of the poetic contest at the end of the play, thus resolving the concerns of scholars who see a radical discrepancy between the buffoonery of the first half of the play and the serious issues of the final poetic contest. As Segal puts it: "The central problem in the character of Dionysus is how the rather timorous and almost despicable figure of the first part of the play can serve as an arbiter in a contest of the gravest consequences at its end. Yet by the end of the parabasis, Dionysus has attained a certain dignity, and there is no question of his fitness." (Segal 1961, p. 208)
I would argue, on the contrary, that the dignity and fitness of Dionysos are rather questionable, even at the end of the play, and that scholars have overlooked significant elements in order to make the play fit into the idea of a maturing spirit of comedy. Dionyos remains an undignified buffoon throughout the literary contest, cracking rude jokes and relieving the seriousness of the conflict with bathetic or silly remarks (e.g., 980- 991, 1074-5,1089-98, 1149, 1279-80, 1308). As for his fitness to judge the contest, both Aeschylus and Euripides abuse him repeatedly for his stupidity and lack of good dramatic taste (e.g., 917-8, 933, 1136, 1150, 1160, 1197). An interpretation that relies on the maturation of Dionysos' character neglects the text and context of Aristophanes' play in favor of a metatheatrical idea of the Spirit of Comedy that means more to modern scholars of the comic genre than it could ever have meant to Aristophanes and his audience. The death of Dionysos' old self and the creation of a new personality through his journey to Hades does not in fact occur in Aristophanes' text, despite the attractiveness of this pattern for the modern scholar. The distortion of Aristophanes' text in service of fitting the details into the pattern has been the major problem with the ritual of initiation interpretations of the Frogs. Such interpretations obscure the real reasons why, in hell, Dionysos should disguise himself as Heracles.
Aristophanes, in having Dionysos pretend to be Heracles, is playing with the variety of depictions of Heracles familiar to his audience from the Greek mythic tradition. He uses Dionysos' and Xanthias' troubles with the identity of Heracles to comment (humorously, of course) upon the relations between citizen and slave in post-Arginousai Athens. The confusion over the identity of Heracles sets up Aristophanes' plea for the inclusion as citizens of all, from slave to noble, who serve the city in its time of crisis. Aristophanes creates comic confusion by playing with familiar aspects of the identity of Heracles in the traditional scenario of an identity test at the gates of Hades. Rather than having Dionysos disguise himself as Heracles to symbolize the Comic Spirit's loss of identity, Aristophanes uses the confusion in Dionysos' and Xanthias' changes of identity to blur the lines between citizen and slave, redefining the true citizen as the Athenian who serves the city nobly in its time of need.