By Aristophanes (450-388 BC)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
Type of Work
The Clouds, a fictional stage play based on real people and events, is classified as old comedy. It was first performed in Athens in March of 423 BC during a competition known as the Greater Dionysia. (In the Dionysia, dramatists competed for prizes.) The judges of the competition awarded first prize to another playwright, Cratinus, for his comedy The Bottle. Subsequently, Aristophanes revised The Clouds, presumably in attempt to improve it, and only the second version survives today. The revised play includes a passage in which the chorus chides the Dionysia audience, in particular the judges of the competition, for choosing The Bottle over The Clouds.
What Was Old Comedy?
In Greece of the Fifth Century, BC., old comedy was a genre of comedy that displayed great imagination and used cutthroat satire, caricature, and sometimes vulgar dialogue to ridicule public figures, politics, ideas, trends, and institutions. Aristophanes was the unsurpassed master of old comedy. In the Fourth Century, old comedy was succeeded by a lighter, less caustic form of comedy that centered on fictional characters drawn from everyday life rather than on public figures, politics, and so on. This genre was appropriately labeled new comedy.
Structure of Old Comedy
Old comedy usually contained the following structural elements in a typical play:
Prologos: Prologue that begins the play with dialogue indicating the focus or theme of the play. In The Clouds, the dialogue in the prologos informs the audience that Strepsiades wants to learn how to talk his way out of debt. He enrolls in the thinking shop to acquire the necessary skills.
Parodos (pronunciation: PAIR uh doss): (1) Song sung by the chorus when it enters; (2) the moment when the chorus enters. In The Clouds, the cloud goddesses making up the chorus enter to the sound of thunderclaps while singing a song (called a parode) announcing their descent to earth. In their song, they reveal that their sympathies lie with the characters and ideas that Aristophanes is satirizing. (However, the cloud goddesses speak for Aristophanes in the parabasis (discussed below).
Episode(s): scene in which the dialogue involves one or two characters and the chorus.
Agon (pronunciation: AG ohn): a debate between characters. In The Clouds, two teachers at the thinking shop debate the validity of traditional values and logical reasoning (which Aristophanes supports) vs new ideas and deceptive reasoning (which, according to Aristophanes, the sophists support). The names of the teachers are Just Cause (or Right Logic, representing truth, justice, self-discipline, and established customs and religious beliefs) and Unjust Cause (or Wrong Logic, representing specious reasoning, loose living, and, in general, rejection of established customs and religious beliefs. Another agon near the end of the play pits Strepsiades against his son, Phidippides. Some plays had more than one agon.
Parabasis (puh RAB uh sis): an ode in which the chorus addresses the audience to express opinions of the author, including his views on politics, social trends, and other topics. In The Clouds the chorus scolds the audience for its lukewarm reception of an earlier production of the play.
Stasimon(s) (pronunciation: STASS uh monz): Scenes in which the chorus sings a song, uninterrupted by dialogue. Usually, other characters are not present.
Exodos (EX uh doss): Exit scene; final part of the play. In the exodos in The Clouds, Strepsiades burns down the thinking shop.
Strepsiades: Elderly Athenian farmer who bemoans his indebtedness, which results mostly from the unbridled spending of his good-for-nothing son, Phidippides. The boy loves to train and race horses and runs up bills buying a new horse, a chariot, and wheels. In English, Strepsiades means, loosely, any or all of the following: twisty, scheming, slippery, deceptive.
Phidippides: Strepsiades's wastrel son, who spends his time sleeping soundly and driving horses. (His name is also spelled Pheidippides in some translations.)
Socrates: Philosopher who operates a thinking shop (Greek transliteration: phrontisterion) near the home of Strepsiades. Strepsiades enrolls as a student of Socrates in hopes of learning how to trick his creditors out of collecting what he owes them.
Chorus: Goddesses who make up the clouds. They interact with the characters in the play and comment on the wisdom or folly of the decisions the characters make. The cloud goddesses regard themselves as highly important, for they bring the rain that grows the crops.
Chaerephon: Follower and loyal friend of Socrates. According to legend, the oracle at Delphi told Chaerephon (in an encounter not discussed in The Clouds) that "no man is wiser than Socrates."
Disciples of Socrates: They greet Strepsiades at the thinking shop and introduce him to the philosophical arts.
Pasias, Amynias: Creditors of Strepsiades.
Witness: When Pasias demands the money Strepsiades owes him, the witness is present to support Pasias.
Wife of Strepsiades: She does not speak in the play. But Strepsiades refers to her several times, saying he regrets marrying her because she gave him a foolish son. He also defends her at another time.
Servant boy: He lights a lamp that Strepsiades uses to calculate his debts.
Phidon of Cicynna: Father of Strepsiades. Phidon has no speaking part.
When Aristophanes staged The Clouds, he wanted to make people laugh. And he has been succeeding in that goal for more than 2,400 years, for the play is a masterly comedy that appeals to people of every time and place.. He also wanted to deliver a message to theater audiences of Fifth Century Athens: that certain philosophers, in particular
the sophists, were undermining traditional values and thus were a danger to society. For additional information on the sophists and the serious message behind the play, see Theme, below.
Meanwhile, Phidippides talks in his sleep about horses. Day and night, all he thinks about is driving horses. Strepsiades gets stuck with the bills to support the young man’s equestrian hobby, including a bill for 3 minae to Amynias for a chariot and a pair of wheels. Phidippides awakens and asks his father why he is so restless at night. Strepsiades says the cause is all the debts his son is running up. Phidippides falls back to sleep. Strepsiades then laments the day he got married and ruminates about the birth of his son and his wife’s prediction that Phidippides would one day drive his own chariot. At that time, Strepsiades recalls, he predicted Phidippides was destined to drive goats.
Strepsiades awakens Phidippides and asks him to reform and do his father’s bidding. Phidippides swears that he will do whatever his father asks. Strepsiades then points to a house outside where philosophers convene to hatch great ideas. It is a “thinking shop”—or, in modern terms, a think tank. He asks his son to enroll at the shop to become a great philosopher who can think Strepsiades out of debt. The youth recoils, saying only quacks and shoeless fellows, including Socrates and Chaerephon, meet there. Strepsiades then decides to enroll at the think shop himself to learn the art of double talk.
After a student admits him, Strepsiades sees the great Socrates suspended in air in a basket. Suspension in the air enables Socrates to suspend judgment on crucial questions while he searches for answers. Strepsiades also sees various instruments of astronomy, geometry, and other disciplines, as well as a map of the world.
When Strepsiades asks Socrates what he is doing, Socrates answers that he is walking on air and conjecturing about the sun. He explains that one must be in an elevated state to examine the celestial realm. At the bidding of Strepsiades, Socrates lowers himself, then asks the purpose of the former’s visit. Strepsiades says he is overcome with debt and wants to know how to deal with it. Socrates seats him on a “sacred couch,” gives him a wreath for his head, tells him he will teach him how to be a “tricky orator,” and invokes the Clouds.
At the sound of thunder, the Cloud goddesses arise and descend to Athens. Socrates describes them as “great divinities . . . who supply us with thought and argument, and intelligence and humbug, and circumlocution, and ability to hoax, and comprehension.” Strepsiades becomes more eager than ever to learn how to talk in circles. When the cloud goddesses materialize (serving as the chorus in the play), they look like mist and dew to Strepsiades, but Socrates says they are true deities. Strepsiades greets them, and they hail Strepsiades as a “hunter after learned speeches” and Socrates as a “priest of most subtle trifles.”
Socrates points out that they are the only deities in the universe. When Strepsiades asks about Zeus (in Greek mythology, the king of the universe, who ruled with thunder and lightning and controlled the skies), Socrates says there is no Zeus. If there were, he says, it would rain in good weather when skies are blue. However, it rains only when there are clouds, thanks to the cloud goddesses. He also says the cloud goddesses make the thunder and lightning attributed to Zeus.
Strepsiades then renounces the all the traditional gods and says he would not speak to them or make sacrifices to them even if he met them. When the chorus of cloud goddesses asks him what he desires, he says he wants to be the best speaker in Greece—one who is glib and clever, one who can skillfully twist the truth and tell outright lies. The chorus asks Socrates to teach him carefully and test his mind.
When Socrates asks his new student whether he has a good memory, Strepsiades says he always remembers who owes him money but forgets what he owes others. He also says he lacks inborn speaking skills but knows how to cheat people. Therefore, he can become an excellent speaker. He and Socrates then enter the “classrooms” of the house while the chorus scolds the audience for not making sacrifices to the cloud goddesses even though they are highly beneficial to the state. After all, they bring the rain that makes the crops grow.
When Socrates emerges from his session with Strepsiades, he complains that the old man is so stupid that he forgets things even before he has learned them. However, he says he will persist in teaching Strepsiades and calls him forth to ask him whether he wishes to study measures, rhythms, or verses. Strepsiades chooses measures (meter in poetry). Then he wagers that a certain line of poetry is in tetrameter. Socrates, chiding him for giving so boorish a response, suggests that they focus on rhythms instead. Strepsiades asks what good rhythms will do to help him make a living?
They move on to other subjects, but Strepsiades fares poorly with all of them. Socrates then directs him to meditate a while to come up with fresh ideas. Later, when Socrates checks on his student’s progress, Strepsiades says he has thought up a way to avoid paying interest on his debts: He will purchase a Thessalian witch who will use her powers to draw down the moon and close it in a container. Because interest is calculated by the month, he would no longer have to make payments—there would be no moon and thus no months.
Socrates then asks him how he would resolve a lawsuit in his favor if he had no witness to testify for him. Strepsiades readily answers that he would hang himself, for no one can pursue a lawsuit against a dead man. Socrates, seeing that Strepsiades is a hopeless case, sends him away.
Strepsiades returns to enroll his son in the school to learn great things from Socrates and his associate, Chaerephon, who is so wise that he “knows the footmarks of fleas.” In particular, Strepsiades wants Socrates to teach Phidippides how to talk his way out of lawsuits.
“Make yourself easy,” Socrates says. “You shall receive him back a clever sophist (one adept at double talk).” During his schooling, Phidippides masters all his lessons. In fact, he learns so much that he can win any lawsuit for his father even if a thousand witnesses testify against Strepsiades.
By and by, Pasias demands the twelve minae Strepsiades owes him. With Pasias is a witness to back him up. But Strepsiades, feeling invincible under the protection of his son’s educated tongue, manages to talk his own way out of the debt. He does the same when another creditor, Amynias, demands payment of debts his son owes. Then, to drive Amynias off, he beats him and pricks him behind with a goad.
While Strepsiades is at home, the chorus of cloud goddesses comments on the behavior of the old man, saying that his failure to pay his debts will bring misfortune upon him. Just then, Strepsiades runs from his house, chased by his son. When Strepsiades shouts for help, claiming that his son is beating him, Phidippides readily admits doing so, saying his father deserves the beating. His explanation is that his father ordered him to play the lyre and sing a song even though he did not wish to do so. His father then ordered him to recite a passage from Aeschylus; but, says Phidippides, Aeschylus is “full of empty sound, unpolished, bombastic . . . ." In retaliation, the young man says, he beat his father—justly.
When Strepsiades protests that it is unjust to beat one’s father, Phidippides asks, “Did you beat me when I was a boy?” His father says yes—out of concern for his son’s welfare. Phidippides then says he beat his father for the same reason. The argument goes on, but Phidippides is such a skilled sophist now that he easily bests his father.
Out of frustration, Strepsiades climbs onto the roof of the thinking shop and sets the building on fire. Socrates calls out from within: “What are you doing, pray . . . ?”
Strepsiades says, “I am walking on air, and speculating about the sun.”
A serious theme underlies this comedy, namely: Ideas espoused by radical thinkers like the sophists and by highly imaginative thinkers like Socrates are undermining traditional values and corrupting the morals of youths. The sophists maintained that the guiding principles of a society, such as justice and truth, were relative
concepts—that is, these principles changed according to the needs of men in a particular time and place. What was right and just in Athens was not necessarily right and just in another society. One man's virtue could be another man's vice.
In teaching their students, the sophists emphasized the art of argumentative discourse and came to be associated with deceptive and specious reasoning, lampooned effectively in The Clouds. Another target of Aristophanes was Socrates, along with his associate, Chaerephon. Ironically, Socrates, like Aristophanes, renounced the methods and ideas of the sophists. Nevertheless, Socrates angered the establishment (1) by declaring that the validity of many long-standing precepts could not be proved by logical reasoning, (2) by rejecting the Olympian gods and sometimes speaking of a single intelligent being as the creator of the universe, and (3) by spreading “dangerous” ideas among young people. In addition, he alienated many Athenians because he was ugly and untidy (sometimes neglecting to bathe for a long while), wore simple apparel, and walked barefoot through the streets. Thus, his ideas and eccentricities made him a ripe subject for ridicule.
Although Aristophanes focuses his plays on specific people, ideas, and events of his time and place, his themes appeal to audiences of every age and ever country. In other words, his plays have universal appeal. For example, in 2003, as part of a worldwide protest against the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq, sixty countries staged more than a thousand performances of his play Lysistrata to point up the folly of war. The Clouds remains popular today because it exposes public figures who rely on specious reasoning to promote their agendas and gain followers.Stichomythia
Stichomythia (stik uh MITH e uh) consists of brief, alternating lines of dialogue spoken in rapid-fire succession. It occurs frequently in Greek drama, especially when characters are arguing or expressing strong emotions. Following is an example of stichomythia in The Clouds. Unjust Cause and Just Cause are insulting each other:
Unj. You are a dotard and absurd.Climax
The climax occurs when Phidippides beats his father, then uses double talk (or sophistry) to justify the beating.
Philosophy is a discipline that attempts to identify the basic principles governing all existing things, as well as the makeup of these things, through investigations that rely on the application of reason rather than faith. Unlike science, philosophy permits intelligent speculation, via logical arguments, on what is or is not true. For example, the great Italian philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225-1274) used reason alone to form his famous arguments for the existence of God. In developing his ideas, Aquinas relied heavily on the philosophy of Aristotle, who was a pupil of Plato. Plato, in turn, was a pupil of Socrates. The word philosophy comes from the Greek word philosophia, meaning love of wisdom.
The sophists were traveling teachers who provided an education for a fee. They maintained that the guiding principles of a society, such as justice and truth, were relative concepts—that is, these principles changed according to the needs of men in a particular time and place. What was right and just in Athens was not necessarily right and just in another society. One man's virtue could be another man's vice. In teaching their students, the sophists emphasized the art of argumentative discourse and came to be associated with deceptive and specious reasoning, lampooned effectively in The Clouds. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—the great Greek thinkers who laid the foundations for western philosophy—all repudiated the sophists.
Socrates was a gifted thinker of ancient Athens who helped lay the foundation of western philosophy. The methods he used and the concepts he proposed, along with his courageous defense of his ideas against his enemies, profoundly influenced the philosophical and moral tenor of western thought over the centuries. His refusal to compromise his intellectual integrity in the face of a death sentence set an example for all the world to follow. For further information, see the Socrates Study Guide on this site.
Study Questions and Essay Topics