The Clouds – Aristophanes – Ancient Greece – Classical Literature
(Comedy, Greek, 423 BCE, 1,509 lines)
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“The Clouds” (Gr: “Nephelai”) is a comedy by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, originally produced at the Athens City Dionysia of 423 BCE. It is perhaps the world’s first extant “comedy of ideas” and lampoons intellectual fashions in classical Athens. In the play, Strepsiades, an elderly Athenian mired in debt, enrolls his son Pheidippides in Socrates’ philosophy school so that he might learn the rhetorical skills necessary to defeat their creditors in court, although all he really learns is cynical disrespect for social mores and contempt for authority, which leads to Strepsiades burning the school down in disgust.
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The play begins with Strepsiades sitting up in bed, too worried to sleep because he is faced with legal action for non-payment of debts. He complains that his son, Pheidippides, blissfully asleep in the bed next to him, has been encouraged by his aristocratic wife to indulge an expensive taste in horses and the household is living beyond its means.
Strepsiades wakes his son to tell him of his plan to get out of debt. At first Pheidippides goes along with his father’s plan but soon changes his mind when he learns that he must enrol in the Phrontisterion (which may be translated as “The Thinkery” or “Thinking Shop”), a philosophy school for nerds and intellectual bums that no self-respecting, athletic young man like Pheidippides cares to be involved with. Strepsiades’ idea is for his son to learn how to make a bad argument look good and thereby beat their aggrieved creditors in court. Pheidippides will not be persuaded, though, and Strepsiades eventually decides to enrol himself, in spite of his advanced age.
At The Thinkery, Strepsiades hears about some of the recent important discoveries made by Socrates, the head of the school, including a new unit of measurement for ascertaining the distance jumped by a flea, the exact cause of the buzzing noise made by a gnat and a new use for a large pair of compasses (for stealing cloaks from pegs over the gymnasium wall). Impressed, Stepsiades begs to be introduced to the man behind these discoveries, and Socrates appears overhead in a basket he uses to observe the Sun and other meteorological phenomena. The philosopher descends and inducts the new elderly student in the school in a ceremony which includes a parade of the majestic singing Clouds, the patron goddesses of thinkers and other layabouts (which become the Chorus of the play).
The Clouds declare that this is the author’s cleverest play and the one that cost him the greatest effort, praising him for his originality and for his courage in the past in lampooning influential politicians such as Cleon. They promise divine favours if the audience will punish Cleon for his corruption, and rebuke the Athenians for messing about with the calendar and putting it out of step with the moon.
Socrates returns to the stage, protesting about how inept his new elderly student is. He attempts one further lessons, directing Strepsiades to lie under a blanket in order to encourage thoughts to arise naturally in his mind. When Strepsiades is caught masturbating under the blanket, Socrates finally gives up and refuses to have anything more to do with him.
Strepsiades resorts to browbeating and threatening his son, Pheidippides, into enrolling into The Thinkery. Two associates of Socrates, Right and Wrong, debate with each other over which of them can offer Pheidippides the best education, with Right offering a preparation for an earnest life of discipline and rigour and Wrong offering a foundation for a life of ease and pleasure, more typical of men who know how to talk their way out of trouble and of those in eminent positions in Athens. Right is defeated, Wrong leads Pheidippides off into The Thinkery for his life-changing education, and Strepsiades goes home a happy man.
The Clouds step forward to address the audience a second time, demanding to be awarded first place in the festival competition, in return for which they promise good rains, and threaten that they will destroy crops, smash roofs and spoil weddings if not granted the prize.
When Strepsiades returns to fetch his son from the school, he is presented with a new Pheidippides, startlingly transformed into the pale nerd and intellectual bum that he had once feared to become, but supposedly well prepared to talk their way out of financial trouble. The first two of their aggrieved creditors arrive with court summonses, and the confident Strepsiades dismisses them contemptuously, and returns indoors to continue the celebrations.
However, he soon reappears, complaining of a beating that his “new” son has just given him. Pheidippides emerges and coolly and insolently debates a son’s right to beat his father, ending by threatening to beat his mother also. At this, Strepsiades flies into a rage against The Thinkery, blaming Socrates for his latest troubles, and leads his slaves in a frenzied attack on the disreputable school. The alarmed students are pursued offstage and the Chorus, with nothing to celebrate, quietly departs.
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Although originally produced at the Athens City Dionysia dramatic contest in 423 BCE, the play was revised some time between 420 and 417 BCE after its poor initial reception (it came last of the three plays competing at the festival that year). The play is unusually serious for an Old Comedy and possibly this was the reason why the original play failed at the City Dionysia. No copy of the original production survives, and it seems likely that the extant version is actually slightly incomplete.
Despite its poor reception, however, it nevertheless remains one of the most celebrated and perfectly finished of all Hellenic comedies, containing some of the finest specimens of lyric poetry that have come down to us.
The original production of “The Clouds” in 423 BCE came at a time when Athens was looking forward to a truce and potentially a period of peace in the ongoing Peloponnesian War with Sparta. Aristophanes therefore apparently saw little need for renewing the attacks he had begun in his previous plays (particularly “The Knights”) against Cleon, the populist leader of the pro-war faction in Athens, and turned his attention instead to broader issues, such as the corrupt state of education in Athens, the recurring issue of Old versus New and the so-called “battle of ideas” stemming from the rationalist and scientific ideas of thinkers such as Thales, Anaxagoras, Democritus and Hippocrates, and the growing belief that civilized society was not a gift from the gods but rather had developed gradually from primitive man’s animal-like existence.
Socrates (portrayed in the play as a petty thief, a fraud and a sophist) was one of the most distinguished philosophers of Aristophanes‘ time, and also apparently had an ill-favoured face that lent itself easily to caricature by mask-makers, and “The Clouds” was not the only play of the period to lampoon him. The play gained some notoriety in ancient times, however, for its acerbic caricature of the philosopher, and it was specifically mentioned in Plato’s “Apology”as a factor contributing to the old philospher’s trial and eventual execution (although in fact Socrates’ trial occurred many years after the performance of the play).
As is usual with plays in the Old Comedy tradition, “The Clouds” is studded with topical jokes that only a local audience could understand, and a huge number of local personalities and places are mentioned. At one point, the Chorus declares that the author chose Athens for the first performance of the play (implying that he could have produced it somewhere else), but this is itself a joke as the play is specifically tailored to an Athenian audience.
It is one of the principal forms of Aristophanic wit in general to take a metaphor in its literal sense, and examples in this play include the introduction of Socrates floating in a basket in the sky (thus walking on air like an idle dreamer) and the Clouds themselves (representing metaphysical thoughts which do not rest on the ground of experience but hover about without definite form and substance in the region of possibilities).
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- English translation (Internet Classics Archive): http://classics.mit.edu/Aristophanes/clouds.html
- Greek version with word-by-word translation (Perseus Project): http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text.jsp?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0027