Aristophanes, The Clouds
An original version of The Clouds was performed in 423 bce and won, disappointingly for Aristophanes, third prize at the Great Dionysia. He revised the work a few years later, which is what we have now: a rollicking satire on the new learning, distortedly defined as “sophism” and represented by Socrates, including much lowbrow, vulgar humor and bawdy verbal abuse. The play may lose much of its delightfulness when we realize that this kind of attack on learning was exactly what was used against Socrates later, leading to his condemnation to death. Plato did lay blame to Aristophanes’ irresponsible slanders.
The play opens at the house of old farmer Strepsiades, next to the “tiny, grubby, ramshackle hovel which houses Sokrates’ [sic] Thinkery” (21). Strepsiades gripes about his lazy, no-account son Pheidippides, initially sleeping, then engaging in contentious exchange with his father. Strepsiades wants the boy to enroll at the Thinkery: “they offer a course called The Technique of Winning Lawsuits. Honest or dishonest, it’s all one” (29). Pheidippides considers Sokrates and such teachers “filthy charlatans” (29), but Strepsiades is maneuvering to avoid paying his debts. He kicks at the door of the Thinkery and hears from within, “Go bang yourself” (31). Strepsiades has interrupted some absurd scientific and mathematical experiments. Students there are pale and emaciated. Sokrates is examining the heavens from his basket in the sky.
Strepsiades explains that he wants “instruction in your second Logic, you know the one — the get-away-without-paying argument” (41). He swears by the gods he’ll pay for such instruction. Sokrates responds, “The gods, my dear simple fellow, are a mere expression coined by vulgar superstition” (41). Instead, the Clouds are the real goddesses. “Clouds are also patrons of a varied group of gentlemen, comprising: chiropractors, prophets, longhairs, quacks, fops, charlatans, fairies, dithyrambic poets, scientists, dandies, astrologers, and other men of leisure” (47). Strepsiades is converted: “And to think I always used to believe the rain was just Zeus pissing through a sieve” (51). He’ll accept the life of a student: “hard work, insomnia, worry, endurance, and a stomach that eats anything” (55).
Aristophanes himself enters with cheeky faux compliments to the intelligence and taste of the audience and especially judges whom he is certain will award him first prize this time. He accuses other playwrights of rehashing and plagiarism. Slander against other public figures follows even when Aristophanes departs. After some absurd exercises in “logic,” Strepsiades drags his son Pheidippides in, mocking his belief in Zeus and showing off his knowledge that a female duck is called a “duchess” (88). The boy must be taught. “I want him able to make an utter mockery of the truth” (90).
Philosophy and Sophistry personified hold a debate, the former standing for “the three D’s” — Discipline, Decorum, and Duty (97) — and an impossibly old fuddy-duddy educational notion of rote memorization. Sophistry instead undermines morality by “taking what might appear to be the worse argument and nonetheless winning my case, … an extremely lucrative source of income” (103). Sophistry argues that if politics were so vile, why would Homer cast old wise Nestor is such a role? (104). As for general immoral behavior, isn’t Zeus himself guilty of such? (106).
Strepsiades rejoices that Pheidippides is ready now to help him weasel out of debts and throws a dinner for him. The fat drunkard Pasias comes to collect money, but Pheidippides has “learned the Science of Unanswerable Argument” (119). Strepsiades beats him offstage as Amynias “the notorious effeminate” arrives, having had a chariot accident but also trying to collect money owed him. Strepsiades argues him and whips him away. The Chorus suggests that Strepsiades will need to learn a lesson, and we next see him being chased by his son with a stick. He is outraged at such familial disrespect, explaining the dissatisfactions that arose at the dinner. The singing was sub-par, and when asked to sing instead “a passage from one of those highbrow modern plays,” Pheidippides recited from Euripides, “One of those slimy tragedies where, so help me, there’s a brother who screws is own sister!” (133). Pheidippides prepares to justify a son beating his father: “Eloquence is sweet, sweeter than I ever dreamed! This utter bliss of speech! This rapture of articulation! But oh, the sheer Attic honey of subverting the Established Moral Order!” (135). He twists logic to “prove” his stance, then adds that he can justify beating his mother too. Strepsiades is outraged, finally, and turns against the Clouds: “I was brainwashed!” (141). He uses his son’s stick to smash the potbellied model of the universe in front of the Thinkery, prays to Hermes, asks if he should sue, and instead seems to receive the order to burn down the Thinkery. Students, Sokrates, and all are driven out of the burning building, into the money-collectors, and off the stage in a general chaos.
Aristophanes. The Clouds. Trans. William Arrowsmith. Four Plays by Aristophanes. NY: Meridian, 1994. 7-166.