Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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
of Old Comedy
comedy usually contained the following
structural elements in a typical
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
(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).
scene in which the dialogue involves one or two
characters and the chorus.
(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
(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.
(pronunciation: STASS uh monz): Scenes in which
the chorus sings a song, uninterrupted by
dialogue. Usually, other characters are not
(EX uh doss): Exit scene; final part of the
play. In the exodos in The Clouds, Strepsiades
burns down the thinking shop.
action is set in Athens, Greece, in 423 BC, the
year the play debuted on the stage. The play opens
in the home of a citizen named Strepsiades and
shifts to a gathering place for philosophers
called a "thinking shop" (Greek transliteration: phrontisterion),
similar to the modern "think tank."
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.
Strepsiades's wastrel son, who spends his time
sleeping soundly and driving horses. (His name is
also spelled Pheidippides in some
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
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.
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."
of Socrates: They greet Strepsiades at the
thinking shop and introduce him to the
Amynias: Creditors of Strepsiades.
When Pasias demands the money Strepsiades owes
him, the witness is present to support
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
boy: He lights a lamp that Strepsiades uses
to calculate his debts.
of Cicynna: Father of Strepsiades. Phidon
has no speaking part.
Purpose of the Play
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,
By Michael J. Cummings..©
Unable to sleep, Strepsiades sits up in bed.
In the same bedroom are two servants and his son,
Phidippides, sleeping soundly. Strepsiades lies down
again to try to sleep but immediately sits back up,
anxious about money matters in general and the debts
his son has incurred in particular. After ordering a
servant boy to light a lamp, Strepsiades calculates
his debts, noting that he owes twelve minae to Pasias
for a horse for his son. (In ancient times a mina,
singular of minae, was equal to 1/60 of a
talent, one hundred drachmas, or fifty shekels.)
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 . . . ?”
says, “I am walking on air, and speculating about the
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.
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.
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
(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:
You are a dotard and absurd. Climax
are debauched and shameless.
have spoken roses of me.
Just And a
crown me with lilies.
Just And a
don't know that you are sprinkling me with
Certainly not so formerly, but with lead.
now this is an ornament to me.
are very impudent.
you are antiquated.
The climax occurs when Phidippides beats
his father, then uses double talk (or sophistry)
to justify the beating.
What Is Philosophy?
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
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
Who Were 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.
Who Was Socrates?
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
Guide on this site.
Questions and Essay Topics
- After researching the life of Socrates,
express your view on whether Aristophanes was
justified in lampooning the philosopher.
- After researching the sophists of
ancient Athens, express your view on whether
Aristophanes was justified in lampooning these
- In The Clouds, Aristophanes
was ridiculing specific people and ideas of his
time and place. However, his observations can
apply to many other people and ideas of other
times and ages. Explain why.
- In a good dictionary, look up the term
Socratic irony. Then explain whether you believe
Socratic irony is an effective way to expose
defective teachings, beliefs, and precepts.
was the master of old comedy (see Type of Work,
above), a popular genre in the Fifth Century, B.C.
Old comedy was succeeded in the Fourth Century,
B.C., by a gentler type of comedy called new
comedy. Its master was Menander. Write an essay
that compares and contrasts old comedy and new