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Aristophanes' Clouds Study Guide

One of the most famous Athenian comic playwrights, Aristophanes (c. 446 - c. 386 BC) was regularly chosen to present his plays at the comedy competitions of the Lenaea and Dionysia festivals. Though he wrote about forty plays, only eleven survive, nine of which were written during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Clouds was first produced in the Dionysia of 423 BC, but to Aristophanes' great disappointment, the play was placed third and last. He revised the play for a second production (which was never performed) and this is the version that survives today.

Strepsiades and the Aristophanic hero, by Professor Chris Carey

In a famous fragment from a lost play the Athenian comic writer Antiphanes sets out the advantages of writing tragedy:

Tragedy is a lucky
kind of poetry in every respect. For firstly its plots
are recognized by the spectators
before anyone even speaks. So reminding them is all
the poet has to do. For if I just say Oedipus,
they know all the rest. His father Laius,
his mother Jocasta. His daughters, who his sons were,
what will happen to him, what he’s done. Again
if someone says Alclmaeon, immediately he’s mentioned
all his children, that in madness he killed
his mother, and Adrastus with a grievance at once
will come and then go off again . . .
Then when they when they’ve nothing more to say
and their plays have completely run dry,
they raise the crane as easy as their finger
and the spectators are satisfied.
We can’t do this. But we have to invent everything,
fresh names, what happened in the past,
the current situation, the end,
the beginning ....

The point is that tragedians have an easy life. They are writing about known myths and, because the audience knows the stories, the audience does half the writer’s work by filling in the details. But as Antiphanes and his audience knew, comedy too has its conventions. There are recurrent plot types and recurrent characters, both of which recur because they have enormous audience appeal. Athenian comedy often opens up a world of boundless possibility. The plots often revolve around an ingenious, sometimes inspired, attempt to solve a problem which in real life would be near impossible, whether it is to put a stop to war at a stroke or as in Cloud to dig a way out of seemingly inescapable debts. The plays also tend to revolve around a single central figure. This comic hero is the anti-type to the hero in tragedy. The tragic plot is devoted to the fates of individuals from the royal families of heroic myth. In contrast the comic hero is never from the elite end of society. He or she is not rich; nor a member of the active political class which dominated Athenian democratic politics; nor a writer or member of the intellectual elite. The intellectual in our play is not the hero but the unscrupulous and devious Socrates, Athens’ very own sophist. The hero then is much closer to the ordinary man/woman. Up to a point. Because in some respects the comic is anything but ordinary. Where the ordinary man or woman accepts the everyday limits of society and the presence of a large number of people whom society places above them, the comic hero pushes back against life’s restrictions, whether it’s the city’s laws, the power of the gods or the physical laws of the universe. S/he also possesses an extraordinary imagination, which enables them to conceive a solution to seemingly insuperable difficulties which the rest of us simply accept as inevitable. These figures also usually have a resilience which allows them to win through against obstacles and opposition. This superiority is not – or not necessarily – a matter of moral superiority, since the comic hero often behaves in a way which would invite disapproval and even punishment in real life.

Strepsiades in Clouds in many respects belongs to this type. Imaginative and enterprising, he is undaunted by the debts run up by his wife and son and devises a scheme to use the new education represented by the intellectual movement of the late fifth century to argue his way out of financial ruin. Despite being quite the wrong material for intellectual training he persists first in his own attempts to learn the new art of public speaking which will enable him to outwit his creditors and then when it becomes clear that he will not make the grade he substitutes his son, Pheidippides.

Strepsiades does not however fit neatly into the type. He is less smart than most of the other central figures, as his complete failure to get his head around any of his lessons shows. He also, unusually, loses. His Plan B backfires and his son instead of putting his newly acquired skills to work for his father turns them against Strepsiades. He is left not just with unpaid and overdue debts but also with threats of prosecution from his clumsy attempts to see off his creditors. Strepsiades does of course bounce back, at least to the point of getting his own back on Socrates in the closing scene of the play. So the hero does ultimately rise above disaster. And in a sense the plan has to backfire; Athenian comedy has little time for intellectuals and in general they get a bad press in the plays of the period. So it would be a strange comedy which allowed a pupil of Socrates an uncomplicated victory. But it is very unusual for a comic hero to fail this way. We know that this was the second version of Clouds. The first version was not a success. Aristophanes liked the play enough to revise it for restaging, though we don’t know if it was actually restaged. We don’t know why it failed first time round. The reasons were probably complicated. And unfortunately it’s difficult to tell how much in the revised version that we have is new. But one wonders if in the first version Strepsiades won in the end, as the hero should and this was too much for an Athenian theatre audience. (© Professor Chris Carey)

Aristophanes' Socrates in Context, by Dr Rosa Andújar

If we believe Plato’s claims in the Apology, Aristophanes’ Clouds was the first nail in Socrates’ coffin. Throughout his version of Socrates’ defence speech, the philosopher emphasises the play’s damning role on Socrates’ reputation: in Apology 19c, for example, we learn that the comedy acquainted its viewing audience with ‘a certain Socrates who was being carried about, who proclaimed that he was treading on air and a great deal of other such nonsense.’ Despite these dramatic claims, Clouds was itself a failure at the time of its production in the City Dionysia of 423 BC: it placed third and last in the comic competition that year. A few years later, Aristophanes revised Clouds with a view to restaging it, but the play once again proved unsuccessful: when he submitted the new version to the Athenian archons responsible for selecting the plays that would be performed at the upcoming Dionysian festivals, the new Clouds (the version that survives today!) was not among those chosen. Given its track record, how likely was it that this twice ‘failed’ play did in fact have the influence Plato claims that it had? A brief look at the at the larger context in which Aristophanes caricatured Socrates suggests that despite Plato’s persistent characterisation of the play as a decisive factor in Socrates’ death, Aristophanes’ Clouds did not kill Socrates.

Recent scholarly insights on Greek Old Comedy (in which Aristophanes is unfortunately the sole complete surviving author) reveal that it was a genre that liberally made fun of prominent individuals and especially intellectuals, and that it did so in quite similar ways. In the fragments of other Athenian comic playwrights, such as Cratinus and Eupolis, scholars have found evidence of other unflattering portrayals of intellectuals that likewise hinge on irreverence and grandiose statements: in Eupolis’ lost Kolakes (fr. 157), for example, the sophist Protagoras of Teos is described as an impious impostor who derides the heavens while enjoying the fruits of the earth, much like Aristophanes’ Socrates. An ancient scholion (explanatory comment on the text) to Clouds line 96, which describes the sky as a ‘barbecue lid’ which covers us coals, states that Cratinus (in Panoptai, an earlier — and sadly lost — play) had not only made the very same joke against the philosopher Hippon, but also that the comedian had equally charged the philosopher with teaching the weaker argument. These examples indicate that Clouds should not be taken as a straightforward expression of Athenian public opinion on Socrates, but rather that Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates was instead a variation of a common theme.

In addition to adapting a familiar theme, Aristophanes deliberately — and erroneously — associates Socrates with the sophistic movement that dominated later fifth-century Athens, and in particular with the many reductive stereotypes that were connected to it. In the play the poet portrays the philosopher as the master of a school that is populated by pale, unathletic geeks who not only fill their hours in the useless pursuit of esoteric knowledge, but who are also silly enough to pay for such frivolity. The school depicted in Clouds is in essence a cult: these students renounce the traditional gods and lead ascetic lives. The play, which focuses on the experience of a ‘normal’ family as they are exposed to such ‘quackeries’, can therefore be read as a demonstration of how fraudulent and disastrous this new ‘sophistic’ teaching can be. In reality, Socrates differed in crucial respects from the sophists. These men were predominantly foreign ‘performers’ who claimed to be able to impart to students (for an exorbitant fee!) the arts of rhetoric and political governance. It is not surprising that they were naturally drawn to a wealthy and democratic city such as Athens, which had a growing need for political and rhetorical training. Men such as Protagoras and Gorgias of Leontini were in fact polymaths who were interested in a variety of fields of knowledge, including astronomy, linguistics, and mathematics, but since they were the first to teach rhetoric in a systematic way, they became associated exclusively with flashy argumentation. Unlike these men, Socrates was an Athenian who rarely ventured outside the city walls (and even then only on a handful of occasions, all for military service, such as the Athenian campaigns against Potidaea in 431 and Delion in 424 BC). He claimed to have no special knowledge nor even an intellectual product to sell and moreover did not properly ‘teach’; instead he talked freely and gratis with all his fellow citizens anywhere and everywhere (venues included, but were not limited to, the gym, the marketplace, private homes). In fact, it was most likely Socrates’ overly familiar presence in the city and his instant-name recognition that led Aristophanes to choose him for his stage as representing an intellectual who corrupts the young for profit, despite the fact that the philosopher’s practices in no way resembled the customs of the men that such a stereotype satirised.

When looking for a more fleshed out portrait of Socrates, one of the most elusive figures in antiquity, we moderns frequently turn to Aristophanes’ stereotypical portrait of him to fill the gaps. Unfortunately, as scandalously appealing as Aristophanes’ Socrates might be, we should recall that the poet was taking part in a city-wide comic competition in which entertaining humour ruled, and not realistic plot. And as for Plato and the charges he lays against Aristophanes’ Clouds in the Apology: these ‘exaggerations’ seem to be conveniently forgotten in the Symposium, where our comic poet and the founder of Western philosophy drink amiably side by side.  (© Dr Rosa Andújar)

Study Questions

1. What are some of the conventions of the Athenian comic theatre?

2. How does the comic hero compare to his tragic counterpart?

3. To what extent does Strepsiades conform to the notion of a ‘comic hero’?

4. How does Plato characterise Aristophanes’ Clouds in the Apology?

5. How did Greek Old comedy portray intellectuals?

6. Who were the sophists? Why did they come to Athens in the fifth-century?

7. In what way was the historical Socrates different from the sophists?

Further Reading

  • Books

•    Aristophanes: Lysistrata and Other Plays, translation by Alan Sommerstein (Penguin Classics 2003)
•    Aristophanes: Clouds by John Claughton and Judith Affleck (Cambridge Translations from Greek Drama 2012)

General works of criticism

•    P. Cartledge, Aristophanes and his Theatre of the Absurd (Bristol 1990)
•    K.J. Dover,  Aristophanic Comedy (Berkeley 1972)
•    K. McLeish, The Theatre of Aristophanes (London 1980)
•    K. Sidwell, Aristophanes the Democrat (Cambridge 2009)
•    M. S. Silk, Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy (Oxford 2000)

Aristophanes in the modern world
•    E. Hall and A. Wrigley (eds.), Aristophanes in Performance 421 BC- AD 2007: Peace, Birds and Frogs (London 2007)
•    G. Van Steen, Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece (Princeton 2000)

  • Online

•    BBC: Comedy in Ancient Greek Theatre (In Our Time) >>

•    National Theatre of Great Britain: An Introduction to Greek Comedy and Satyr Drama >>

•    John Porter's page on 'Aristophanes and Greek Old Comedy' >>

•    Bettany Hughes discussing Socrates On Trial (Classics Confidential) >>

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