Home Page Home Page

The Clouds

The Clouds by Aristophanes is a comedy written in 432 B.C.  Aristophanes lived 446 BC  386 BC and was a playwright in ancient Athens.  Except for a few fragments by other comics, his plays are all that remain of Old Comedy.  Old Comedy was Middle Comedy and then New Comedy.  Old Comedy was characterized by its lampooning of real people, institutions, and events.  In that way, it's similar to satire.  New Comedy (Middle Comedy is mostly lost) avoided portraying actual people it was too dangerous for the playwright to anger powerful tyrants.  Instead, we find an increase in the use of stock characters, which were present from the beginning.  New Comedy is the ancestor of both Shakespeare's comedies and the modern sit-com.  They endlessly mix and re-mix the stereotypical characters the henpecked husband, the over-bearing wife, the wastrel son, the braggart soldier, the bothersome neighbor.

If Medea represents the great fear of the patriarchal Athenians a strong woman The Clouds presents us with the inverse fear that of being an ineffectual father.  Strepsiades is unable to discipline either his wife (now deceased, apparently) or his son, Phidippides.  As a result, he is heavily in debt and needs to figure out a way out of his debts.  At the time, citizens were required to present their own case, but they normally paid a person familiar with the legal system to write their speeches for them.  In this case, Strepsiades decides to go to school himself to learn to write his own speech.

Strepsiades ends up at the Thinkery (or Thoughtery), headed by Socrates.   Given that Plato didn't start writing his dialogues until after the death of Socrates in 399 B.C., this play is the introduction of Socrates on the stage of world literature.  Aristophanes makes Socrates into a buffoon, entering the play in the basket (machina, Latin; mēchanē, Greek) hanging above the stage and spouting, "I walk on air, and contemplate the sun." The machinery was designed to portray the grandeur of the gods who normally rode in it, but it could also be ripe for satire.

   Socrates in a

It would only take a few twitches on the rope to make the machinery into a farce.  The farce still works.  In 1988, George H. W. Bush was running against Michael Dukakis for President.  Bush was a very tall candidate, and Dukakis a very short one.  That was also the year that a study came out that showed that in a Presidential race, the taller candidate typically won.  Problem: how how to have a presidential debate that did not give an unfair advantage to the taller candidate.
Solution: a platform that adjusted to the height of the candidate.  The lift was a great success, at least until Saturday, when Saturday Night Live got a hold of it.

Socrates was a good target for satire because he was bald, ugly, and went around barefoot when any other citizen who could afford it would wear sandals.   He was also local, where many of the Sophists he debated were from other cities and less well-known.  Aristophanes makes Socrates into a Sophist, which he was not.  It may have been difficult for the towns people to tell the difference among the schools of thought; it was easier to just lump them all together.

Aristophanes DOES give us an insight into the early phases of the Greek enlightenment.  This was the first time that analytical thought had been applied to question of how things worked.  The title comes from the play's contention that Zeus is not really the god who causes thunder; that would be the Clouds.  In the context of the play, this is the wrong answer, but it turns out to be much closer to the answers the will eventually come from philosophy and science about the nature of lightning.  We see a similar debate in The Lion King, where the mythic answer is correct in the movie and the literally correct answer gets laughed at:

Aristophanes even sometimes anticipates the eventual scientific revolution; figuring out how far a flea can jump compared to its body size is empirical research of the kind that biologists actually do.  We also see the scholars trying to teach the thick-headed Strepsiades poetic meter.  The dactyl (Greek for 'finger') is a long vowel followed by two short ones ( ~ ~); supposedly because the meter bears a resemblance to the a finger with its one longer joint and two shorter ones.  Strepsiades responds sticking his middle finger out at Socrates, which is the first reference I've found in history to "the finger."  I had no idea the gesture was so ancient.

The play had such an impact and hurt Socrates' feelings so much that 30 years later when he was on trial for his life, he spent a good bit of his defense complaining about how unfairly he had been treated by Aristophanes.  He even quoted a few lines.  Think he had the whole thing memorized?

Home Page
Home Page