The Classical Origins of Western Culture
The Core Studies 1 Study Guide
by Roger Dunkle
Brooklyn College Core Curriculum Series
Copyright © 1986 by Brooklyn College, The City University of New York All rights reserved. Published 1986.




The setting of the Clouds requires two doors in the skene, one representing Strepsiades's house and the other, the Thinkery, both in the city of Athens. The play begins with Strepsiades and Pheidippides sleeping in their beds. Since the ancient Greek theater had no curtain, these two men in their beds had to be carried out in full view of the audience by stagehands (probably slaves) and placed in front of one of the doors of the skene representing Strepsiades's house. The audience was no doubt expected to imagine that this was an indoor scene, because it was not usual for Greeks to sleep outside. This assumption is strengthened by the fact that, since Pheidippides is sleeping under five blankets, the weather is cool, which would make it even less likely that this was intended as an outdoor scene.

The method of presenting the scholarly activities that go on inside the Thinkery is by no means certain. K. J. Dover (Aristophanic Comedy, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1972, 107) suggests two possibilities. The students could come out of the door of the skene carrying their apparatus with them, which they could leave behind when they go back inside. Another possibility is that a screen made of canvas and wood with a door, held from behind by stagehands, could conceal the students until Strepsiades asks that the door be opened. The stagehands then could remove this screen revealing the students and their equipment. When the students are ordered to go back inside, they could go through a door of the skene which then would become the door of the Thinkery for the rest of the play.

One other aspect of production needs to be mentioned. Socrates first appears in the play suspended in air. The means of his suspension is undoubtedly the mechane, which in tragedy is mostly used for gods, but in comedy is used for any character who needs to fly or just be in the air.

Aristophanes's Comic Portrait of Socrates

Although there is something of the real Socrates1 in the character of the same name in the Clouds, it is clear that Aristophanes's depiction of Socrates in the Clouds is in good part a comic distortion. Socrates was a well-known figure in Athens who was popularly perceived as an intellectual. Aristophanes, taking advantage of this popular perception, arbitrarily places him at the head of the Thinkery, in which subjects such as rhetoric and astronomy are taught. As will become evident in the Apology and the Republic, Socrates was not a teacher of rhetoric or any of the other topics taught in the Thinkery. He was not concerned with teaching students to achieve material success through oratory; in fact, his main interest was to encourage young men toward spiritual, not material progress. Despite Socrates's atheism in the Clouds, he was not a scoffer at traditional religion, but a pious believer in the gods.

1. E.g., the metaphor of midwifery (137 ff.); Socrates's shoelessness and endurance (363); his reduction of Strepsiades to a state of utter bewilderment (791 ff.)

It indeed seems shocking that Aristophanes could so completely misrepresent Socrates, but in 423 B.C. when the Clouds was first presented, the distinction between Socrates and the Sophists might not have been as clear as it became later when Plato in the fourth century began to write philosophical dialogues with Socrates as the central character. To the average observer at the time of the Clouds Socrates did not seem terribly different from the Sophists. Like the Sophists, he was constantly seen in the company of wealthy young men, who, if they did not pay him regular fees, no doubt from time to time gave him financial support. Even if Socrates emphasized spiritual over material values, the actions of his young friends did not always reflect this emphasis, as in the case of Alcibiades and Critias.2

2. Alcibiades was a brilliant but unprincipled aristocrat who, although an Athenian general, left Athens and helped the Spartans after he had been brought up on charges of impiety. Critias was one of the oligarchical Thirty whose reign of terror at Athens after the end of the Peloponnesian War brought about the death or exile of numerous democrats and the confiscation of their property.

As Plato's depiction of him reveals, Socrates was not a typical Athenian. His rejection of the normal concerns of life such as money made him seem quite abnormal. One reaction of society to the abnormal man is to laugh at him. Aristophanes, whether he knew the real character of Socrates or not, did not hesitate to take advantage of the comic potential of this unusual man.3

3. This discussion owes much to K.J. Dover's edition of the play (Oxford 1968) and his book, Aristophanic Comedy, cited earlier.


Strepsiades's House (beginning with prologue) - Strepsiades, Pheidippides, Xanthias (slave) (1-132)4

4. The numbers in parentheses refer to lines in Clouds.

The play begins with Strepsiades's monologue (prologue), which is interrupted by the sleep-talking of Pheidippides and two brief comments of a servant (1-79). What is the dramatic purpose of this monologue? What is Strepsiades's problem with his son (12-27)? with his wife (41-74)? What does his son's name mean and why was he so named (63-67)? What salvation does Strepsiades see in the Thinkery (94-99)? Why does Pheidippides refuse to study there (102-104;119-120)?

Thinkery (containing parodos) - Strepsiades, Student, Socrates, Students of Thinkery and Chorus (133-510)

When Strepsiades arrives at the Thinkery, the Student speaks of the researches in the Thinkery as mysteries (143). He is referring to the secret knowledge and ritual which were known to only the initiates of mystery cults, like some Dionysiac cults and the Eleusinian mysteries.5 Can you suggest a reason why Aristophanes uses the motif of mystery religion in reference to the education offered by the Thinkery?

5. In Eleusis, a town in Attica about 12 miles from Athens, mysteries in honor of the agricultural goddesses Demeter and Persephone were celebrated.

What impression is given by the Student's description of the experiments in the Thinkery? What view are we given of Socrates before he arrives in person (144-174)? What is the physical condition of the students in the Thinkery and what subjects do they study there (186-217)?

Socrates appears suspended in the air in order to satirize the scientific theory (attributed to Diogenes of Apollonia) which connected thinking with air, both inside and outside the body. The air farther from the earth was considered purer and better suited for thought than that nearer the earth. What impression does Socrates give by his position and his words (223-234)?

Clouds are chosen as the chorus of this play and as patron divinities of the Thinkery because of the connection between clouds and various meteorological phenomena like rain, thunder and lightning in the scientific thought of such Presocratics as Anaximander, Heraclitus and Anaxagoras. What are the different reactions of the Clouds when they see various men (348-355)? In reference to these reactions, in what sense can the Clouds be said to be moral critics? How is this view inconsistent with Socrates's first description of them (331-334)? What is Socrates's view of Zeus (367)? What has replaced him (379)?6

6. Socrates says that Dinos `rotation' has replaced Zeus. Dinos has been variously translated as "Convection Principle", "the Whirl", "ethereal vortex", etc. This doctrine of the rotation of the universe was basic to the view of the universe espoused by Empedocles, Anaxagoras and the atomist Democritus.

Parabasis - Chorus (518-626)

What view of the Clouds, Aristophanes's style of comedy and his competitors is presented (537-562)? What complaint does the chorus of Clouds make to the audience (575-594)? What offense have the Athenians given to the gods with the new calendar (607-626)?

Thinkery - Socrates, Strepsiades, Pheidippides and Chorus (627-888)

Before Strepsiades is allowed to study the immoral logic he is so eager for, he must study poetic meter and grammatical gender (636-693). Strepsiades finds great difficulty in understanding these subjects and when he offends Socrates with the stupidity of his suggestion that he hang himself to get out of his debts, Socrates rejects him as a student (780-790). After this rejection, who suggests that Strepsiades send his son to the Thinkery in his place (794-796)? What does Strepsiades insist that his son learn there (882-885)?

Debate (Thinkery) - Philosophy, Sophistry, Socrates, Strepsiades, Pheidippides Chorus (889-1114)

Next takes place the Debate between Just Argument and Unjust Argument7 which begins with unrestrained verbal abuse. What is the purpose of the Debate? Is the Debate absolutely necessary from a logical point of view? Explain your answer. What kind of education is praised by Just Argument (961-999)? What are the values which this education teaches to its students? Compare the effects produced by the old education with those produced by a Sophistic education (1002-1019). What criticisms does Just Argument make of the effects of Unjust Argument's teaching (1020-1023)?

7. Translators translate these names in various ways. However they are translated, the first speaker in the Debate is given a name with a connotation of superior morality and the second, inferior.

What is Unjust Argument's basic approach to life (1036-1042)? What aspect of human nature does Unjust Argument assume to be dominant in man when he, addressing Pheidippides, refers to "the necessities of nature" (1075-1078)? What advantage will derive from being taught by Unjust Argument (1079-1082)? Who wins the Debate? How is the winner of the Debate determined (1085-1102)?

Second Parabasis - Chorus (1115-1130)

What promise and threat does the Chorus make in the second parabasis?

Thinkery - Strepsiades, Socrates and Pheidippides (1131-1213)

What ability has Pheidippides acquired in the Thinkery? Give one example of the arguments that Pheidippides demonstrates to his father. Evaluate the logic of the argument.

Strepsiades's House - Pasias, Witness, Strepsiades and Amynias (1214-1302)

After Pheidippides masters immoral logic in the Thinkery and Strepsiades rejoices because of his son's and his own cleverness, Strepsiades's creditors, Pasias and Amynias, arrive to get their money. Rather than Pheidippides who was sent to the Thinkery for this very purpose, it is Strepsiades who unexpectedly routs the creditors. Perhaps this is an example of comic illogicality in a genre which does not require strict logic, or can you suggest a reason why Aristophanes makes this surprising substitution? What comic devices does Aristophanes employ in this scene?

Stasimon (1303-1320)

What comment does the Chorus make on Strepsiades's success in getting rid of his creditors? Is this comment consistent with Strepsiades's and Socrates's perception of the role of the Chorus up to this point?

Strepsiades's House - Strepsiades, Pheidippides and Chorus (1321-1492)

In the next scene Strepsiades gets his comeuppance when he is beaten by his son. In this scene Aristophanes is employing parody8 of tragedy. Strepsiades is shown here experiencing a sudden peripety in the manner of the tragic hero. At the height of his success (routing of the creditors) he suffers misfortune as does Agamemnon in Aeschylus's tragedy Agamemnon when upon his return home after victory at Troy, he is murdered by his wife and as Oedipus does in Sophocles's Oedipus the King when Oedipus, a respected and heroic king, finds out that he has killed his father and married his mother. We are next presented with Strepsiades's realization of how he has been deceived by Socrates. When Strepsiades discovers9 his guilt after having been beaten by his son (1476-1477), Aristophanes is parodying a traditional theme of tragedy: learning by suffering.

8. A parody is mimicry of the style of an author or genre in a literary work for the purpose of ridicule.

9. Both discovery and peripety (reversal of fortune), mentioned a few lines earlier, are terms of literary criticism derived from Aristotle's analysis of Tragedy in his Poetics.

What is the reason for Pheidippides's violence against his father? (1353-1376). What is the implied contrast from Strepsiades's point of view between, on the one hand, the poetry of Simonides and Aeschylus and, on the other, that of Euripides? Given the patriarchal society of the Athenians, the beating of a father by his son was perhaps even more shocking to the original audience than it is to us. But Pheidippides then proposes to do something even more outrageous. What does he propose (1405) and what is specifically sophistic about his proposal?

What is Pheidippides's view of law (1421-1424)? What view of human nature is implicit in the example Pheidippides uses as a model for human behavior (1427-1429)? What threat by Pheidippides finally makes Strepsiades realize the wrong he has done in sending his son to the Thinkery (1444-1446)? Strepsiades then blames the Chorus for encouraging him in his immoral plans. What reply does the Chorus (in the person of the Coryphaeus) make to this accusation (1454-1455)? What is the true role of the Chorus (1458-1461)? What does Strepsiades's prayer to Hermes dramatically illustrate (1478-1482)? What advice does Strepsiades report that Hermes has given him (1483-1484)?

Exodos (Thinkery) - Students of Thinkery, Strepsiades, Socrates, Chairephon, Chorus (Coryphaeus) (1493 to end)

What action by Strepsiades ends the play? What does this action illustrate with regard to Strepsiades? What effect did Aristophanes intend this action to have on his audience?

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