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The Clouds | Context

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The Sophists and the "New Education" in Greece

In the 5th century BCE a new, trendy method of education swept Greece. Traditionally young Greek men studied a fact-based regimen of literacy, basic mathematics, music, and physical education. They were encouraged to become useful citizens of the polis, or city, rather than pursue individual ambitions. But educational priorities changed when a group of Greek philosophers and teachers, called the Sophists, entered the classrooms.

The Sophists traveled all over Greece and spent a lot of time in Athens, Aristophanes's city and a cosmopolitan cultural hub. These visiting instructors soon became Greece's only source of higher education. Well-known Sophists included Thrasymachus (active in the late 5th century), Protagoras (c. 490–c. 420 BCE), Gorgias (c. 483–c. 376 BCE), and many others from various Greek cities. In their classrooms the Sophists challenged religious traditions and taught effective debating techniques. They focused on individual speaking skill rather than communal loyalty. Despite its radical nature, the Sophist method, called the "New Education," was hugely popular with young men in Greek aristocratic families. Even old men went to lectures hoping to get ahead in their political careers through debate.

Since the Sophists weren't afraid to reject religious faith and community values, they made enemies among more traditional Greeks. Families worried the "New Education" was corrupting their youth. Some Sophists even went to trial for impiety.

Aristophanes mocks the radical techniques of the Sophists and the students who followed their dictates blindly through the Thinkery, a school, in The Clouds. He dramatizes the tension between older and newer educational values throughout the play.

The Portrayal of Socrates

Socrates's (469–399 BCE) character in The Clouds is a caricature of a Sophist instructor. He uses bizarre and unorthodox methods, takes advantage of his students for money, and has no moral code. The historical Socrates, however, was very different—a principled philosopher who disagreed with many Sophist trends. In Apology written by Plato, a Greek philosopher and student of Socrates, Socrates cites a playwright—Aristophanes—as one of the main accusers who damaged his reputation.

It is true that Aristophanes knew Socrates well. Based on the few available sources on Socrates's life, Aristophanes knew Socrates at a young age. He may have used Socrates as a prominent character in The Clouds because the philosopher was familiar to the audience. Everyone in Athens recognized Socrates. His looks were distinctive, described by most sources as ugly: wide-set eyes, an upturned nose, and large lips. Socrates wore his hair long, went barefoot, dressed in shabby clothing, and rarely bathed. He spent time in the agora, or town marketplace, engaging passersby in debate. He talked to himself often, claiming he had conversations with an invisible divine voice. While most of the Sophists were visiting instructors, Socrates was an Athenian local and an easy satirical target.

When Socrates questioned Athenians, he liked to discuss their views on important values, like moderation, reverence, courage, and love. He tended to talk to Athenians whether they wanted to talk to him or not. Socrates's passion for debating abstract concepts influenced his portrayal in The Clouds as a philosopher out of touch with the world. The Clouds also draws inspiration from Socrates's inquisitive style of argument and his interest in meteorology or weather.

Aristophanes uses Socrates's character to represent a composite of new intellectual ideas in Athens— including Pre-Socratic and Sophist ideas—rather than to create a faithful portrayal of the real Socrates. He was probably aware the characterization was inaccurate and may or may not have intended to harm Socrates's reputation.

Nonetheless, the play's portrayal still affected the historical Socrates's trial (399 BCE) on charges of dishonor of the gods and corruption of youth. In 399 BCE Athenians had just lost the long Peloponnesian War, and many were concerned about the survival of Athenian democracy. Public intellectuals who challenged the traditional Greek religions were considered a threat to the now fragile government. Socrates's influence and unorthodox ideas led to the Athenian government trying and convicting him for impiety. The character of the Better Argument accuses Athenian Sophists of corrupting the youth, a charge also leveled against Socrates. During his trial Socrates cited his characterization in Aristophanes's The Clouds as a most damaging impression because it influenced the minds of his critics.

Famous Greeks Portrayed in The Clouds

Socrates isn't the only Athenian Aristophanes mocks in The Clouds. He mentions local politicians Cleon (d. 422 BCE) and Hyperbolus (d. 411 BCE) and the royal family Megacles. He bases Pheidippides's character on Athenian politician Alcibiades. Cleon was an Athenian politician famous for his democratic views. As a statesman he influenced Athenian policy in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431 BCE–404 BCE). He tried to prosecute Aristophanes for the play The Babylonians, which joked about the revered Athens. After the prosecution Aristophanes could no longer present plays at the Dionysia competition—ancient Greece's most popular performance festival. An offended Aristophanes began to attack Cleon directly in his work, making him an angry character with the voice of a "scalded pig." Cleon died in 422 BCE—the year after Aristophanes wrote the first version of The Clouds. In the play's revision Aristophanes uses the Chorus to accuse Cleon of "bribery and theft" but stops short of ridicule, declining to mock a "destroyed" man.

Hyperbolus, another Athenian politician, became especially prominent after Cleon's death. Aristophanes mentions Hyperbolus as an example of a public figure who gets away with corrupt practices and becomes wealthier as a result.

The Megacles family, where Strepsiades's wife comes from in The Clouds, was a wealthy Athenian family with political power. The historical Alcibiades is descended from the same family line. Alcibiades was a Greek politician and military commander. He was known for his good looks and brash, self-centered personality. Like the character Pheidippides, Alcibiades studied under Socrates and was one of Socrates's most devoted pupils.

The Peloponnesian War

Aristophanes also references the Peloponnesian War, a conflict between Athens and Sparta, which lasted for almost three decades (from 431 to 404 BCE). The Peloponnesian War is regarded as the most significant conflict of its time in Western history, involving the entire Greek world. By 423 BCE when The Clouds was performed, the war had entered its second and deadliest phase, with more troops on the ground, more civilian involvement, and more casualties. Cities were besieged and crops were destroyed. Warfare affected the daily lives of average Athenian citizens, including civilians like The Clouds's character Strepsiades and his son. Strepsiades refers to Spartan prisoners during his first visit to the Thinkery and complains about not being allowed to punish his slaves, who could escape more easily during wartime. Athens lost the war to Sparta in 404 BCE. Athenian officials, worried for the future of democracy in their conquered city, began to weed out threats to Athenian solidarity—including independent thinker Socrates, whose trial was five years later.

Ancient Greek Comedy Structure and the Dionysia Competition

Aristophanes is the best-known playwright of Greek Old Comedy. The surviving Old Comedy plays are boisterous satires of local events and personalities in Greece, filled with both ribald humor and political commentary.

The structure of a Greek comedy is built on six parts:

  • The Prologos (PRAH-luh-goss), or prologue, introduces the play's characters, settings, and themes.
  • The Parodos (PAIR-uh-doss), or opening choral ode, introduces the Chorus.
  • The Parabasis (Puh-RAB-uh-sis) is a choral ode in which the Chorus members remove their masks and speak, on behalf of the playwright, directly to the audience. In The Clouds the Chorus uses the Parabasis to criticize prominent Athenian citizens.
  • The Agon (AG-ohn) is a debate between two speakers, usually stock characters. The first speaker traditionally loses the debate.
  • The Episodes occur between the other sections. They feature action that moves the plot forward.
  • The Exodos (EX-uh-doss), or exit scene, ends the play. While many Greek comedies included song, dance, and reconciliation in the Exodos, The Clouds ends differently. The characters don't reconcile their differences, and the Chorus walks offstage without providing a final song and dance.

Comic playwrights, like tragic playwrights, presented plays at Athens's Great Dionysia competition—a festival of plays honoring the god Dionysus. Judges would see several plays and vote for the best. The Clouds was first performed in 423 BCE to a poor reception. It earned last place in the competition. The politician Alcibiades may have influenced these results. Alcibiades recognized himself in the selfish, athletic character of Pheidippides and didn't like the portrayal.

Aristophanes addresses his competitive failure in the revised The Clouds, which was written several years after 423 BCE and probably never performed. In the revised Parabasis sections, the Chorus references the play's previous defeat and encourages the judges and audience to give a favorable rating this time.

After Athens lost the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE, the mood in the city was more somber. Theatergoers lost interest in the gods and heroes of the stage, and Old Comedy came to an end.

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