The Clouds | Study Guide

Aristophanes

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The Clouds | Parabasis 1 | Summary

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Summary

The Chorus wishes Strepsiades luck in his quest. The Chorus Leader then turns to address the audience directly. She speaks for Aristophanes, the playwright. He was proud to present this comedy, "the most intelligent of all my plays," to an audience he respected and was disappointed when the play was defeated in competition at its first production. He believes the few thoughtful members in the audience have faith in him. They've enjoyed his earlier plays. Besides, this script doesn't rely on cheap gags or reuse old material. It's original, confident, and poetic.

The Chorus Leader, still speaking as Aristophanes, says he's made fun of public figures before, such as the politician Cleon. When Cleon was dead or "destroyed," he stopped attacking him. Other inferior playwrights, however, have used crude caricatures of public personalities—they've copied Aristophanes and done a worse job. He hopes the audience will enjoy plays presented in good taste instead.

The Chorus sings praises to the gods Zeus and Poseidon. The Chorus Leader warns the audience "we're the gods who keep protecting you" by sabotaging Athens's enemies with bad weather. But the audience hasn't honored the Clouds with sacrifices or libations. The citizens in the audience can make up for their neglect by condemning Cleon for theft and bribery.

The Chorus continues to praise the gods, this time invoking Apollo, Athena, and Dionysus. The Chorus Leader says the audience has also slighted the moon, who provides light in darkness. The Athenians should follow the moon to calculate their calendar. But they aren't following the calendar correctly, and they're missing important feast days for the gods. Athenian politician Hyperbolus was already punished by the gods for missing religious rituals.

Analysis

The Parabasis sections of comedies allowed playwrights to express their views clearly. This is an early version of a theatrical technique known as "breaking the fourth wall," a reference to a three-walled stage, where a fourth invisible wall separates actors and audience. The actors in the Chorus acknowledge they're characters in a play. They step out of the world of the drama and talk to the audience directly. Yet they still speak in their roles as Clouds, promising divine intervention.

The original performance of The Clouds came in last place in the Dionysia playwriting competition. Aristophanes revised the play and addressed the defeat, but the new version was never performed. Aristophanes uses the revised Parabasis as a humorous yet earnest plea to an Athenian audience, which appreciated his earlier plays but didn't recognize the skill in his later and (he feels) superior work. The speaker in this section may have been either the Chorus Leader or Aristophanes himself.

Like other Greek gods, the Chorus of Clouds promises good fortune for their followers—rain for their crops and fertility for their families. But unlike the gods in the Greek pantheon, the Clouds don't have strong moral stances or distinctive personalities. They're patron saints of the Sophists, smart talkers but unprincipled thinkers. Aristophanes can use the Clouds as vehicles to say whatever he wants, and he has plenty to say.

Aristophanes's plays pulled no punches when attacking public officials and politicians. He also blames the audience for electing and supporting these officials. No one is innocent. In The Clouds he indicts the corruption of Athenian politicians Cleon and Hyperbolus in particular. Cleon is the "Paphlagonian tanner," a foreigner from an area outside of Athens whose rule was harmful enough the moon and weather patterns protested. The city's choices matter. Athenians need to recognize and penalize the crime of officials before crime gets out of hand. The moral laxity of the Sophists may also let crime go unpunished, as later scenes in the play demonstrate.

The Parabasis warns Athenians about their impieties and inappropriate behavior toward the gods and one another. For instance, when Athenians play fast and loose with the calendar, they miss communal rituals important to the entire city. Athenians used a lunar calendar guided by the moon. They had a habit of inserting extra days carelessly, leading to inconsistencies in the calendar. Aristophanes's larger point is the value of common traditions, which he thinks should be taken seriously. The calendar is an example of the irreverence, thoughtlessness, and confusion created by the "new education" in Athens. These impieties are related to the triumphs of the "unjust argument" to come later in the play.

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