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The Clouds | Parodos | Summary

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Summary

Socrates summons the "Thunder-bearing Clouds." Strepsiades, expecting rain, pulls his cloak over his head. The Chorus of Clouds, a group of women, responds to Socrates from offstage. Naturally radiant and shapeless, they promise to reveal themselves. Strepsiades hears thunder and farts out of fear.

The Chorus continues singing offstage. They plan to journey to Athens, a city that honors the gods. Strepsiades asks who the singing women are. Socrates says they're "heavenly Clouds, great goddesses for lazy men." Strepsiades has a sudden urge to argue about trivial opinions, an urge he's sure the Clouds inspired. Socrates points out the Clouds slowly moving through mountains and valleys. But Strepsiades has trouble seeing them until they float through the door.

Strepsiades is shocked to see noble goddesses. He thought clouds were "mist and dew and vapour." Socrates explains the Clouds are patrons of medical quacks, charlatans, prophets, poets, and anyone "with airy minds." Strepsiades is still confused. Why do the Clouds look like human women when the clouds in the sky look like wool? Socrates asks if Strepsiades ever saw a cloud resembling an animal. The clouds, Socrates says, can turn into anything they want. They use this talent to mock or expose wicked men.

Strepsiades greets the Clouds and asks to hear them speak. The Chorus Leader greets the two men, and Strepsiades is amazed by the Clouds' lovely voices. Socrates says the Clouds are the only deities the Thinkery worships; they don't even acknowledge Zeus. Strepsiades asks who brings rain, thunder, and lightning if Zeus doesn't exist. Socrates explains condescendingly how weather comes from the Clouds: If the gods made it rain, it would rain when the skies are clear. His explanations make sense to Strepsiades.

The Chorus thinks Strepsiades will succeed as a student if he can persevere and if he believes "the highest good is victory in action." Socrates asks Strepsiades if he'll worship only their gods. Socrates lists the gods of the Thinkery as "Chaos, the Clouds, the Tongue." He promises to make Strepsiades the best speaker in Greece. Strepsiades looks forward to being able to win any legal argument through lies and tricks. The Chorus promises he'll be respected and rich if he does what Socrates says.

Socrates asks Strepsiades a few questions before they begin. How is his memory? Does he have a natural gift for speech? Strepsiades admits he can only remember when someone else owes him something, not if he owes money himself, and he can't always speak well. But he vows to be a good learner. Socrates is already exasperated by this old man's stupidity.

Socrates tells Strepsiades to surrender his cloak and shoes. Strepsiades hesitates but eventually agrees. The two men enter the Thinkery.

Analysis

One of Aristophanes's techniques is to demonstrate a metaphor in literal form on the stage. Socrates's random, idle, lofty thoughts put him literally "up in the air." The Clouds aren't just imprecise and generalized ideas but actual rain-bringing, shape-changing clouds in the sky come down to earth.

The poetry in the Parodos's choral odes, the parts the Chorus sings, praises the natural world. Like tragic odes honoring the gods, the choral odes mention Pallas, or Athena, holy sacrifice, and festivals. The tone gets a little whimsical here, too, amid the honest praises. Socrates's praise to scientific forces like "Boundless Air, who keeps the earth suspended here in space" shows the respect he claims to have for science and facts. His stated reverence for Air, Vortex, and other forces contrasts with his teaching methods in the next episode, which focus less on facts and more on rhetorical persuasion. When Strepsiades shows his fear of new celestial presences by farting, he establishes himself further as a buffoon who doesn't understand the sophisticated scholarship of the Thinkery. The bodily humor also gives the audience comic relief from serious themes.

Aristophanes uses the Clouds to represent several concepts, including language. The Sophists' arguments bent and shaped words to mean whatever the speaker chose. They could win arguments through dishonesty and rhetorical flourishes. Similarly, the Clouds can take any form the viewer chooses. Language is powerful, especially when corrupted, and Aristophanes uses the Clouds' godlike power to show how potent language can be. Seeing them gives Strepsiades the urge to "argue smoke and mirrors" or use illusions to make his point.

The Clouds give men a "gift for fantasy and endless talk." Aristophanes is mocking petty, argumentative philosophers. The comedy is still poking fun of Socrates as an obvious target—it hasn't turned insidious or devastating yet. The Parodos takes time to laugh at anyone who works with words and language. When Strepsiades quotes lines of poetry describing the many forms of clouds, he (and Aristophanes) ridicules the earnestness of ancient Greece's famous poets. Socrates says these poets produce "twisted choral music," and Strepsiades makes fun of the delicacies, like thrushes, the poets eat when they win competitions. Cleisthenes, the brunt of Socrates's joke when the Clouds change to women, was a well-known statesman who lived about a hundred years before Aristophanes's time. The transformation into women is a joke aimed at Cleisthenes's homosexuality.

Language isn't the only symbolic meaning the Clouds allude to. Clouds also expose people's true natures by mirroring them. The Clouds' ability to reflect the viewer demonstrates the Sophists' attitude toward scientific learning. Sophists believed the perceiver or viewer was a significant element in any situation and could shape a scenario's outcome. Since the Clouds change based on their observer, the goddesses don't have any identity of their own. They are powerless by themselves. Introduced offstage, the Clouds prove the ability of people's perspectives to shape situations—the Clouds only exist with a viewer to see them. The Greek Olympian gods, by contrast, have lives and stories independent of human existence.

Can Athenians really trust such fickle goddesses? Socrates does. He explains rain, thunder, and lightning as purely scientific phenomena. Modern audiences would recognize Socrates's "persuasive evidence" as simple meteorological explanations for weather (with the added illustration of thunder and its similarities to the violent reactions in Strepsiades's stomach).

But Athenian audiences would feel the tension between long-standing faith traditions and new scientific ideas. Strepsiades's worldview is steeped in Greek mythology and religion. He's skeptical about science ("who'd ever believe that stuff?"). He struggles to understand how lightning occurs if Zeus isn't throwing lightning bolts. Since he's not very bright, he can only understand weather when it's compared to bodily functions. Socrates tells him in an example of foreshadowing that he "stink[s] of olden times, the age of Cronos." Cronos was the ancient Titan god and father of Zeus, whom Zeus overthrew to begin the reign of the new Olympians. Later in the play Strepsiades will experience being overpowered by a son too.

Socrates indirectly accuses Strepsiades of being stuck in a mythic Greek past, where the gods doled out justice to humans. The Thinkery scholars, who worship Chaos as one of their gods, believe in an indifferent universe. Lightning and storms aren't sent to punish anyone, but they're the result of natural processes. Nature doesn't care what humans do. This means justice won't be sent to reward the good or condemn the evil. And more often than not, justice won't win an argument.

Socrates names a few notorious perjurers and liars, for instance, who haven't been struck down by the gods. Similarly the Worse Argument will name the thieving Athenian politician Hyperbolus as an example of a criminal who gets away with his crimes. The lesson becomes clear: virtue doesn't make you win, and crime doesn't make you lose.

Strepsiades naturally wants to win. He has the stamina to stick with Socrates's program because, as a poor man, he's gone hungry in the past ("my stomach, lean and mean, feeds on bitter herbs"). He doesn't want political influence or "votes among the populace." He's not interested in being a good citizen of the polis or city but an actively harmful, selfish one. His self-interest is understandable. Who wouldn't want to get out of debt? But Strepsiades takes this desire a step further. He wants to be known as a "villain" and a "legal rogue." If he doesn't take advantage of others, he'll get taken advantage of himself.

The Chorus plays along with Socrates. They flatter him as "high priest of subtlest nonsense," indicating the Chorus is in on the joke of Socrates's "nonsense." They mention his bare feet and unusual demeanor in public: "shifting both eyes back and forth." Even though the Clouds know the philosopher's true nature, they make Strepsiades vapid and insincere promises of wealth, honor, and increased intellect. When Strepsiades quips "I'll be only half alive," he makes the audience think of the pale, unhappy students in the Thinkery, and perhaps of Socrates's rabidly faithful followers who "eat up wisdom like a dog." The flattery works. Strepsiades gives up his cloak and shoes without much resistance. He's fearful, comparing the descent to entering a cave. And he has reason to be afraid, the audience will realize, but not because of the courts.

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