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The Clouds | Plot Summary

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Summary

In Athens, Greece, around 423 BCE, The Clouds begins as a middle-aged Athenian man named Strepsiades sleeps next to his teenage son, Pheidippides. Strepsiades wakes before dawn with worries about his debt. Pheidippides's expensive horse-racing hobby is costing him. Strepsiades wakes his son and tells Pheidippides to go next door to the Thinkery, a school run by the philosopher Socrates. He says Pheidippides will learn "how to win an argument on any cause, just or unjust" and hopefully argue his father's way out of debt. Pheidippides refuses. Strepsiades decides to attend the school himself.

At the Thinkery a student tells Strepsiades about Socrates's innovations in thought and shows him around the school. Strepsiades meets Socrates, who descends from the heavens in a basket. Socrates invites him to talk to the school's deities, goddesses he calls the Clouds. As Socrates explains, the Clouds "become anything they want" and expose others for whom they truly are. The Chorus (the Clouds) comes onstage to greet the two men. Socrates tells Strepsiades the Clouds, not Zeus, produce rain and thunder. Strepsiades, in awe, commits to studying with Socrates and explains his need to evade his creditors. Socrates agrees to take him on as a student. He removes Strepsiades's cloak and shoes before they enter the school.

The Chorus then addresses the audience. Speaking for the playwright, Aristophanes, the Chorus Leader says the play was presented in the past and lost the audience's vote for best comedy, "beaten out by vulgar men." The Chorus praises the gods, and the Chorus Leader promises the audience good fortune if they vote for the play this time around. She's also dissatisfied with the way the Athenians calculate their calendar. The Athenians miss important celebrations for the gods.

Socrates returns onstage upset by his student Strepsiades's idiocy. While Socrates quizzes him on measurements, Strepsiades wants to get to the point—how can he argue himself out of debt? Socrates instead teaches him to distinguish between male and female words for objects and people. Strepsiades protests when Socrates makes him lie in a bed full of bugs. The Chorus tells Strepsiades to stop complaining.

After Socrates urges him to think about his problem, Strepsiades comes up with a solution. He'll keep the moon from rising, since creditors collect debts on the first day of the new moon (the new month). Strepsiades also suggests using glass to make the scribe's writing melt in court. Socrates praises these ideas, but when Strepsiades says he'd hang himself to evade a charge, Socrates gives up. The Chorus Leader advises Strepsiades to send his son in his place.

Strepsiades drags a reluctant Pheidippides to the Thinkery, telling his son all the wisdom he'll learn. Pheidippides says his father will regret this one day. They arrive, and Socrates takes Pheidippides into the Thinkery.

Two men emerge from the Thinkery arguing. They are the Better Argument, an old man, and the Worse Argument, a young man. The Better Argument defends justice, while the Worse Argument says there's no such thing as justice. The two trade insults. The Chorus Leader tells them to stop fighting and explain their points of view as rational arguments. The Better Argument advocates for the "self-restraint" of the old days when young men respected their elders and grew into worthy members of society. The Worse Argument objects, saying nothing's wrong with pleasure and self-indulgence, and restraint never helped anyone. The Worse Argument believes knowing how to talk one's way out of an accusation is a much more useful skill than self-discipline, pointing to the audience members as examples. The Better Argument admits defeat.

The Chorus then speaks to the judges in the audience. The Chorus Leader describes the benefits the judges will receive for honoring the Clouds and the punishments they'll get if they don't.

Strepsiades comes out of his house. With five more days until the court date to pay his debts, he's increasingly worried and hopes Pheidippides has learned to argue. He goes to the Thinkery where Socrates tells him he's sure to win in court.

Pheidippides, now a Thinkery scholar, goes home and tells Strepsiades his winning argument. If the court collects debts on "the day of the Old Moon and the New," they're trying to make one day into two, and swindling debtors in the process. Strepsiades is thrilled with his son's knowledge.

Strepsiades's creditors, Pasias and Amynias, visit Strepsiades to collect their money. They're unimpressed when Strepsiades gives Pheidippides's argument about the Old Moon and the New (among other arguments) as a reason not to pay. They demand their money and say they'll be back. The Chorus sings Strepsiades's strategy will soon backfire.

Then Strepsiades runs out of his house, chased by Pheidippides, who is beating him. Strepsiades demands to know how Pheidippides can justify beating his own father. Pheidippides, glad he's now intelligent enough to give an argument, says his father hit him as a child. Why can't he hit his father, too? Strepsiades is baffled since he believes fathers have a right to punish their sons. Pheidippides goes further, saying he's also justified in hitting his mother. Strepsiades blames the Chorus (the Clouds). He trusted them, and they've betrayed him. The Chorus claims Strepsiades brought his troubles on himself. Pheidippides says his father is "out of date" and leaves.

Strepsiades feels ashamed he's cast aside the gods for Socrates. He asks the statue of the god Hermes outside his house for advice. Believing the statue has told him to burn down the Thinkery, Strepsiades sets the Thinkery building on fire. The students and Socrates panic from inside the school. As Strepsiades chases Socrates offstage, the Chorus decides they've had enough and departs.

The Clouds Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Strepsiades, a debtor, decides to attend the Thinkery.

Rising Action

2 Strepsiades meets Socrates and the Clouds.

3 The Clouds warn the audience about corruption in Athens.

4 Strepsiades learns debating techniques in the Thinkery.

5 The Better Argument loses a debate to the Worse Argument.

6 Strepsiades sends Pheidippides to the Thinkery.

7 Pheidippides reveals the argument he's learned.

8 Strepsiades challenges and chases away his creditors.

Climax

9 Pheidippides physically attacks Strepsiades.

Falling Action

10 Pheidippides justifies physically attacking his parents.

11 Strepsiades decides to take revenge on Socrates.

Resolution

12 Strepsiades burns down the Thinkery.

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