The Clouds | Study Guide

Aristophanes

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The Clouds | Prologos | Summary

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Aristophanes does not designate acts or scene breaks in The Clouds. For the purposes of this study guide, the play has been arranged according to Old Comedy structure: Prologos, Parados, Parabasis, Episode 1, Agon 1, Parabasis 2, Episode 2, Agon 2, and Exodos.

Summary

In Athens, Greece, around 423 BCE, just before dawn, middle-aged farmer Strepsiades sleeps in his house beside his teenage son, Pheidippides. Pheidippides farts in his sleep, waking Strepsiades up. Strepsiades can't believe it's not morning yet. The night, like the war, is dragging on. He's too worried about his debt to go back to sleep. Pheidippides's expensive horse and chariot racing hobby is costing Strepsiades more than he can afford. It's now the 20th day of the month. On the last day of the month, Strepsiades will have to pay his creditors, and interest is piling up on his debts.

Strepsiades asks his slave Xanthias to bring his account book. He realizes he owes money to a man named Pasias for a horse and to a man named Amynias for a chariot. Meanwhile, Pheidippides mumbles about horse racing in his sleep. Impatient, Strepsiades wakes his son, who immediately goes back to sleep.

Strepsiades wishes aloud he hadn't met Pheidippides's mother, a woman from the wealthy family of Megacles. He had a happy, uncomplicated life in the country before he married her. She was from town and accustomed to expensive things; for example, she wasted too much wool in her weaving.

The lamp goes out and Strepsiades argues briefly with Xanthias. Strepsiades reflects on Pheidippides's birth. His wife wanted to give her son an aristocratic name ending in hippos (meaning horse), while Strepsiades wanted to name the boy after his grandfather. They compromised with the name Pheidippides. His wife pictured the boy racing chariots, and Strepsiades pictured him herding goats. Now racing-obsessed Pheidippides is making his father sick with financial worries.

Strepsiades wakes his son again more gently. He asks Pheidippides if he loves him, then makes his son promise to do as he asks. Strepsiades asks Pheidippides to go next door to a school called the Thinkery, which teaches "men who argue and persuade." Pheidippides scoffs. He knows who the Thinkery students are and thinks they're worthless. But Strepsiades begs. He's heard a Thinkery scholar can learn to triumph over the Better Argument with the Worse Argument and win even an unjust case. Pheidippides can use this debating skill to talk Strepsiades's way out of debt. Pheidippides still refuses to go, even when Strepsiades threatens to kick him out of the house.

Strepsiades resolves to go to the Thinkery himself, although he's old and his memory is slow. He goes to the school and knocks on the door. The student who answers the door is indignant. Strepsiades's interruption, he says, ruined a brand new idea. Strepsiades apologizes and says he's come to study.

The student agrees to let Strepsiades in on the mysteries of the school. Socrates, the school's leader, measured how far a flea could jump by dipping the flea's feet in wax. Socrates also explained how a gnat buzzed through its anal sphincter, had a lizard relieve himself on him while he studied the moon, and stole a wrestling student's cloak to buy dinner. Impressed, Strepsiades enters the Thinkery. He's surprised to find it full of pale, thin scholars in strange positions, some staring at the ground. His student guide explains they're searching for what's beneath the ground, "sounding out the depths of Tartarus" and studying astronomy with their "arse holes gazing up to heaven."

Strepsiades admires the equipment in the building, including measurement tools and a map of the world. Strepsiades looks for his deme, or village, on the map. He notices a man descending from the ceiling in a basket. The student says this is "the man himself," Socrates. But the students are too busy to introduce the two of them.

Strepsiades says hello to Socrates and asks why he's in the basket. Socrates explains he can only study the sun and other "lofty things" if he himself is lofted up in the air. Socrates asks Strepsiades why he's there, and Strepsiades admits he wants to argue his way out of mounting debt. After agreeing to learn "the truth of things divine" and to talk with the Thinkery's gods, the Clouds, Strepsiades sits down and Socrates sprinkles him with flour. Socrates assures him this is part of the initiation.

Analysis

The Prologos sets the audience up to sympathize with Strepsiades despite his moral failings. A farmer with a modest lifestyle, marital troubles, and financial anxieties, Strepsiades functions as a relatable "everyman" for the Athenian in the audience.

Like the audience, Strepsiades is living through the Peloponnesian War and its "many problems." By 423 BCE the war had gone on for about eight years. Athenians were used to wartime sacrifices. At the Thinkery Strepsiades asks his student guide to move Athens further away from Sparta, their wartime enemy, on the map.

But Aristophanes doesn't go easy on Strepsiades. He's a target of satire from the very beginning. The dilemma, which sets the drama in motion, is Strepsiades's desire to find the easiest possible way out of debt by cheating his creditors. He is simpleminded and unsophisticated. When he tours the Thinkery, he is only interested in personally relevant knowledge, such as searching for his own deme, or village, on the map.

Socrates is a more exaggerated satirical target. His entrance is overwrought and memorable. His "subtle thoughts" are so important he needs to be physically elevated to think them. His Thinkery teaches young men using ridiculous-looking methods. The Thinkery students are portrayed as unhealthy and unhappy. Strepsiades immediately sees "prisoners." They're pale and trapped indoors, appearing effeminate to athletes like Pheidippides. The Student who talks to Strepsiades is off-putting and pretentious, shouting "Go to Hell!" from inside when the visitor knocks. The flea and gnat experiments may have elements of scientific reasoning, but they're not useful lessons for daily life. The scatological humor ("a gnat's arse hole is a giant trumpet!" "A lizard crapped on Socrates? That's good!") associates Thinkery ideas with lowbrow jokes and filth.

Socrates's theft of a wrestling school student's cloak is not a brilliant solution, but Strepsiades earnestly compares it to the philosophies of Thales, a famous Greek thinker. The audience would see the staggering difference between Thales and the play's Socrates and understand the sarcasm of the playwright.

Since old men didn't typically return to school in ancient Greece, the play derives some humor from the idea of middle-aged Strepsiades going back to study and being one of Socrates's worst students to boot.

As funny as his situation is, there's a real pathos behind Strepsiades's desire. He wants his son to adopt a more humble lifestyle and take pride in work as a shepherd. Not only will this lifestyle be easier on Strepsiades's finances, it will also make Pheidippides a hardworking Athenian who brings honor to his country and fulfills his father's dreams for his only son. In the old Athens, honor and piety mattered.

But Pheidippides prefers the life of ease and luxury his mother envisions. Pheidippides spends time with rich, greedy young men, and he's content.

The goblet and the statue of Hermes will recur throughout the play. The goblet represents the Thinkery—like the students' minds, it can be filled with anything. The Hermes statue represents the old gods Strepsiades worships. Hermes, one of the most iconic of the Olympian Greek gods, acted as the "messenger god" who delivers messages from deities to mortals. Strepsiades will ask the Hermes statue for wisdom and a message at the end of the play. Strepsiades can be irreverent, but he's pious when it comes to respecting the gods. He and his son swear by Zeus, Poseidon, and Dionysus, which indicates truthfulness and sincerity.

The Thinkery's cohorts don't worship old gods with complex histories but new gods with amorphous forms. Strepsiades says the Thinkery shows "heaven's ... all around us"—perfection can be found in the natural world, not in the afterlife. He also recognizes the Thinkery as more interested in money than morals. They'll teach anything, he says, "if someone gives them cash." Strepsiades's complaints about his family and his finances at the beginning of the Prologos demonstrate his desperation to the audience. His creditors have liens on his property, and he might lose his home. He's willing to try anything to fix his problems.

And Socrates is willing to let him in on "the truth of things divine, the way they really are." Socrates implies the Thinkery scholars have a monopoly on the truth, and his offer is tempting. Why wouldn't Strepsiades want to join an exclusive club of men who know divine truths? The contrast between Socrates's earnest claims and the lessons he actually provides are comical, but they mask a serious commentary on what kind of education Athenians value. Thinkery students learn "to strain [their] words like flour," an ephemeral, light, and fluffy ingredient, similar in shape to the Clouds Socrates is about to invoke.

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