Strepsiades is the anti-hero of Aristophanes's play. He is an older Athenian citizen and a farmer. He married a well-to-do girl with aristocratic pretensions and has a son, Pheidippides, who has inherited the young woman's rarified tastes and has begun running Strepsiades into the ground with debts to finance his stables of expensive horses. Strepsiades is fundamentally dishonest: the action of the play occurs, in fact, because Strepsiades does not wish to pay the money that he owes his creditors. This dishonesty is no mere whim, but it sees Strepsiades through many a painful trial in its pursuit—be it the loss of his coat or the confinement to a flea-ridden bed. A plucky, stubborn fellow, Strepsiades does not loose his resolve once: not when trying to convince his smug son, nor when trying to wrap his stumped brain around some of the school's teachings, not even when Socrates rejects him as a hopeless failure. In this sense, sad Strepsiades represents the Athenian tenacity, especially when one considers that Aristophanes was composing his plays during the interminable Peloponnesian War when Athens and Sparta were at war for decades on end.
Strepsiades is a practical man: he has a problem—he is in debt—and he finds an existing solution for it in the theories and arguments taught at Socrates's school. In spite of the fact that he places his hopes on the slippery rhetoric and shady morals of the new sophistry and "new education," Strepsiades is a countryman and a traditionalist at heart. He wishes that his son Pheidippides were a farmer like him and his father before him. He gets into a fight with Pheidippides when Pheidippides disdains his request to recite some of the traditional poetry of Simonides and Aeschylus, works that made up the backbone of any traditional education.
Strepsiades's practicality manifests itself in his hearty physicality. He is comfortable with his own body and all that it produces. His quickness to violence and his low physical humor suggest this ease in his own skin. Since Strepsiades is a comic anti-hero, his physicality necessarily means that he had no intellect to speak of: when placed by Socrates into the flea-ridden bed to philosophize, Strepsiades masturbates. Likewise, when Socrates speaks of the Chorus of Clouds as "in a whirl" (I.ii.361), Strepsiades thinks that he has discovered a new god called "Awhirl" (I.ii.814). His inability to process subtle (and not-so-subtle) intellectual details makes him a good foil for the pale, ethereal Socrates.
As the play progresses, Strepsiades comes, like a tragic hero, to regret his actions. When he is being physically and verbally assaulted by Pheidippides, newly armed with his fancy sophistic education, Strepsiades bemoans his earlier rashness in considering the "new education" the solution. However "just" he considers the Chorus of Clouds's verdict to be, he still persists in burning down the school and calling it "revenge" (II.i.1506). Therefore, his admission is a half-hearted acceptance of his own accountability at best.
The Chorus of Clouds
The Chorus of Clouds is an intriguing group. The few stage directions we have specify that they must be a group of young women decked out in gauzy cloud- suggesting garb, all of which must have been quite moving and effective when the group sang and danced. Because they are the only ones who speak directly to the audience and who speak about the play and playwriting in general, the Chorus occupies an interesting divide between audience and actors: they seem to be part divinity, part playwright, part commentator. Because of their status as quasi- divinities, they are the element of the play that most suggests the ritual function of early drama. Early drama in fact evolved from competitions of choruses at festivals honoring the god Dionysus. Therefore, it is fitting that the Chorus of Clouds provides the one voice in this play that is urging reverence and invoking the protection of the gods upon the play.
The Chorus members themselves sing and dance en masse, and the effect of their speech and movements must have been constant reminders of religious rite and ritual to an Athenian audience. The prescience the Chorus possesses also suggests their proximity to divinity: they seem to know that they are egging Strepsiades towards his necessary, rectifying downfall and they seem to accept their role which is akin to the role of rectifying "Nemesis" in Greek tragedy.
The Chorus's opportunity to engage the audience in their "parabasis" also provides an instance for them to speak on behalf of the playwright: as his commentator or mouthpiece. Their digression on the moral importance of satire in troubled times and their assertion of the purity of Aristophanes's literary intentions defend Aristophanes and his oeuvre against charges, such as those brought by the politician "Cleon" (I.ii.547), of slander or pointless mockery. Their discourse lends the whole experience of satire its reason for being. Satire is essentially a conservative form whose humor gains its extravagant momentum from its spectacular deviation from an agreed-upon standard of behavior. The Chorus's speech underlines satire's moral function and it reminds the audience to be aware that there are matters involved in the entertainment that are, unlike Unjust Argument, not just pretty words for show, but essential matters that are crucial to the health of Athens that they consider.
As mentioned earlier, the Socrates that Aristophanes presents is a composite of several current philosophers and sophists, such as Anaxagoras, Diogenes, Protagoras, Hippon, Korax, and Gorgias. Therefore, Socrates is as much of a "personification" as Just Argument and Unjust Argument. Socrates represents the heights to which esoteric intellect can reach: literally, with his arrival in a mid-air balloon-basket, and figuratively, with his delight in and cultivation of various overly intellectual mumbo-jumbo. Socrates, who is the foil of the buffoon Strepsiades, can discourse voluminously on everything from flea's feet to meteorology, and yet, perhaps most interestingly, the play chronicles what can best be described as his fall from lofty eloquence to abuse- laden frustration. When Strepsiades arrives at his school, Socrates radiates pseudo-scientific rationality and calm. He explains the slipperiest of his theories, from the harmful effects of terrestrial water on one's intellect to the mechanics of cloud-borne thunder, with a tone of purpose and mastery. Although the audience is surely laughing at this master of the esoteric from the get-go, it is only later when the effort expended in trying to teach the impossible Strepsiades have exhausted him that he becomes an irritated, short- tempered bully who seems only capable of sputtering and bemoaning his luck at having such a stubborn pupil.
Although Strepsiades diminishes Socrates's fluent eloquence with his pestering inability to learn, Socrates is still quite capable of instructing Pheidippides, Strepsiades's son, in the dangerous art of persuasion. The violence that Pheidippides spouts to Strepsiades (and then liberally applies about the face and neck!) is a direct result of his training at Socrates's hands: the fist that struck Strepsiades had Socrates's "fingerprints" all over them. Therefore, although Strepsiades reduces Socrates to gasping disbelief and although the audience chuckles at Socrates's extravagance throughout, Socrates is still very much a dangerous and potent figure. Indeed the level of absurdity that Socrates is granted only suggests how much of a threat Aristophanes considered the "new education" to represent. The laws of satire dictate that the greatest target must earn the most extravagant, absurd characterization, lest the audience disregard or miss them as a potential evil that needs to be addressed and rectified.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!