Act One: Parabasis of Scene 2–Scene 3
Scene Two (Parabasis)
As Strepsiades turns to enter the school, the Chorus of Clouds sings him a valediction and then turns to address the audience. The Chorus attacks the audience for not supporting the play in its earlier festival run. They recount Aristophanes's success with previous plays and paint a demure, deserving picture of Aristophanes's play: "My Comedy's a modest girl" (I.ii.547), a distraught maiden such as an "unwed mother" (I.ii.547) or "Electra" (I.ii.547) looking to reunite her family. The Chorus insist upon this "modest[y]" by claiming that Aristophanes never resorts to the gross physical and sexual humor to which other playwrights stoop. The picture the Chorus paints is of a long-suffering figure who has some vital, "new ideas" (I.ii.547) to present and who is standing by them in spite of persecution by "Cleon" (I.ii.574) or "plagiari[sm]" (I.ii.547). They insist that these "new ideas" are for the betterment of Athens and will improve the quality and character of the Athenian citizenship.
The Chorus of Clouds make a plea that the audience of Athenian citizens reconsider the play's worth and treat them justly—with respect, as they treat the gods. The Chorus ends its interlude by passing along a complaint from the "Moon" (I.ii.609) that the Athenians look to rectify their miscalculated lunar calendar, since their mishap has confused secular and sacred days and is causing cosmic chaos.
Scene Two (Continued)
Socrates bursts out of the "Thinkery" arguing with Strepsiades who has proven to be a frustrating student. The two bicker. Strepsiades is unable to grasp much of what Socrates is asking of him. Socrates decides to teach Strepsiades about the gender of nouns: he introduces Strepsiades to the word "chickenness" (I.ii.658) for female chicken and "triffen" (I.ii.658) for a feminine trough. Even this lesson proves too much for Strepsiades. Disgusted, Socrates demands that Strepsiades get into bed and think about the lesson. The bed is flea-ridden and Strepsiades writhes, unable to properly philosophize. But he is not so incapacitated that he cannot masturbate, which he does.
Socrates and Strepsiades consider how to best avoid Strepsiades's debts. Strepsiades concocts amazingly fanciful plots—stopping time with sorcery, destroying evidence, and finally suicide—as a means to escape his predicament. Socrates declares that Strepsiades is a hopeless failure and storms off. Strepsiades appeals to the Chorus of Clouds. The Chorus suggests that Strepsiades enroll his son Pheidippides in his place. Strepsiades runs off. The Chorus turns conspiratorially to Socrates and encourages him to take advantage of Strepsiades.
Strepsiades hauls Pheidippides out of the house and raves to him about the wisdom and thrift of the philosophers at the "Thinkery." He enlightens his son to his new "atheism" and the proper gender of nouns. He is so wound up that Pheidippides thinks him mad. He drags Pheidippides to the school to meet Socrates. Socrates sizes-up Pheidippides and suggests a fee for his education. Strepsiades consents and Socrates calls forth two personified Arguments, Just and Unjust, to educate Pheidippides by their example.
Just and Unjust bicker and swap insults. Just defends the existence of the gods against Unjust's skepticism and blames Unjust for corrupting the Athenian youth and disrupting tradition. The Chorus of Clouds summons Just and Unjust to a formal debate over education and morality in order to decide how best to teach Pheidippides. Just speaks in support of the traditional educational system under which boys were obedient, respectful, and strong. Just's students are philosopher-soldiers and he swoons as he speaks, considering their beauty. After Just speaks, Unjust does not propose a different system, but rather cross- examines Just's statements according to examples drawn from myth and other items of trivia. Unjust's needling argument flusters Just, and Unjust wins the ability to teach Pheidippides. The Chorus of Clouds ends the act with an aside to the audience and festival judges, insinuating that the quasi-divine Chorus of Clouds will reward those who reward the Chorus, but that it will curse those who spurn the Chorus's obvious charms.
After the Chorus of Clouds sing Strepsiades a valediction upon his matriculation, they turn aside to the audience and depart from the narrative flow of the play to comment on the history of the play's production. This interlude, known as a "parabasis," was part of the general form or framework for Greek drama. These formal elements were not rigid structural devices, but rather provided dramatic "punctuation" which helped support the architecture of the drama. Since Greek drama developed out of competitions by choral performers, much of the major formal elements of a play hinge on the action of the chorus. The typical framework, or "skeleton," of a play would proceed as follows: the play opens with a "prologue" in which characters provide exposition for the drama that is to follow; the chorus make their entrance with a song known as a "parodos"; two characters debate a major theoretical question in a formal debate known as an "agon"; the chorus sings a "parabasis," which is a highly formalized diversion from the linear plot; a second "parabasis" may follow; and finally, the chorus exits with a festive song or "exodus" marking the end of the play. Other typical devices include one neighbor knocking at another's door, beseeching help, and in The Clouds Socrates is the neighbor to whom Strepsiades flees when his debts overwhelm him.
The Clouds lacks an "exodus," or final celebration, but contains a "prologue," "parados," "agon," one "parabasis," and the appeal for help. The "parabasis" comes with a strict set of rules dictating the alternation of song and speech that make up the form: the "parabasis" opens with an introductory song or "kommation." A long speech follows, then two shorter songs, and finally two short speeches. True to the nature of the form, the "parabasis" does not advance the action or plot of the play. Instead, the "parabasis" is a very meta- theatrical interlude wherein the Chorus speaks about the play and about playwriting in general. The long speech near the beginning of the interlude wherein the Chorus berates the audience, blaming them for the failure of the play's run at the festival of Dionysia in 423 BCE has lead scholars to conjecture to that the edition of the play that we now have is the partially revised second draft of the play, a draft that can be dated from the allusions in the speech to no earlier than 420 BCE, according to the scholar Douglas M. McDowell in his analysis of the play (Oxford University Press, 1995). This is considered a partial revision because "Cleon" (I.ii.547), the leading politician who had prosecuted Aristophanes for slandering Athens after the production of his earlier satire The Babylonians, had died in 422 BCE and it is unlikely that, after his death, such defensive comments would have been necessary.
However, much of the "parabasis" shows the wounds sustained by Cleon's prosecution. Much of the "parabasis" is concerned with asserting the good moral value that drama, even satirical drama, contains. Aristophanes's choice to speak of himself, the poor persecuted playwright, as an "unwed mother" not only increases the sense of pathos and injustice at Cleon's attack, but also provides an emotional parallel to the familial relationships within this and earlier plays. The "parabasis" asserts that Aristophanes writes "modest" (I.ii.547) comedy that does not stoop to employ low or grotesque jokes or costumes, and scholars have suggested that these references are probably ironic and intended for a few guffaws. How else would we explain the later jokes that graphically compound philosophy with masturbation?
However, it is likely that Aristophanes quite earnestly intends his satires to provide the moral models that will educate and enlighten a corrupt Athens. Satire, as many scholars note, is a fundamentally conservative form, whose comedy gains its momentum through gross and exaggerated deviation from an accepted and widely endorsed standard. Aristophanes argues that his audience will be advised by the good and bad choices made by characters in his plays to live better lives after the last chorus member has danced off of the stage. Therefore, although much of the theory bandied about in The Clouds might suggest endorsement of atheism, which was widely considered sinful, much of the "parabasis" is at pains to invoke the gods: to reassert their existence and to call upon their aid and guidance.
After the "parabasis," when Strepsiades's education continues, Aristophanes delights in parodying more current rhetorical and philosophical trends. The amusing redefinition of nouns according to their gender is a parody of Protagoras, who first divided nouns into masculine, feminine, and neuter. The possible legal arguments that Strepsiades concocts under Socrates's tutelage—arguments that absurdly culminate in Strepsiades considering his own death as a profitable way out of expensive legal decisions—suggest the rhetoric of Korax of Syracuse and Antiphon, who were developing rhetorical and legal arguments based on probability. According to their theories, logic was turned on its head and the most likely suspect immediately became the least likely: for instance, a big brute of a fellow, known for bar-brawls could not have bludgeoned a chap with a bottle because it would be too obvious and the surety of his being caught for this act would mean that he would avoid it at all costs. He would be innocent by reason of foresight, and Aristophanes seeks to debunk this absurd system of logic.
The warning the Chorus gloats over apparently escapes Strepsiades as he abandons his own path to sophistry and instead commits his son to the tutelage of the "Unjust" Argument. The argument between Just and Unjust make up the play's formal "agon," or formalized theoretical debate, and Just's defeat ends the act in a miniature climax, foreshadowing Strepsiades's own defeat at Pheidippides's (literal) hands which occurs in Act Two. In the original Greek, the words are not at all clear cut: not "Just" and "Unjust" but "Better" and "Worse," suggesting a certain slippery relativism, an absence of any clear definition of good and bad. This indecision is especially evident when Just's description of pedagogy—or student-teacher relationships—veers into pederasty, or improper sexual relationships! "Unjust" may fluster "Just" into defeat, but the audience understands that his is a victory wrought by special effects and not firm reasoning. Many of his rebuttals hinge on details worthy of trivia not moral example. As scholar David McDowell admits, they are "logical- sounding [but not] true conclusions," (Oxford University Press, 1995).
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