Skip over navigation

The Clouds

Aristophanes

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Character Analysis

Act One: Scene 1–First Half of Scene 2

Themes

Reconciling Science and Religion

The Clouds is a play primarily concerned with education. Nevertheless, it is a play with a strong moral message and a tragic arc that ends with the reassertion of the gods: Strepsiades shrieks, "Revenge for the injured gods!" as he stones the fleeing sophists (II.i.1506). This religious reassertion is especially intriguing because The Clouds is not a particularly pious play. It is doubtful that even underneath the many layers of satire and gross physical humor—down to where the play's undeniable moral center sits—we will locate a religious or even broadly spiritual motive or lesson. Rather, Aristophanes's comedy seems to be preaching honesty and responsibility: basic secular, or civic, virtues. Nonetheless, Aristophanes leaves his audience with religion. Why?

In the fifth century BCE, around the time when Aristophanes wrote The Clouds, the first stirrings of what today would be considered "scientific theory" were being felt. Anaxagoras, for instance, considered the sun, moon, and stars to be the fiery objects that humans more or less understand them to be today—unseating the prevailing religious notion that the sun, moon, and stars were gods or divine beings. However, atheism was a prosecutable offense in fifth-century Athens, a charge akin to treason. How, therefore, could these new scientific hypotheses be granted the imaginative and theoretical space of consideration when the prevailing religious milieu considered them treasonous, or heresy?

The strangeness of Aristophanes's turn to the gods suggests the awkwardness of this period in intellectual history. His defense or reassertion of the Gods is satirical: a critical examination of the Athenian's illogical, unwavering adherence to their gods. Divine sanctity guards not only divine beings but also the study and criticism of the divine. Aristophanes is suggesting, by considering science with religion in this play, that the two often-conflicting concepts must be equally open to inquiry, to criticism, and even to satire.

The Quest for Proper Education

As mentioned above, The Clouds is a satire that is primarily concerned with education. (In fact, its full title reads: The Clouds, or The School for Sophists.) Aristophanes employs the "Thinkery" (I.i.93) because it represents comically and exactly what he believes a school should not be: dishonest, overly serious, and entirely divorced from the practices and concerns of the real world. Aristophanes is fundamentally a conservative thinker. Fittingly, satire is a conservative form: a comedic genre that draws its punch from hysterical deviations from an agreed-upon and socially condoned standard of values and behavior. Aristophanes would most probably side with Just Argument who, in spite of his lustful distractions, prescribes an educational system based on careful study of classical literature supplemented with a good dose of physical fitness. (Undoubtedly, this is the kind of education that Aristophanes himself enjoyed, although the specifics of biographical detail are unavailable to us.) Just Argument's educational model was respected and well-rounded: both mind and body were exercised to their fullest potential in order to provide a holistic experience.

Aristophanes, however, is never one to settle for less. There are problems with this traditional model and he knows it. This is why he paints Just Argument as a pedophile and why he allows Just Argument to utter such vacuous statements as "Be ashamed when you ought to be ashamed," (I.ii.1013). This last example demonstrates precisely why Aristophanes feels that the traditional model of education needs to be satirized along with the new: Aristophanes believes in the importance of satire and criticism in Athenian society. He believes that decades, even centuries, of not questioning or challenging the authority of the older models have left them stagnant. The circular, vacuous statement above illustrates how, a traditional system left unexamined might lose sight of the convictions and values upon which it was founded.

Educational Playwriting

As mentioned above, Aristophanes is fundamentally a conservative thinker. Fittingly, satire is a conservative form: a comedic genre that draws its punch from hysterical deviations from an agreed-upon and socially condoned standard of values and behavior. Therefore, it is understandable when, in the "parabasis," the Chorus of Clouds digresses from the action of the play to address the audience about playwriting in general and about Aristophanes's career in particular that the Chorus uses the chance to defend Aristophanes's moral aims. Since education itself is the primary concern of this play in particular, the reminder of satire's educative purpose is twice as resonant. The Chorus argues that, without the good and bad examples gleaned from satire, how would the Athenian citizenship know right from wrong?

This "parabasis" serves as both a moral thesis in favor of playwriting as well as a carefully timed defense. Cleon, whom the Chorus of Clouds mentions, is the powerful Athenian politician who, a year or two prior to the original production of The Clouds had taken Aristophanes to court for slandering Athens in the presence of foreign dignitaries. Cleon's court case was in response to Aristophanes's festival-winning play The Babylonians which had been performed at the grand City Dionysia festival to which crowds flocked from far and wide. Aristophanes exploits the venue—an educative satire on education itself—to explain his moral and educative aims and to make his benign intentions crystal clear.

Reconciling Education with Daily Life

As mentioned above, The Clouds is concerned with the question of a proper, moral education. Just Argument seems to offer an appealing curriculum—well-rounded and grounded in practical experience. However, lack of fresh insights have rendered Just Argument's traditions stale, vacuously circular, and out of touch with the current ideas. The alternative to Just Argument is Unjust Argument, and in particular Socrates's school for sophists and other slippery-thinkers. However, as Pheidippides disgustedly gasps early in the play, such sophist-masters and their followers are an unlikely lot: "stuck-up white-faced barefoot characters" (I.i.93) who are so removed from the real actions and transactions of everyday life and the world that they appear floating in a basket above it! Aristophanes dislikes Socrates and the sophists because they are dishonest: their Unjust Arguments are morally as vacuous as Just Argument's morally upright maxims are semantically empty. Also, as the conflicts between the pig-headed pragmatist Strepsiades and the ethereal, esoteric Socrates demonstrate, sophistic learning is necessarily separate from the world. Socrates, at one point, berates Strepsiades for his disinterest in the minutiae of sentence rhythms, but meanwhile all Strepsiades wants out of his education is to learn to keep his money. Aristophanes is a realist: he understands that moral messages are best digested within a comic coating—a fact that demonstrates the inescapability of the funny, grubby, popular world.

Motifs

Old and New

The phrase "Old and New" is repeated throughout The Clouds in order to advance and emphasize the thematic issue of the proper educational system: old (meaning, traditional) or new (meaning sophistic). The day of "Old and New" is the Athenian term for the end of the month. Since months were calculated according to a lunar calendar, the end of the month occurred with each cycle of the moon: the last day of the "old" cycle of the moon and the first day of the "new" cycle of the moon. Debts were collected on this final day, the day of "Old and New," and it is Strepsiades's anxiety over this day of (financial) reckoning that leads him to the wild and crazy notion of learning sophistry in order to outwit his creditors in court.

Currency

Currency, or money, is central to this play: the wealth discrepancy between Strepsiades and his wife makes his marriage uncomfortable and it is his debts that make his nights unbearable with worry. The notion of money suggests a legacy and the notion of a legacy or inheritance of money suggests familial relationships. Therefore, the idea of money and family are intertwined.

Money and the notion of debt are also important to this play in terms of its tragic arc: in tragedy, the tragic hero "pays for" his tragic flaw by his suffering. Thus, in this play, Strepsiades receives back, at Pheidippides's pummeling hand, the bruises he has dealt out to slaves, students, and creditors, with added interest as well. The notion of "revenge" (II.i.1506) itself contains an awareness of finance: giving someone what is due. Aristophanes's tragi-comedy is driven by the question of "what is due" in particular: Strepsiades owes his creditors money, and when Strepsiades misbehaves by deciding not to pay this debt, he pays for his poor choice in other ways.

The word "currency," in particular, carries with it a potent pun on the word "current." As mentioned above, much of this play is concerned with the question of how to digest much of the new or "current" information—be it science, sophistry, or atheism—that was circulating in fifth-century Athens.

Gendered Nouns

Much of the humor in this play derives from Aristophanes's hysterical invention of specifically gendered nouns, such as "chicker," "chickeness," "trough," and "triffen," (I.ii.658). Not only does Strepsiades flaunt his newly enriched vocabulary to his son Pheidippides, but he also uses it as the basis of his abuse of his two creditors. The words that Aristophanes invents are delightfully droll and because of their novelty, they seem to us and to Strepsiades to represent the heights of chic. Why else would Strepsiades waste so much time and breath clucking over "chicken"?

However, the words that Socrates teaches Strepsiades are precisely as banal as that: chicken, trough. He does not teach Strepsiades the proper names for potions, spells, or distant kings. Rather, he focuses on the trivial, boring vocabulary. Therefore, in spite of how delicate "triffen" may sound, the audience must realize that pigs eat from it! The disjunction between the prettiness and level of specialization between the invented word and its representative object creates great comedy. This disjunction also reemphasizes the key theme of the unfortunate disconnect between intellectualism and pragmatism, grand knowledge and the real world.

Symbols

The Clouds

The Chorus of Clouds are an intriguing group. As a chorus, they speak directly to the audience and act as Aristophanes's mouthpiece. As a chorus in a tragi-comedy, they represent the "nemesis," the rectifying, necessary evil that brings the tragic hero to due punishment: the prescience necessary to fulfill this particular plot function lends them an eerie air of superiority and distance, akin to gods. However, Socrates speaks of them in the most basic of terms as the pockets of water and energy that cause rain: dumb, fluffy meteorological phenomena that, at their best, inspire cloud-gazing hippies and, at their worst, do nothing more than lend thunder its ill-digested rumble. This latter definition is especially interesting when you consider that it is the Chorus of Clouds that gives the play its primary name. The Clouds lend the satire their name because they represent, to Athenian idiom, what we today would call "hot air": The Clouds are symbols of the intellectual fluff that Socrates is teaching his students. Clouds in the sky look big and substantial, but in fact they are mere clumps of thin vapor—a fact that the new scientific advances were beginning to appreciate. Likewise, Unjust Argument is full of pomp and intellect—an imposing figure until you realize that his debates are mere snatches of important-sounding trivia that have no real, honest use.

Insects

If the curriculum of Socrates's school was judged by the introductory impression Strepsiades receives speaking with the Student, one might think the master-sophist studied entomology and not philosophy! From the introductory anecdotes about fleas' feet to the digestive play-by-play of gnats, tales from the Thinkery share an obsessive focus on insects, especially tiny insects whose presence suggests the absence of proper hygiene. Much of Aristophanes's project tries to render the curriculum of the school as vividly and as humorously as possible: instead of boring his audience by inventing hopelessly ethereal and abstract theories, he uses physical humor—insect humor—to illustrate the pettiness and unsuitability of their research. The insects suggest triviality because of their size. Insects, with their tiny bodies, recall the meaningless trivia that Unjust Argument presents to cross- examine Just Argument: our modern idiom preserves the term "nit-picking" to suggest someone who is overly fastidious, grossly and inappropriately attentive to detail in the way that Aristophanes suggests the sophists are.

The Flea-Ridden Bed

Like the symbol of the insect, the symbol of the flea-ridden bed suggests the futility, grossness, and triviality of sophistic pursuits. The loony sophist Socrates considers the bed "appropriate" or "conducive" to good, creative thought. The flea-ridden bed recalls the "nit-picking" critique of sophistic argument and it also connotes laziness and sloppiness. A flea-ridden bed is sloppy because it is unclean and suggests how unhealthy the sophists' disregard of worldly matters was: unhealthy to the point of causing physical pain and damage. Not only is sophistic argument hard on the listeners; it is torturously hard and painful on the bodies and psyches of its practitioners, warping them with its cruel and unusual demands. Also, the bed is traditionally a symbol of sloth: a bed is not somewhere you go to work hard at anything, but rather a place you go to relax and not work. Therefore, being called to do hard work in bed is at root perverse.

More Help

Previous Next
'Fair is foul,and foul is fair,

by Shehanaz, June 11, 2013

“Man is not the creature of circumstances
Circumstances are the creatures of man.”
Macbeth, throughout the play, is presented as one much above the ordinary beings, and, as such, he fulfils the basic -requirements of being a tragic hero. Shakespeare, introduces him as a brave general, a bold, resolute man of action who through as also referred to “Valor’s minion”, “Bellona’s bridegroom’’, the king’s ‘’valiant cousin’’, a very “eagle’’ among ‘’sparrows’’, a ... Read more

0 Comments

6 out of 8 people found this helpful

'Fair is foul,and foul is fair,

by Shehanaz, June 11, 2013

“Man is not the creature of circumstances
Circumstances are the creatures of man.”
Macbeth, throughout the play, is presented as one much above the ordinary beings, and, as such, he fulfils the basic -requirements of being a tragic hero. Shakespeare, introduces him as a brave general, a bold, resolute man of action who through as also referred to “Valor’s minion”, “Bellona’s bridegroom’’, the king’s ‘’valiant cousin’’, a very “eagle’’ among ‘’sparrows’’, a ... Read more

0 Comments

2 out of 2 people found this helpful

Hover through the fog and filthy air.'

by Shehanaz, June 11, 2013

The forces of evil are always ready to ensnare man, but they have their limitations. They do not, indeed cannot, force man into evil; they can merely tempt man to choose to follow evil ways. Experiencing temptation is not sinful, but deliberately choosing to give in to temptation is an evil.
[“Have I not reason, beldams as you are,
Saucy and over-bold? How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death?”] (HECATE SCENE, Act 3, SCENE 5)

Macbeth deliberately chooses-not once bu

0 Comments

3 out of 3 people found this helpful

Follow Us