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Greek drama was born, according to modern scholars' best conjectures, in 534 BCE at one of the many annual festivals honoring Dionysus. Dionysus was the God of wine and revelry. His name means "twice-born," alluding to his perilous birth wherein his father Zeus clutched him from the belly of his dying mother and implanted him into Zeus's own thigh out of which Dionysus would later spring. The Greeks associated Dionysus with seasons and with the notion of rebirth because of this extravagant myth. His rites and annual rituals were thus fertility rites that had been gradually formalized and ritualized. Performance of choral songs and hymns of praise, known as dithyrambs, came to dominate the festivals, until, in 534 BCE, the Greek ruler Pisistratus called for a competition among the performers. Theatre was born and Dionysus was its patron God.
The Clouds came to one such theatrical competition, the City Dionysia at Athens, in 423 BCE. By Aristophanes's day, the process of theatrical competition had been refined down to an art form. The festival was no longer an expression of revelry and ritual but a bona fide industry of its own, with strict rules governing selection of the playwright and producer as well as specific guidelines for appointing judges and tabulating votes. This first version of the play as it was performed in 423 BCE is no longer extant. Instead, the version that survives is a later edition of an indeterminate, yet eagerly debated, date. This later edition is incomplete and was probably never performed, but it provides evidence that the first edition was far from successful. It came in third out of the three plays performed.
Aristophanes himself was born c. 448 BCE at Athens during the city's heyday under Pericles. Not much is known about Aristophanes or his family except that they had enough money to supply their son with an excellent education that provided him with a firm foundation in literature and philosophy. In 431 BCE, however, Athens was plunged into the endless Peloponnesian War against Sparta and the Spartan Allies. The war would drag on for decades until a conclusive peace was reached in 404 BCE. Thus, much of Aristophanes's adulthood passed amidst the turmoil of war, and much of his work, such as The Acharnians and Lysistrata suggest how the war taxed the minds, bodies, and souls of the Athenian people.
Aristophanes is the only extant dramatist of Greek "Old Comedy." Although he composed anywhere from thirty-six to fifty comedies during his lifetime, only eleven survive from which we may deduce qualities of the genre—its unsparing satire, its extravagant word play, its grand physical comedy, and its insistent moral core. Aristophanes's first play, The Banqueters, was performed in 427 BCE. The Babylonians soon followed and, as a result of this performance, Aristophanes was persecuted by the politician Cleon for "slandering" the image of Athens and Athenian politics. The Archanians, the first play to survive, follows in 425 BCE before The Clouds in 423 BCE. Aristophanes continued to write into the fourth century BCE and his last play, Plutus, or Wealth dates from 388 BCE, the year of his death. Aristophanes did not produce (or "direct" in the modern sense of the word) his own productions until The Horsemen of 424 BCE. He entrusted his last two plays to his son Araros's production.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Clouds!