To which genre of drama does Aristophanes's The Clouds belong?
The Clouds, while very much a comedy, also contains many elements more likely to be found in tragedy. Therefore, to use a fairly modern hybrid, The Clouds provides a good example of a "tragi-comedy." The comedy in The Clouds is quite evident—riotously evident, even. There are elements of both physical and verbal comedy: The Clouds offers comedy in abundance, from the spectacular sight gags of the Students who are "studying astronomy" with their rumps in the air and Socrates's mid-air entrance to Strepsiades's bodily humor and Just Argument's lustful pontification.
However, just as the Chorus of Clouds advises the Athenian audience in the "parabasis," there is a lesson to be learned after all the special effects have lost their sparkle and the belly-laugh has become a cramp in one's side. This lesson is intended for the audience, but it is a lesson that Strepsiades himself must sorely realize in order to provide the audience with the necessary moral example: Strepsiades must behave poorly, shirk responsibility, and slander the gods so that, by his resultant, tragic down-fall, the viewing audience will learn to avoid that type of behavior.
The lesson to be learned by the audience is most palatable when it is embedded in comedy. The brand of comedy that Aristophanes employs is satire. Satire is a type of comedy that is often outrageous in its appearance but conservative in its message: satire gains its comic force through exaggeration of or deviation from an accepted standard. Therefore, satire is a genre that lends itself particularly well to moral and political humor, and the moral aims of Aristophanes's satire fuse well with his play's tragic arc.
Can The Clouds be said to be a religious play? What role does religion play in the drama?
Greek drama was born out of Greek religion: the first plays developed from performances of sung poems of praise called "dithyrambs" at annual religious festivals in honor of the god Dionysus. Therefore, Greek drama and religion are inextricably linked. Although many translations of Aristophanes's plays are not metric translations, the original Greek was written in verse. The experience of watching a performance of The Clouds in the original Greek by a contemporary Athenian audience must have been a far different experience than the experience we get today while reading translations of the work. The original audience had the pleasure of watching the staging of the play: songs, dances, fight scenes, gestures, and movements which are today mostly lost to us since much Greek drama was transcribed without the copious stage-directions we have come to expect today. Watching the choreography of the play and listening to Aristophanes's dialogue in verse must have recalled the spectacle of religious ritual to the original Athenian audience.
The Clouds is also a play that concerns itself thematically with issues of the gods, religion, and religious piety. One of the principle lessons that the over-eager pupil Strepsiades learns from the sophist-master Socrates is that the gods do not exist. Although Strepsiades happily misunderstands this sophistic tenet—naming physical principles as deities—the focus on atheism is clear. Strepsiades will return to this insight when he quizzes his son Pheidippides and when he torments the First Creditor and the Second Creditor. In the end, when the Chorus of Clouds reveal that they led Strepsiades to ruin in order to teach him a renewed respect for the gods and goddesses he so unhesitatingly shunned, Strepsiades is transformed into a religious zealot, a born-again polytheist, a vigilante for piety. He burns down Socrates's school and claims his arson as an act of vengeance for the slighted gods.
The Clouds does not only concern itself with the question of gods and atheism, but several references suggest the play's self-conscious awareness of the festival of the City Dionysia at Athens in honor of the god Dionysus wherein the play was first performed in competition. For instance, in the opening scene of the play, when Strepsiades confronts Pheidippides, he asks him to swear an oath that he will reform his spend-thrift ways. Pheidippides, true to character, swears on Poseidon, the god of the sea and of horses. When Strepsiades demands that he swear on a god more appropriate to his oath of reform, Pheidippides immediately chooses Dionysus. This self-conscious allusion suggests a latent but persistent and significant awareness of the gods and foreshadows the discussion of religion that is to come.
How does The Clouds conform to the standard model of Greek comedies in general? How does it conform to Aristophanes's comedic model in particular?
The Clouds both is and is not a typical Aristophanic comedy. The Clouds can be considered a typical Aristophanic comedy for formal and thematic reasons. First, the play follows many of the traditional formal divisions within a drama. Traditional formal divisions include an introductory "prologue" which provides the necessary exposition and background; the "parados," or song sung, by the chorus as the make their entrance; the "parabasis," a highly regulated diversion from the main plot, as sung in alternating songs and speeches by the chorus; the "agon," or formalized debate between two characters over a theme or issue central to the action of the play; sometimes a second "parabasis" or diversion; and finally, an "exodus," or song of conclusion sung by the chorus at the end of the ultimate celebration on which the play closes. Other less formal but no less typical elements include the scene wherein one character seeks help from another character and goes to petition them by knocking on their neighboring door. The Clouds fulfills all these formal conventions and tropes except for the final "exodus" or celebration song.
Not only does The Clouds meet the formal expectations of an Aristophanic comedy, but it revisits some of the thematic concerns. Earlier plays, such as The Acharnians and the no-longer-extant The Banqueters, employed the tensions between old and young men as well as city folk and country folk to produce vivacious comedies with moral messages. The Clouds, with its discussion of city versus country values and its quest for the proper education for young men, gives Aristophanes a chance to reemphasize existing themes in hopes of educating and better advising his fellow Athenian citizens.
However, The Clouds is an intriguingly unfinished tragi-comedy whose violent ending comes as a sharp departure from the concluding revelry of earlier plays. The fact that The Clouds lacks an "exodus" has implications that stretch far beyond concerns of structural formality. The strange and spectacular revenge that Strepsiades exacts fits neither the comic nor the tragic models. A comedy, for instance, requires a festive ending and while the scene of the conflagration must have been quite dramatic and fantastic to watch, it can hardly qualify as a celebration in any acceptable sense. On the other hand, a tragedy requires that the tragic hero accept his or her punishment and its essential, moral rectitude as what is "due" for his or her tragic flaw. However, in The Clouds, when the Chorus of Clouds condemns Strepsiades for his rash atheism and pronounce his tragic punishment as just, Strepsiades agrees and still pursues further violence: The Clouds ends in tragic overkill! Because of its failure to conform to either category, thus, The Clouds can comfortably be characterized as an atypical Aristophanic comedy.