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Strepsiades's day in court grows near and he goes to retrieve Pheidippides from Socrates's school. Socrates assures him that the school has shaped Pheidippides into a brilliant speaker and thinker, able to wriggle his way out of any impossible pinch. Strepsiades whoops for joy and fawns about Pheidippides. Pheidippides, however, does not share Strepsiades's enthusiasm, but rather starts immediately to question the very premise of the day of "Old and New" (II.i.1153), the day when debts are due. Using his Socrates-influenced methodology, he systematically destroys the notion that a day could be both "Old and New." Strepsiades is flustered and hardly seems to know what to do with his new and improved son, but the two adjourn to celebrate their reunion and plot their case.
Almost instantly the First Creditor is at their door, wanting to haul Strepsiades to court. Strepsiades, cocky because he believes in his son's powers of persuasion, answers the First Creditor and ridicules him because of his belief in the gods and because of his nonsensical adherence to the paradoxical day of "Old and New" (II.i.1153). He quizzes the First Creditor about the proper name and gender for a "trough" (II.i.1255). The First Creditor is flustered and indignant. Strepsiades imperiously sends him off because of his gross "ignoran[ce]."
A Second Creditor arrives, but instead of berating Strepsiades for his failure to pay, the Second Creditor moans and wrings his hands in a melodramatic display of neediness. Strepsiades also sasses the Second Creditor, asking him about his thoughts on the mechanism of rain. When the baffled Second Creditor demands his loan plus interest, Strepsiades refutes his accrual of interest with the example of the sea, which he says is always full of new water but never increases in size. Strepsiades proceeds to beat the Second Creditor and chases him off.
The Chorus of Clouds interrupts with a song that judges Strepsiades, noting his new passion for dishonesty and promising that he will be brought low because of this "wickedness" (II.i.1303). The Chorus prophesizes that Strepsiades will prove his own undoing: that he has educated his son in the slippery arts of immoral persuasion with which his son will in turn harm him.
As the Chorus finishes its dire prediction, Strepsiades races from the house, pursued by Pheidippides who is beating him. The two had bickered over the recitation of traditional poetry and their argument came to blows. They decide to have a formal debate to prove who is right and who is wrong. Strepsiades recounts his evening arguments with Pheidippides, explaining his shock that his son is not obedient or respectful towards him, always using every instance as an opportunity to attack Strepsiades and his tastes. Strepsiades accuses Pheidippides of being ungrateful, recalling the tender and special relationship they had when Pheidippides was a needy infant. Strepsiades argues that such nurturing and sacrifice on his part should have earned him Pheidippides's respect and high regard. Pheidippides relishes his new rhetorical abilities and wonders aloud about his past fascination with horses. Strepsiades ruefully adds that he wishes his son was still mad for horses—although it was this very obsession that landed Strepsiades in such a financial pickle.
Pheidippides argues that he has hit his father for Strepsiades's own good, that any prior laws dictating standards of behavior and deferral to parental authority are fallible and subject to change. He invokes examples of animal behavior. He threatens to include his mother in his argument and Strepsiades bemoans his choice to educated Pheidippides. Strepsiades turns to the Chorus of Clouds and berates the Chorus for encouraging the folly of educating Pheidippides in the Unjust argument. The Chorus of Clouds asserts that Strepsiades earned what he got and that the Chorus has strung him along in order to prove to him the folly of his ways and beliefs, to teach him to respect "Heaven's holy laws" (II.i.1458).
Appalled, Strepsiades grabs Pheidippides and strides over to the school, denouncing all of the new knowledge over which he had previously been gloating. Strepsiades reasserts the existence of the gods and begs forgiveness of Hermes, from whom he appears to receive a message to burn down Socrates's school. He climbs the roof with Xanthias, one of his household slaves, and burn the roof. The students inside begin to shriek. The philosopher Chaerephon and the Student are astonished and cry for help. Socrates emerges and demands to know what is going on. Strepsiades mocks him, calling his arson an act of grand, esoteric philosophizing. Socrates, Chaerephon, and the students cough and flee the building. Strepsiades claims that he is attacking the school as an agent of revenge on behalf of the slighted gods. He kicks Socrates and drives-off the rest of the people by pelting them with a flurry of stones. The Chorus approves the scene and its performance and then exits, ending the play.
The day of "Old and New" that provides much comic fodder throughout the play refers to the day of transition between the end of one cycle of the moon and the next: the last day of the "old" moon and the first day of the "new" moon. The Athenian calendars were lunar calendars and each month ended with the end of one complete lunar cycle (28 days long). The mention of "Old and New" recalls the play's central concern with "new" and "old" (or "traditional") systems of education. The sophistry of the "new education" makes Pheidippides capable of arguing that "Old and New" cannot coexist. Not only does this argument ironically suggest the overly literal minutiae with which the "new education" is concerned; it also sincerely suggests that the two systems of education are incompatible and must be rectified.
The thesis of the play is that violence must be met with violence. This is the logic behind the Chorus's defense of its own actions, which encouraged Strepsiades to behave badly. Strepsiades displays great physical and psychological violence with his two creditors: he bullies the First Creditor into flight and he beats off the Second Creditor with a stick. Then, in turn, Strepsiades is the recipient of Pheidippides's blows. In Greek society, doing violence to one's elders was considered an unspeakable evil. However, there is a certain symmetry to the scenes of beatings that recalls the element of a rectifying "nemesis," or a necessary evil, in Greek tragedy and tragic conventions.
Indeed, The Clouds ends with a scene of further violence—the arson committed upon the "Thinkery" and the assault upon its occupants—and this tragic, destructive ending is a far cry from the scenes of drinking, feasting, and celebration that mark so many of Aristophanes's other plays. In fact, the concluding celebration was such as staple of Greek comedy as to have become formalized: the "exodus," or concluding celebratory song, as mentioned earlier, was a typical formal division of Greek comedy. While the violence in the final scene possesses a certain abandon akin to revelry and while the scene progresses with spectacular choreography and action, no one celebrates in any traditional fashion.
A commentator, or a number of commentators, in the Hellenistic period (approximately 331 BCE to 31 BCE) composed a Scholia, or collection of plot hypotheses for several plays, including the plays of Aristophanes. In their commentary on The Clouds, they admit that, in the extant revision we possess, Aristophanes has written a new "parabasis" and a new finale. The scholar David McDowell suggests, using the model of several other Aristophanes plays, that one possible way the original play might have ended would have been with Pheidippides trouncing the creditors in court and Strepsiades producing a celebration in honor of their success (Oxford University Press, 1995). However, this is only a conjecture. McDowell suggests, among many possible reasons why The Clouds failed in its first run, that perhaps the audience failed to comprehend the scope of the satire and condemned Aristophanes for the dishonest and sinful elements of the "new education" that he is satirizing. The scholar Cedric Whitman wisely notes, "the poet seems to have recognized that he could not moralize his play without ruining it, and given up the attempt." (Whitman, Cedric. H. Aristophanes and the Comic Hero. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1964. 137).
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Clouds!