An analysis of the play by Aristophanes

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 2. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 26-27.

The play of the Clouds is very well known, but for the most part little understood and appreciated. It is intended to show that in the propensity to philosophical subtleties, the martial exercises of the Athenians were neglected, that speculation only serves to shake the foundations of religion and morality, that by sophistical sleight, in particular, all justice was turned into quibbles, and the weaker cause often enabled to come off victorious. The Clouds, themselves, who form the chorus, no doubt dressed fantastically enough, are an allegory on these metaphysical thoughts, which do not rest on the ground of experience, but hover about without definite form and substance, in the region of possibilities. It is one of the principal forms of Aristophanic wit in general to take a metaphor in the literal sense, and so place it before the eyes of the spectators. It is said, for instance, of a person who has a propensity to idle, unintelligible dreams, that he walks in air, and thus Socrates, at his first appearance on the stage, descends from the sky in a basket. It is in his character as a sophist that he plays the leading part; for Aristophanes brings no serious charge against him as a citizen or as a man, and this is far more in his favor than all the writings of Plato and Xenophon. Nevertheless he was an innovator in education; he approved, perhaps assisted, in the corruptions which Euripides introduced into tragedy; he was the friend of several of the sophists; it was in his character of dialectician that he was courted by ambitious young men; he was the tutor of Alcibiades; his singular manners and his slovenliness had every appearance of affectation, and if we add that he was the only one of the eminent sophists who was an Athenian-born, we shall not wonder that Aristophanes selected him as the representative of the class.

The other prominent characters are a father and son, the latter obviously intended for Alcibiades, and also as a general personification of the young profligates of the day, only wanting a little sophistical education to make him throw aside every moral restraint. His silly father supplies the remedy for this defect, and is the first to suffer from the weapon which he has placed in his son's hand.

The Clouds was chiefly a general exhibition of the corrupt state of education at Athens, and of its causes; it was a loudly uttered protest on the part of Aristophanes against the useless and pernicious speculations of the sophists, and was not intended, as some would have us believe, to pave the way for the accusation which was many years afterward brought against Socrates as a corrupter of youth, whatever may have been its effect upon the verdict of the dicasts at the trial. It gained only third prize and was unfavorably received at the great Dionysia. Nevertheless it is one of the most celebrated and perfectly finished of all Hellenic comedies, containing some of the finest specimens of lyric poetry that have come down to us. Such, for example, is the following, making due allowance for its translation into our less flexible English:

Cloud-maidens that float on forever,
Dew-sprinkled, fleet bodies and fair,
Let us rise from our Sire's loud river,
Great Ocean, and soar through the air
To the peaks of the pine-covered mountains
Where the pines hang as tresses of hair.
Let us seek the watch-towers undaunted,
Where the well-watered corn-fields abound,
And through the murmurs of rivers nymph-haunted
The songs of the sea-waves resound;
And the sun in the sky never wearies
Of spreading his radiance around.
Let us cast off the haze
Of the mists from our band,
Till with far-seeing gaze
We may look on the land.
Cloud-maidens that bring the rain shower,
To the Pallas-loved land let us wing,
To the land of stout heroes and power,
Where Kekrops was hero and king,
Where honor and silence are given
To the mysteries that none may declare,
Where are gifts to the high gods in heaven
Where the house of the gods is laid bare,
Where are lofty-roofed temples, and statues
Well carven and fair;
Where are feasts to the happy immortals
When the sacred procession draws near,
Where garlandsmake bright the bright portals
At all seasons and months in the year;
And when the spring days are here,
Then we tread to the wine-god a measure,
In Bacchanal dance and in pleasure,
'Mid the contests of sweet-singing choirs,
And the crash of loud lyres.

At the close of the play, Strepsiades who is thorougly disgusted with the effect of Socrates' teaching, sets fire to the philosopher's Thinking-shop.

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