Friday, June 3, 2022

The Clouds by Aristophanes - Open up! I'm mad for education!

The Clouds by Aristophanes, 423 BCE, performed the same year as The Suppliants, perhaps, although it is a later, revised, version of The Clouds that survived.  In the last three Euripides plays we have seen hints, or intrusions, of the idea that the tragic events of the play could be changed by persuasion.  As Hecuba says:

                                                    There are men, I know,

sophists who make a science of persuasion,

glozing evil with a slick of loveliness…  (tr. Arrowsmith)

The Sophists were an innovation in contemporary Athens, entrepreneurial philosophers offering a new form of education along with new ideas.  The specific individuals ranged from blatant con artists up to, you know, Socrates, the embodiment of Western philosophy.  So it’s famous Socrates who has to take the beating Aristophanes gives the Sophists, even if the portrayal is slanderous.

Throw open the Thinkery!  Unbolt the door

and let me see this wizard Sokrates in person.

Open up!  I’m MAD for education!  (29, tr. Arrowsmith)

Then Socrates floats onstage in a giant basket, and we’re off.  The education begins.

The Clouds

is a more audacious, idea-packed, and outrageous than the last two Aristophanes plays, although it is at least as filthy, sexually and scatologically.

STREPSIADES: He breaks wind.

Sacrilege or not, I”VE GOT TO CRAP!

SOKRATES: No more of your smut.  Leave that kind of thing to the comic stage.  (38)

From the Thinkery and the Cosmical Oven to the Chorus of Clouds to the cataclysmic ending, Aristophanes pulls in his biggest conceptions (I have included a photograph of the Cloud chorus from the 2012 production by the National Theatre of Greece).  The central duel between Philosophy and Sophistry, or old-fashioned Right and new-fangled Wrong, as I saw in another translation, could now be turned into a rap battle.  A later scholiast insists that Philosophy and Sophistry were costumed as giant fighting-cocks, and William Arrowsmith makes the most of the idea (see his note on p. 145).  Giant rapping roosters playing the dozens, that’s what I want to see.

The first two Aristophanes plays often felt like a series of skits slapped together.  The Clouds is tight Aristophanes, one long action with constant comic variation.  My memory is that his best plays are the focused ones.  We’ll see.

I can’t praise William Arrowsmith’s adaptations of Aristophanes enough.  He has a strong vision of how the plays were performed but he is a rigorous classicist who justifies his liberties.  When we get to The Birds later this summer, try Arrowsmith if you can.

Perhaps in the fall we should read Plato's Banquet and take another look at the relationship between Socrates and Aristophanes.

In two weeks we move a year forward to the next Aristophanes play, another good one, The Wasps (422 BCE), which mocks courts and juries and gives the arch-enemy Cleon a good kicking.  Will Aristophanes directly criticize the audience for giving The Clouds third prize?  It’s a good bet.

I intend to confront you with my personal complaints frankly and freely,

as a poet should. (53)

Next week is The Women of Trachis by Sophocles, dated some time in the 420s, which I think I put in this spot to give us a break from Aristophanes.


  1. According to the introduction of the translation I read (Moses Hadas, 1962), "It is said that when the maskmaker's art was applauded on his double's first appearance, Socrates stood up in his seat to show the likeness." There is no record of how Socrates felt after the play was performed.

    I liked this one quite a bit. As you say, much tighter in construction than his previous plays. The jokes are a lot better, too (with the exception of the flatulence gags, which I guess he was famous for). Again he talks directly to the audience and asks for the prize, complaining about competitions he's lost. And again there are references to the play as a play ("No, look over there, by the stage door!"). A big toy box for Aristophanes. I think my favorite bit is the gag with the map ("What's that?" "That's Sparta." "Can't you make it any farther away?"). Pretty good stuff.

  2. I love that story. How I hope it is true.

    The Clouds gives a clear enough answer to the "Why Aristophanes?" question. As I remember it, there are two or three more this good, plus one special case.

  3. I liked this better than the first two Aristophanes, but still not enough to actually finish it. The Arrowsmith translation did seem to be an improvement over the one I was previously using, and I could see how this could be fun in a live setting, but on the page it just didn't hit me as funny enough (though there were a few good jokes, such as the one Scott mentions about the map). Though I could imagine it working in a performance.

    Maybe the thing that most amused me was Arrowsmith's insistent belief that Aristophanes' actors had prop phalluses, which seemed to be based on the view that you need props to make mock-masturbation references, a view that I think could be comfortably refuted by a panel of high-school boys.

    I'll probably try Lysistrata when we get there. I'm heading out on vacation for a few weeks so I'll probably resurface sometime in the next batch of Euripides.

  4. That is a good point, Arrowsmith's opinion is unnecessarily strong.

    Yes, try Lysistrata, and I will argue for the great masterpiece The Birds. And The Frogs is in a special category, but it is not until the fall.

    Your comments will be missed here. Have a good vacation!