Think that John Oliver invented the art of delivering a healthy dose of cultural commentary while making people laugh? Nope, sorry—people have been doing that for centuries, and Aristophanes is one of the masters. His 423 BCE play The Clouds takes aim at all kinds of sacred cows, such as religion, science, politics, education, family, and morality, with lots of bad language and potty/sexual humor sprinkled throughout so things don't get too heavy.
His commentary about the philosopher Socrates (who appears as a character) was so pointed that some (like some unknown dude named Plato) believed that the play was responsible for creating the bad rep that eventually got Socrates tried and executed. So, if you ever thought it was impossible to make a difference through the arts… well, here's your testimony to the contrary.
What was so objectionable about Socrates/his way of thinking, in the play's universe? Well, he was kind of the ancient Greek version of today's ivory tower academic; according to this portrayal, his head was quite literally in the clouds, and he was more interested in playing with ideas and teaching his students to do the same than considering the moral implications of what he was teaching.
Since a lot of people seemed to believe this kind of image of Socrates (and he was tried and killed as a consequence), it appears Aristophanes's brand of satire really was, well, killer. Eat your heart out, John Oliver.
If you don't suffer fools gladly, then you're going to love Aristophanes—because he apparently didn't suffer fools at all. In The Clouds, he critiques teachings and philosophies that are all about playing with ideas and navel-gazing, regardless of whether the ideas in play are useful or, well, moral.
Why would you care about that? We're guessing you may have wondered once or twice what a particular class you were taking was actually for. Why do I have to learn calculus when I want to teach ballet? Why do I have to learn math at all when I want to be an English professor?
He was interested in a wide range of topics such as science, religion, and art; we don't think he'd be against a broad education across the arts and sciences. However, The Clouds is definitely raising the question of what learning is for—and is critical of people who aren't after it to better themselves. Or others. Or the world.
So while Aristophanes would probably give you a withering look if you said "Why do I have to take this English class? I want to be a physicist!" he would give more of a withering look to the teacher that couldn't answer your question. And Aristophanes would probably lob a spitball at the teacher that replied, "Oh, well it will look good on your resume," instead of explaining why English (or math, or science, or art) matters.
It may seem hilarious that a fusty old Greek is encouraging you to question authority, since you're probably reading this play because you were told to. But Aristophanes was definitely skeptical of authority, especially academic authority. If teachers can't answer the question "Why am I doing this? How will it make things better?" then, in Aristophanes's opinion, they don't deserve to teach.
So, then, why are you reading The Clouds? To learn how to question academic authority. And, if you're anything like Aristophanes, you'll question academic authority in a filthy-mouthed, scat-joke-ridden, whoopee-cushion-filled way. (Just maybe leave the gross stuff out of the midterm.)
The Clouds: The Project Gutenberg Version
The translation here is significantly less vulgar, by the way.
Socrates the Man vs. Socrates the Character
If you want to really dig into what we know about Socrates—and how Aristophanes fits in—check out this site.
Old Comedy 101
No, this is not a link to old Saturday Night Live skits from the 80's. Read about the features of classical Old Comedy and check out other works.
The Clouds in a Paragraph
Encyclopedia Britannica distills the heavy-hitting points about the play into one brief entry.
Play It Agon
Students from UCSC perform a snippet from The Clouds.
The Adventures of "Streppy" and "Dippy"
A gentleman named "litforbrains" (get it?) gives his summary of The Clouds. It's mostly audio, but he uses some visual aids, too.
The Rugged Pyrrhus on The Clouds
A blogger posted his summary/analysis of The Clouds on YouTube (without video).
The Whole Shebang
If you want to hear audio of the play, look no further.
Okay, photography didn't exist when Aristophanes was around, but check out this photo of his bust. We mean his marble bust. Get your heads out of the gutter.
Socrates Busts a Move
If you liked seeing that bust of Aristophanes, you'll love this one of Socrates.