Study Guide

The Clouds Analysis

  • Tone


    Aristophanes appears just as interested in bringing us over to his views as his character Socrates. With the Chorus weighing in early and often on topics ranging from Athenian politics to the characters' busted moral compasses, we get a clear sense of what constitutes right and wrong in the play's universe.

    For example, the Chorus literally lectures the audience about their political choices during the parabasis, taking after them for having elected a dude named Cleon (whom Aristophanes had criticized in his play Knights via the character of Paphlagon):

    "Spectators and critics, give an ear to what I say. / We've a gripe against you, and we'll lodge it openly. / Of all the gods we do the most good for this city, / but we're the only gods that get no sacrifices, / no libations, though we look out for you. Whenever / you marshal a stupid expedition, we rain and thunder. / When you went to vote for the god-hated tanner Paphlagon, / in the election for generals, we knitted our brows together / and made a lot of noise with lightning and thunderbolts, / and the moon eclipsed herself from orbit, and the Sun / pulled his blazing wick right back into his lamp and refused to shine on you if you elected Cleon." (575-586)

    That's some pretty intense preachiness, if you ask us—especially since it's directed right at the audience. Of course, the Chorus also goes after the characters. For example, when Strepsiades finally realizes the error of his ways and asks why the Chorus didn't warn him away from Socrates, the Chorus Leader doesn't refrain from telling him he should have known better, saying,

    "No, you're responsible for doing it to yourself: / you took the twisting road that leads toward evil." (1454-1455)

    You tell him, Chorus Leader. That doesn't sound vindictive at all.

    So, you get the point: the play doesn't refrain from telling pretty much everyone what s/he should be doing.

  • Genre


    Well, this is pretty much a no-brainer: The Clouds is definitely an example of Greek comedy. Even while the play is going after Socrates's philosophies and teachings, jokes (and filthy language/potty humor) lighten the mood and make the criticisms funny. We're pretty sure Aristophanes thought his messages about philosophy and politics were serious business, but he delivers his blows with a smile… after all, why shouldn't criticism be fun?

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Clouds are pretty important to the action, so it seems only right that they get to be in the title, right? They're godlike entities that, represented by the Chorus, get to weigh in on the play's events and deliver their opinions and moral judgments to the characters (and the audience).

    Of course, on a more symbolic level (see "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory"), they represent the kind of fluffy intangibleness of the thought that Socrates is pushing on his students. Real clouds are just insubstantial vapor, and so (the play suggests) are Socrates's ideas. With references to the clouds firing on that many cylinders, we can't imagine naming the play after anything or anyone else.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Having seen the error of his ways in going to the Thinkery and using its teachings to be dishonest, Strepsiades decides that the best course of action is to burn the place to the ground. As we discussed elsewhere (see "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory"), there's a kind of parallel in this: Strepsiades is using literal fire to extinguish the kind of metaphorical "fire" that Socrates has started among Athenians with his immoral teachings (in the play, anyway).

    It's not clear what's going to happen to Socrates and the other people in the Thinkery once the fire gets going, but Strepsiades is recommending that they, you know, flee the burning house. Seems reasonable—who said Strepsiades wasn't smart?

  • Setting

    Athens/The Thinkery

    Well, we don't get a lot of description of Athens, but we definitely get a pretty clear vibe about the Thinkery (where a lot of the action takes place). From the first moment Strepsiades shows up there asking them to teach him, we get the sense that the Thinkery is a weird place that basically traps its students indoors and makes them do all kinds of wackadoo things.

    For example, when one of the pupils is showing Strepsiades around, they come across some students just staring at the ground with their bottoms in the air. Strepsiades is puzzled and says to the pupil, "They look like prisoners of war, the ones from Sparta. / But why are they peering at the ground like that?" (186-187). The pupil replies that they are "Investigating subterranean phenomena" (187).

    As if this doesn't already sound silly enough, when Strepsiades asks why the students' bottoms need to be pointed toward the sky, the pupil responds, "Their assholes are learning astronomy on their own" (194). Um, okay. Because sure, that can happen. Then, the tour-guide pupil orders the other pupils inside because they aren't supposed to be "in the open air for any great length of time" (199).

    The upshot of all this is that the Thinkery comes off as controlling and goofy in its instructional methods, seemingly valuing "intellectual" pursuits over, say, fresh air and exercise.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    Base Camp (4)

    The translated language is pretty straightforward and accessible, with few fancy words (but lots of dirty ones)—so, nothing too difficult to deal with there. However, there are a lot of Greek names—and lots of gods—to keep straight, and a bunch of Greek drama terms like "agon" that you'll have to wade through and look up (or read the footnotes) to understand.

    So, it's not totally an easy ride, but you'll be ready for a big fat Greek wedding at the end of it.

  • Writing Style

    Dirrty and Dirrrrrect

    The translation we're reading here doesn't shy away from the potty humor and references to sex in the original, and so we get the dirty stuff alongside all the serious talk about politics and philosophy.

    Take, for example, when Strepsiades first visits the Thinkery and finds a bunch of students staring at the ground with their butts in the air. The pupil doing the tour guide explains the spectacle by saying, "Their assholes are learning astronomy on their own" (194).

    As you can see, Aristophanes's/the translator's language doesn't put on any airs or try to dress up the point at hand here; the style is very direct (and super vulgar, of course). Not that we're complaining, since it definitely heightens the shock value—and makes us giggle like twelve-year-olds.

  • Clouds

    They're in the title, they're central to the action in the play, and they're definitely not just one of those white fluffy things that sometimes looks like a walrus.

    Rather, they're legit characters that play an active role in the whole drama of Strepsiades going to Socrates and trying to learn the art of rhetoric. They also function as the chorus, commenting on what goes down and suggesting what the characters could or should be doing.

    Beyond that, though, they are also quite literally part of the up-in-the-air theories that Socrates is mingling with when Strepsiades finds him suspended in he air, engaged in reflection. When Socrates is up there in the clouds and ether, that really means he's immersed in his own thoughts and philosophizing.

    He draws a connection between air and moisture and his "deep thoughts" when he explains to Strepsiades why he's so high up:

    "Never / could I make correct celestial discoveries / except by thus suspending my mind, and mixing / my subtle head with the air it's kindred with. / If down below I contemplate what's up, / I'd never find aught; for the earth by natural force/draws unto itself the quickening moisture of thought. / The very same process is observable in lettuce." (228-234)

    There's an analogy between the clouds and Socrates's thoughts here; just as the clouds are slippery, insubstantial, and hard to get a grasp on, so Socrates's teachings are portrayed as, er, less than weighty (and certainly slick). So there you have it—totally separate from their role as the Chorus in playing around with Strepsiades's life, they actually represent the superficiality of Socrates's thoughts

  • Socrates/The Thinkery

    Okay, yeah, Socrates is a character—and a character based on a real person, at that. So, how could he possibly be a symbol, too? Can one man be so many things? Answer: absolutely. Yes, he has significance in history and character-wise, but in this play, he and his "school" also symbolize certain practices in education and rhetoric that Aristophanes is trying to critique.

    Strepsiades's first description of the Thinkery and its mission give us a decent sense of what Aristophanes's objections to this school of thought might be:

    "That house is a Thinkery for clever souls. / Some gentlemen live there who argue that the sky / is a casserole-cover—and make us all believe it— / and that it covers us all, and we're charcoal briquets. / These people train you, if you pay them money, to win any argument, whether it's right or wrong." (94-98)

    It sounds pretty funny, but it's also biting—imaging having your lessons and high-level thought compared to basically hypnotizing someone and telling them to cluck like a chicken. That's a party trick that serves no purpose, and so (in Aristophanes's view) is the kind of education that Socrates offers—and of which this entire play is a send up.

  • Fire

    Did you notice how the kind of learning Strepsiades pursues so feverishly for most of the play ends up biting him in the butt, or, to put it differently, burning him?

    Yup, just like early man, who ended up with fire after banging rocks around, Strepsiades bumbles around until he manages to get the learning he needs (via his son). But once the "spark" of his son's intellect is lit, things get well out of control, because the Thinkery's wisdom has unanticipated consequences. For example, Pheidippides uses his newly learned logic to justify beating his father—which is totally not what Strepsiades had had in mind.

    So, apparently aware of the truism that you can only fight fire with fire, Strepsiades decides to extinguish the flames of Socratic learning by burning down the Thinkery. He draws an analogy between this physical fire and the intellectual "fire" he's trying to put out when he tells one of the pupils what he's up to. When the pupil asks for an explanation for the arson, he says, "What do you think? I'm engaged in a subtle argument with your house!" (1495).

    See, get it? The joke suggests that fire is like a "subtle argument"... yeah, subtle like a kick in the pants. Hmm, maybe we need to rethink our assessment of Strepsiades's intelligence, because that's dang clever (and funny to boot).

  • Narrator Point of View

    N/A—It's a Drama

    Even though The Clouds is a drama—and therefore doesn't have a typical narrator—it does give us a little more to work with in terms of POV because we get the Chorus speaking for the author via the parabasis (an interlude in which the Chorus addresses the audience directly with what's on the author's mind).

    For example, in one parabasis from The Clouds, the Chorus acknowledges that the play is up for a prize (and advocates that the audience vote for it).

    The parabasis was also an opportunity for political commentary. The Chorus gets on the Athenian audience's case for electing a man named Cleon (who had been portrayed in Aristophanes's Knights via the character Paphlagon):

    "Spectators and critics, give an ear to what I say. / We've a gripe against you, and we'll lodge it openly. / Of all the gods we do the most good for this city, / but we're the only gods that get no sacrifices, / no libations, though we look out for you. Whenever / you marshal a stupid expedition, we rain and thunder. / When you went to vote for the god-hated tanner Paphlagon, / in the election for generals, we knitted our brows together / and made a lot of noise with lightning and thunderbolts, / and the moon eclipsed herself from orbit, and the Sun / pulled his blazing wick right back into his lamp and refused to shine on you if you elected Cleon." (575-586)

    Sure, it doesn't have a ton to do with the actual nitty gritty of the plot regarding Strepsiades, but these little asides are definitely examples of authorial POV and reflect the play's overarching interest in taking down flawed ideas and public figures who don't deserve widespread praise… you know, like Socrates.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Shadow of Darkness

      When we meet Strepsiades, our first instinct is to feel pretty sorry for him. After all, he's in a whole mountain of debt thanks to his son's bad habits, and he's trying to figure out how in the world he's going to pay them off. Unfortunately, his first instinct is to just find a way to shirk the debt by convincing his creditors not to pursue him. To do that, he decides that someone in the family needs to learn some fancy argumentation skills.

      Pressure of Darkness

      Strepsiades tries to get his son to go to the local Thinkery (helmed by uber-famous philosopher Socrates) to get that training in argument or "sophistry," but Pheidippides refuses. So, Strepsiades enrolls instead.

      Unfortunately, despite Socrates' best efforts, Strepsiades is not the greatest student, and Socrates ends up dropping him. However, Strepsiades will not be defeated, and finally convinces Pheidippides to enroll and learn everything he needs to know to argue effectively against the creditors.

      Everything Comes to Light

      The good news? Pheidippides is a much quicker student than dear old dad and learns the principles of "Worse Argument" easily. The bad news? Pheidippides decides to use his newfound knowledge for his own purposes—for example, to justify beating his own father.

      When Pheidippides uses the Worse Argument for that purpose (which obviously doesn't seem cool to Strepsiades), Strepsiades realizes he's made a huge mistake in trying to use argumentation for the twisted purpose of getting out of a debt.

      So, he decides to burn down the Thinkery, presumably to punish Socrates and prevent other people from falling into the trap of thinking that knowledge and thought should be used to do immoral things.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      Less Money, Mo' Problems 

      An Athenian dude named Strepsiades is upset because he's managed to go waaaay into debt financing his son's love of the ponies (racing them, that is). Now he's got creditors "racing" after him to get their cash back, and Strepsiades doesn't have it. So, it seems he needs to come up with a plan.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      Knowledge is Power?

      Strepsiades decides that the best course is to argue his way out of the debts (hmm, perhaps he's been watching Clueless?). How, you might ask? Well, apparently a dude named Socrates (yeah, that Socrates) runs a place called the Thinkery that teaches people how to argue well. He wants to send Pheidippides to the school so he can argue the family out of their debts. However, Pheidippides isn't willing (at least initially), so Strepsiades goes instead…

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      Nope, Wonky Logic is Power

      Strepsiades turns out to be a pretty poor pupil, especially in terms of memory, and Socrates basically tears his hair out trying to figure out how to teach him anything. Eventually, Socrates gives up and resigns, and Strepsiades is finally able to recruit his son to go and do the learnin' instead.

      Pheidippides turns out to be a great student, and soon he's arguing circles around everyone. Of course, in order to argue your way out of debts that you knowingly took on, someone would have to use a pretty twisted or evil kind of logic, right? Sure enough, Pheidippides becomes an expert in something called the "Worse Argument," which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about that. While all of this is going on, the "Clouds"—which are basically like gods—are watching and weighing in… and they don't really approve. Uh oh.

      Falling Action

      You Wouldn't Know Logic if it Hit You Over the Head…

      As both the Clouds and Pheidippides predicted, Strepsiades comes to regret that he sent his son to that fancy logic school—regret it big time. Pheidippides has become so skilled in the Worse Argument that he uses it to justify beating his own father. After that incident, Strepsiades realizes that his scheme was a bad idea and regrets ever plotting to get out of paying his debts.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      Burning Down the (Logic) House 

      Strepsiades decides that he should get revenge on Socrates and others at the Thinkery for exposing him and his son to the wonky "Worse Argument" logic that makes wrong things right. So, he sets that structure on fire, and encourages Socrates and his posse to scoot if they don't want to die in the fire and smoke.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Strepsiades is in mountains of debt and wants to, well, not be. He also doesn't feel like actually paying the money back, so he decides that the best course is to learn some fancy argumentation so he can argue his way out of the debts. Initially he wants to send his son to get this education (after all, it's really his spendy habits that got them into this mess), but when Pheidippides refuses, he decides to go in his son's place.

      Act II

      Strepsiades goes to the Thinkery, meets Socrates (and the Clouds, who basically serve as gods and are represented by the Chorus), and gets enrolled. However, he flames out pretty quickly, since his mind/memory aren't really up to the logical topsy turvies that Socrates's lessons demand. So, he finally convinces his son Pheidippides to go to the school instead, and he turns out to be an excellent student of a form of logic known as the "Worse Argument." So, everything is going to work out for Strepsiades as planned, right? Well, not so fast…

      Act III

      Instead of working on Strepsiades's creditors, Pheidippides puts his newfound skills to selfish uses—for example, to justify beating his father. So, Strepsiades comes to regret his whole project of avoiding his debts. Once he's fully renounced that approach, he takes the "advice" of Hermes (or a statue of Hermes) and decides to burn the Thinkery to the ground.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Aeschylus (1365-1366)
      • Aphrodite (52)
      • Apollo (371, 596)
      • Aristophanes, Knights (554, 580)
      • Artemis (598)
      • Athena (988)
      • Carcinus (1261)
      • Chaerephon (104, 504, 830, 1465)
      • Demeter (121)
      • Dionysus (108, 310, 519, 606, 1000)
      • Electra (534)
      • Eupolis, Maricas (553)
      • Euripides (1371, 1377)
      • Heracles (1050-1051)
      • Hermes (1234, 1277, 1478)
      • Hermippus (557)
      • Hieronymous (349)
      • Homer (1056)
      • Memnon (621)
      • Nestor (1057)
      • Peleus (1067)
      • Phrynichus (556)
      • Poseidon (84-85, 566, 1234)
      • Prodicus (360)
      • Sarpedon (621)
      • Simonides (1356)
      • Socrates (throughout)
      • Sophocles, Athamas (256)
      • Thales (180)
      • Thetis (1067)
      • Tlepolemus (1266)
      • Xenophantus (349)
      • Zeus (throughout)

      Historical References

      • Cleisthenes (355)
      • Cleon (549, 586, 591)
      • Cleonymus (353-354, 400, 672, 674-675)
      • Hippocrates (1001)
      • Hyperbolus (551, 557-558, 876, 1065)
      • Leogoras (109)
      • Pericles (212, 859)
      • Solon (1187, 1189)
      • Theorus (400)

      Pop Culture References

      • Phrynis (969)