Study Guide

The Clouds

The Clouds Summary

We have to admit; we start out feeling pretty bad for Strepsiades. The poor guy is apparently in mountains of debt because his son, Pheidippides, has a fondness for horse racing. So, it's not even his debt, but his son's. Cue the violins, because we're so ready to sympathize with his plight.

However, that feeling doesn't last super long. It seems that Strepsiades has no intention of paying his debts; instead, he wants to find a way to argue his way out of them. Hey, we get that it wasn't exactly his behavior that got him into that mess, but that's not cool—if you borrow money, you should pay it back; that's just Good Citizenship 101 (unless horse racing offers debt forgiveness programs, of course).

So, he decides to get his son enrolled at the local "Thinkery," a fictional school run by the (non-fictional) philosopher Socrates, so that Pheidippides can learn how to argue their way out of the debt. (Yup, Aristophanes inserts a real person as a character in his play, and let's just say that the portrayal is not terribly flattering… but we'll get to that in the "Characters" section.) Unfortunately, his son is not really that interested in helping, so Strepsiades has to go enroll himself.

Even more unfortunately, Strepsiades is a pretty subpar student, and Socrates finally throws up his hands and drops him. Not to worry, though—Strepsiades finally convinces his son to enroll and give it a try. And it works; Pheidippides ends up learning everything he needs to know about the "Worse Argument" to argue effectively against his father's debtors.

However, he uses his newfound knowledge to do some other stuff—like justify beating his father. Yup, when Strepsiades gets mad at Pheidippides at a feast celebrating his accomplishments, Pheidippides starts abusing him physically and verbally, and then adds insult to injury by using his "achievements" to justify it all.

With that event, Strepsiades finally realizes that perhaps he made a mistake in thinking that it was okay to use logic and knowledge to achieve immoral ends. So, he formally rejects the "Worse Argument" and sets the Thinkery on fire to punish Socrates and presumably put a monkey wrench in their ability to teach that kind of dangerous stuff to others.

  • Scene I

    • The play opens with Strepsiades up super early in the morning, kvetching. It seems there's quite a bit bothering him. First, there's a war going on that's getting him down/fouling up his life (because he's not allowed to whip his slaves during wartime).
    • Also, Strepsiades's son is giving him problems. It seems that Pheidippides's fondness for horses and horse racing (which Pops is financing) has sent Strepsiades into a mountain of debt. As he talks, Pheidippides is sleeping in front of him. From his sleep-talking, you can tell that P is pretty obsessed with horse racing, as his dad says.
    • When Pheidippides wakes up to his father's ranting, Strepsiades accuses him directly of ruining him financially. Pheidippides just wants to go back to bed.
    • Meanwhile, the Slave announces that the lamp is out of oil, and Strepsiades threatens to beat him for lighting the "thirsty" lamp.
    • Also, Strepsiades talks about his wife and how they decided to name Pheidippides.
    • It seems that Strepsiades has been up all night. Jeez, he must be stressed.
    • Strepsiades tells his son that he wants him to go to a nearby place called the "Thinkery" to learn how to effectively argue their way out of their debts so that Strepsiades never has to pay them. However, Pheidippides doesn't have a super high opinion of the Thinkery (he calls them "charlatans" and "pasty-faces"), so he's not keen on the idea.
    • When Pheidippides refuses, Strepsiades threatens to kick him out and cut him off. Pheidippides says he's fine with that—and that he'll just go get horses from his "godlike uncle Megacles."
  • Scene II

    • With his initial plan busted, Strepsiades decides that he will head to the Thinkery and just learn the arguments he needs himself.
    • When he gets there, he meets the Pupil, who starts initiating him into the secrets of the Thinkery and what gets taught/discussed there.
    • Then he heads into the Thinkery and finds a bunch of pupils staring at the ground. The Pupil says they are "investigating subterranean phenomena."
    • The Pupil continues showing Strepsiades around and answering his questions about the stuff they're learning there. While that's going on, they come across a man hanging in the air who turns out to be Socrates. Strepsiades hopes to introduce himself.
  • Scene III

    • Strepsiades and Socrates chat about just what Socrates is doing up in the air (apparently is part of his efforts to make "celestial discoveries").
    • Strepsiades gets right to the point and tells Socrates he wants to learn oratory from him and thereby shake off his creditors.
    • So, Socrates gives him a wreath and starts a ceremony to "initiate" him into the Thinkery. Apparently, this involves sprinkling him with flour.
  • Scene IV

    (Parodos)

    • Now the Chorus steps in (well, song-wise; according to the footnotes, they are intended to be physically offstage) and starts calling on the Clouds to grace everyone with their presence. The Chorus then becomes the Clouds and starts talking about raining on everyone.
    • Apparently, all their thundering and noise scare Strepsiades, who farts in fear, which: hahahaha. We want to see that happen in real life. Socrates gets annoyed, thinking that Strepsiades is joking around and not being reverent enough.
    • Strepsiades asks Socrates who is singing, and Socrates explains that they are "clouds from heaven" who "give us judgment, / dialectic, intelligence, / fantasy and double-talking, / eloquence and forceful talk."
    • Strepsiades can't see these "ladies" at first, but then Socrates points at them coming along.
    • When the Clouds have apparently arrived, the Chorus Leader speaks to Socrates and Strepsiades on their behalf to find out why the Clouds had been summoned.
    • Socrates mentions to Strepsiades that these are the only gods that exist. Strepsiades asks him how that could possibly be, citing a few examples of "evidence" that other gods exist. This conversation involves a fairly detailed lesson on weather.
    • Anyway, back to the matter at hand: The Clouds say Strepsiades can get what he wants if he has a good memory, likes to think, and is overall a strong and clean-living dude. Hmm, we'll see!
    • Strepsiades explains exactly what he wants, and the Clouds say it's doable, asking him to step forward and "commit" himself to them.
    • Then, the Clouds and Socrates work together to test Strepsiades in terms of memory, intelligence, etc. Socrates seems to be getting worried that perhaps his new pupil isn't quite up to the challenges he's about to face.
    • Then we get the parabasis, in which the Chorus talks directly to the audience about contemporary issues that matter to the author (e.g., politics).
  • Scene V

    • Yup, it seems that Socrates has been having trouble getting his student to remember anything. He tries switching gears into other topics, but they are also duds. Socrates gets so frustrated that he sends Strepsiades to bed.
  • Scene VI

    • Strepsiades appears to be in pain, and the Chorus asks what's up. He claims bugs are eating him.
  • Scene VII

    • Socrates now asks Strepsiades what he's up to/what he's thinking about, and Streppy is still thinking about the bugs that are eating him. Socrates gets annoyed.
    • They banter a little bit, and Strepsiades decides he's found a scheme for evading the collectors. He tells Socrates about it. It involves making sure the moon doesn't rise, so the month can't end, which would mean the bills never come due. That sounds, uh, totally practical, yeah.
    • Socrates poses some more problems for him to solve, which Strepsiades "does." Socrates eventually gets fed up with Strepsiades (and particularly his memory) and resigns as his teacher.
    • Streppy is distraught, so the Chorus Leader recommends that he go get his son and make him enroll in he Thinkery. Strepsiades is doubtful that his son will agree, but he says he will try. He goes off to get him.
  • Scene VIII

    • Strepsiades has located his son and starts off this scene by making fun of the fact that he continues to believe in Zeus. He shares his newfound knowledge that Zeus doesn't exist.
    • After they argue about that for a bit, Strepsiades explains his purpose in visiting his son: he wants Pheidippides to enroll at the Thinkery.
    • Pheidippides says he thinks his dad will come to regret that request, but Strepsiades is just overjoyed that his son has (apparently) agreed. He brings him to Socrates.
    • Socrates is kind of shocked by how young Pheidippides is, and he and Pheidippides have a heated exchange about that.
    • Strepsiades presses the point, claiming that money is no object if Socrates will agree to teach him the "Arguments"—that is, the "Better Argument" (the more just form) or the "Worse" (the one that can take a weak or bad case and make it good—like, say, a case in which a clear debt is owed... ).
    • Socrates says he will have the Arguments themselves teach Pheidippides, since he is too busy. So, these two different forms of rhetoric get personified and start duking it out for control over Pheidippides.
  • Scene IX

    • Better Argument and Worse Argument begin by, well, arguing. They don't seem to get along, and they fight over who is going to end up having influence over Pheidippides. They're basically like warring angels and devils on P's shoulders.
    • Then we move into the "Agon," which is the part of the play with a formal debate. The Chorus introduces this war of wits between the Better and Worse Arguments, inviting them basically to describe what makes them them. The arguments oblige, and then after they've each made their case for their form of argumentation/rhetoric, they argue and trade barbs. At the end, Better Argument claims to be "beaten" and deserts his camp for Worse Argument's side, heading into the school.
    • Having won, Worse Argument asks Strepsiades what he wants done with his son. He promises to turn him into a "seasoned sophist."
    • Now we get the second parabasis, which addresses the judges (among the audience, that is) that would be ranking the plays being presented for a prize. Yup, that means they're breaking the fourth wall again. The Chorus makes promises to these judges (like, to rain on their crops, if the judges are nice… or destroy their property, if they aren't).
  • Scene X

    • We pick up with Strepsiades still fretting about his bills coming due. Socrates rolls in with good news, though: Pheidippides has learned the Argument Streppy wanted him to learn. Socrates assures Strepsiades that he'll now be able to evade whatever debt he wants to. He brings Pheidippides to his father and tells them to leave.
    • Pheidippides then shows off the new argumentation he's learned.
    • Strepsiades is so excited he wants to go have a feast to celebrate.
  • Scene XI

    • Time to put all this learnin' to the test. Strepsiades argues with the First Creditor. He doesn't even need Pheidippides's help, it seems, in getting the First Creditor to go away. However, the First Creditor promises to file suit.
    • Now it's the Second Creditor's turn. Strepsiades refuses to pay him as well, and that creditor also (kind of) threatens to sue.
    • The Chorus weighs in disapprovingly on Strepsiades's actions here, indicating that he'll come to regret his "villainy" before the day is over.
  • Scene XII

    • Wow, the Chorus wasn't lying—apparently Pheidippides is beating Strepsiades and using his newfound "wisdom" to prove that it's right for him to do it! Talk about karma.
    • The Second Agon starts, in which the Chorus and Chorus Leader basically tell Streppy off for equipping his son with these intellectual weapons.
    • They ask how the altercation between father and son began, and Strepsiades and Pheidippides reply with their sides of the story.
    • Apparently, Strepsiades had asked Pheidippides to do some stuff at the banquet in his honor that Pheidippides didn't want to do, so Strepsiades started yelling at him… and then Pheidippides fought back—verbally and physically.
    • The Chorus asks Pheidippides to convince them that what he did was right. So, he uses his new logic to prove that the act was just, questioning Strepsiades along the way to prove his point.
  • Scene XIII

    • Strepsiades blames the Clouds for his new misfortunes, but the Chorus Leader won't hear it—he says that Strepsiades chose the path toward evil, and now he has to live with it.
    • Strepsiades asks why the Clouds didn't just tell him that road was evil from the beginning, and the Chorus Leader says that it's pretty much just protocol—if they see someone who loves evil, they make him suffer so he comes over to loving the "gods." Strepsiades agrees this is fair and apparently feels sorry now that he tried to cheat his creditors.
    • He asks Pheidippides if he'll come murder Socrates and Chaerephon (Socrates's partner). Pheidippides refuses.
    • Strepsiades says he has gone back to believing in Zeus, but apparently Pheidippides is still a convert. He heads back inside his house and leaves his father to figure his stuff out.
    • To decide what to do next, Strepsiades chats with Hermes (or a statue of Hermes, as the footnotes suggest). He wonders if he should sue, but apparently Hermes recommends just burning down the Thinkery.
    • So, he calls someone named Xanthias to help him, and they do just that. The Pupil and Socrates claim that they are going to die in the fire. Strepsiades recommends that they beat it, if they want to live.