Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Clouds was staged at the City Dionysia of 423 b.c.e. and was awarded third place among the three competitors. Having taken first place with The Acharnians and The Knights at the Lenaia, respectively in the two preceding years (425 and 424), Aristophanes was very disappointed. The preserved text is a revision of the original as staged, building in a variety of ingredients reflecting his effort not only to revamp the failure but also to incorporate observations on that failure. Lines 521-525 make the point specifically: “I thought you were a bright audience, and that this was my most brilliant comedy, so I thought you should be the first to taste it. But I was repulsed, worsted by vulgar rivals, though I didn’t deserve that.”
Aristophanes takes as his theme the contrast between an older educational mode and the new interrogative style, associated with the name of Socrates. Apparently his first play, the Daitalis, had already exploited a similar theme. The Clouds begins with a prologue (lines 1-262), which introduces the two principal characters, Strepsiades (“Twister”), worried by the debts accumulating because of the propensity for chariot racing of his long-haired son, Pheidippides (“Sparer of Horses,” or “Horsey”). The idea occurs, with the assistance of “a student,” to have the son enter the school (“Think-shop”) next door, operated by Socrates, wherein by the logic of the sophists one should be able to learn how to talk so as to evade one’s debts. When the son refuses to attend, lest his suntan be ruined, the father goes...
(The entire section is 672 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Strepsiades, a rich gentleman of Athens, is plunged into poverty and debt by his profligate son, Pheidippides. Hounded by his son’s creditors, Strepsiades ponders ways to prevent complete ruin. Hearing reports that the Sophists teach a new logic that can be used to confuse one’s creditors and so get one out of debt, Strepsiades sees in the Sophist teachings a possible solution to his problem. He pleads with Pheidippides to enter the school of the Sophists and learn the new doctrines. When Pheidippides, more interested in horse racing than in learning, refuses to become a pupil, Strepsiades denounces his son as a wastrel and decides to enroll himself.
He goes to the Thoughtery or Thinking-School, which is the term used for the classroom of the Sophists, and asks to see Socrates, the philosopher. After Strepsiades explains his purpose, Socrates proceeds to demonstrate several logical conclusions of the new school. More certain than ever that the new logic will save him from ruin and disgrace, Strepsiades pleads until Socrates admits him to the Thoughtery.
Unfortunately, Strepsiades proves too old to master the Sophist technique in the classroom. Socrates then decides that Strepsiades can learn to do his thinking outdoors. When Socrates puts questions concerning poetry to Strepsiades, his answers show such complete ignorance that Socrates finally admits defeat and returns to the Thoughtery. Strepsiades, disgusted with his own efforts, decides...
(The entire section is 586 words.)