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 instead. He finds Socrates suspended in a basket from the roof, wherein rarefied thinking can be more appropriately done in the atmosphere of the clouds.
The parodos finally erupts with the entrance of the chorus of “clouds” singing and dancing (lines 263-509), following the incantations and chanted prayers of Socrates, to the alarm of Strepsiades. In brilliant repartee, the chorus is introduced as the goddesses, who, with wind, lightning, and thunder, patronize intellectual development. Yet the buffoonery that follows indicates that it is some weird intellect, for Socrates, in answer to questions about rain and thunder, assures Strepsiades that there is no Zeus but only clouds displaying analogies to the human bodily functions of passing water or gas. Strepsiades is convinced, and the parodos ends with his agreeing to become a student. A sequence of two parabases and two agon follow (lines 510-1452). The first parabasis (lines 510-626) provides the best evidence that the play in its present form has been rewritten; the second (lines 1113-1130) addresses the judges asking for the prize. Their function is typical, though they also serve as interludes between the episodic agon or scenes, and, whatever their present content, some similar kind of witty poetry addressed outside the play would have been present.
The first episode is the longer one (lines 627-1112). Strepsiades proves incompetent as a student, for he cannot memorize what is required but only wants to learn how to outwit creditors. Subsequent to his own dismissal, he forces Pheidippides to enroll under threat of expulsion from home. Included is the first agon (lines 889-1112), wherein Pheidippides is exposed to the debate between “Right” (“Just Logic”) and “Wrong” (“Unjust Logic”), from which it is obvious that the argument of the latter will prevail.
The second episode is relatively short (lines 1131-1452). When Strepsiades learns the result of his son’s education, though assured of its great success, he discovers that success means that his son now knows how to whip him. The second agon (lines 1321-1452) argues for the validity of that action, making reference, as the comic poets’ tended, to the tragic poets, the father preferring the older Aeschylus, characterizing older virtues, and the son siding with Euripides, whose newer notions are caricatured as immoralities. There are amusing anecdotes concerning child development in Strepsiades’ argument to Pheidippides, but Strepsiades has been defeated by his own intentions.
The brief exodos (lines 1453-1510) involves Strepsiades getting revenge for his own sake by setting fire to the “Think-shop” next door.