An Attic Comic-drama by Aristophanes
This website is the result of my efforts to better understand what is perhaps the most thought-provoking of Aristophanes’ satires. I hope that its contents may prove useful to other students of Comedy and stimulate further examination of the many important topics raised by the play.
Aristophanes’ theme in ‘Clouds’ was Athens’ judicial system, a subject of keen interest to his audience, both citizens and allies alike, for, in regulating relations between the citizens and in their oversight of state officials, the courts underpinned the rule of the Demos. In ‘Wasps’, the following year, Aristophanes would expose the risk to Democracy of partiality in juries, while here he concentrates his perceptive gaze upon the threat posed to the judgement of these same poorly-educated jurymen by specious arguments, made by practiced forensic speakers, which could lead to a perversion of justice.
Comedy operates at the interface between the Real and the Unreal and Aristophanes combined the factual landscape of contemporary, Athenian society with fictional characters drawn from his imagination. His protagonist in ‘Clouds’ is a representative figure of the prematurely-aged farmer, frugal with his hard-won resources, who finds his declining years blighted by a spend-thrift wife and prodigal son. Beset by the debts that they have incurred, the prospect of having to face legal action for their recovery robs him of sleep. But, in his dark night of misery there shines a faint ray of hope; that he might just be able to escape his likely financial ruin with the aid of a good lawyer.
So a ‘real’ character enters upon the stage of History as his prospective saviour and we meet for the first time the ‘philosopher’ Sokrates, in whose train will come the two competing sides of every argument. Over all will float the nebulous forms of airy notions and abstract concepts, the sovereign deities of law-court and public Assembly.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this comic-drama is the view that the extant text is not the original script of the play, which was performed in the drama-competition of 423 B.C. Instead, it is held to derive from a revised version of the play, which was never performed, but which seems to have been ‘published’ a few years later. This may mean that ‘Clouds’ is possibly the earliest-known attempt to introduce a theatrical work to a literary readership, which would perhaps help to explain why a play that flopped in performance has proved to be such an enduring success on the page.
The Attic comic-dramas of ‘Old’ Comedy were the product of a society that called a spade a spade, or as Aristophanes puts it, τὰ σῦκα σῦκα. It was an age before political correctness and self-censorship. Aristophanes wrote for an exclusively male audience, but if dear Reader you chance (through no fault of your own) to be of female gender (wholly or partly), despair not, for you too can now enjoy the innovative wit of this entertaining dramatist. All that is needed is for you to turn off your mobile communication-device for a little and anchor yourself in the moment. Then, if these pages have offended, just look away, and all is mended.
This edition first published 14th February, 2021 by The Atticist