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Queen's University

Supporting Materials for Lectures

Lecture 11: Aristophanes, with special reference to Clouds


  1. Aristophanes' life (trans. Mary Lefkowitz):
    Aristophanes the comic poet's father was Philippus. His nationality was Athenian, from the deme of Kydathenaion, and from the tribe of Pandionis. It was he who first is thought to have transformed comedy-which was still wandering around in the old style-into something more useful and more respectable. Comedy had previously been spiteful and more shameful, because the poets Cratinus and Eupolis uttered more slander than was appropriate. Aristophanes was first also to demonstrate the manner of New Comedy in his Cocalus, a play Menander and Philemon took as starting point for their dramatic compositions.

    Since he was very cautious at the start, all the more because he was gifted, he produced his first plays under the names of Callistratus and Philonides. Because of this Aristonymus [fr. 4] and Ameipsias [fr. 38] made fun of him, saying that (as in the proverb) he was born on the fourth day, to toil for other men. [11] Later on he entered the contest for himself.

    He was in particular an enemy of Cleon the demagogue and wrote the Knights as an attack on him. In that comedy he exposes Cleon's thefts and his tyrannical nature, and since none of the costumers had the courage to make a mask of Cleon's face because they were too frightened, since Cleon acted like a tyrant, Aristophanes acted the part of Cleon, smearing his face with red dye, and was responsible for Cleon's being fined five talents by the Knights, as he says in the Acharnians:


    But one thing really made me happy: when I saw
    those five talents that Cleon vomited up. [5ff].

    [20] Aristophanes had become Cleon's enemy because Cleon had entered a lawsuit against him because of his being foreign, and because in his play the Babylonians Aristophanes criticised the elected magistrates while foreigners were present.

    Some say that he was a foreigner himself, inasmuch as some say he was a Rhodian from Lindos, others that he was an Aeginetan, an assumption based on his having spent a considerable amount of time there or on his owning property there. According to other authorities it was that his father Philippus was an Aeginetan. Aristophanes absolved himself from these charges by wittily quoting Homer's lines:


    My mother says I'm his son, but I don't know myself.
    For no one knows his own father. [Od. 1.215f]

    When he was informed against a second and third time he also got off, [30] and now that his citizenship was established he won out over Cleon. As he says, "I myself know how I was treated by Cleon" [Ach. 377], etc. He was held in high regard because he got rid of the informers, whom he called Fevers in the Wasps, where he says "they strangle their [?] fathers at night and choke their grandfathers" [1038-9].

    People praised and liked him particularly because of his determination to show in his dramas that the government of Athens was free and not enslaved by any tyrant, and that it was a democracy and that since they were free, the people ruled themselves. [40] For this reason he won praise and a crown of sacred olive, which was considered equal in worth to a golden crown, when he spoke in the Frogs about the men who had been deprived of their rights:


    it is just that the sacred chorus give the city
    much good advice. [686ff.]

    The metre called Aristophanean was named after him, since he was well known. The poet's fame was so great that it was known in Persia, and the king of the Persians asked whose side the comic poet was on. There is also the story that when Dionysius the tyrant wanted to learn about Athens' government, Plato sent Aristophanes' poetry and advised him to learn about their government by studying Aristophanes' dramas. [50] He was imitated by the writers of New Comedy, I mean Philemon and Menander. When the decree about choregoi was passed that no one could be ridiculed by name and the choregoi were no longer rich enough to provide subsidies to train choruses, and because of these measures the substance of comedy had been completely removed (the purpose of comedy being to ridicule people), Aristophanes wrote the Cocalus in which he introduces seduction and recognition and other such events, which Menander especially likes. When once again the subsidies for training choruses were taken away, Aristophanes, when he wrote the Ploutos, in order to give the actors in the scenes time to rest and to change, wrote "for the chorus" in the directions, in the places where we see the poets of New Comedy writing in "for the chorus" in emulation of Aristophanes.

    In that drama he introduced his son Araros and so departed from life, [60] leaving three sons, Philippus (named after his grandfather), Nicostratus, and Araros. He mentions his children in these lines: "I am ashamed before my wife and my helpless children" [fr. 588], perhaps meaning them. He wrote forty-four plays, of which it is alleged that four are spurious. These are Poetry, The Shipwrecked Man, Islands, [?] Niobus-which some authorities say are by Archippus.


  2. Clouds:
    This play illustrates the standard elements of Old Comedy, including parabasis and agon (define) and the conflict of eiron and alazon. Oddly, the alazon is Socrates, elsewhere famous for his "Socratic irony". According to Plato's Apology this play aroused in the Athenians the suspicion of Socrates that was to lead many years later to his conviction and execution on a charge of impiety. Mention the revision of the play to produce the present (unperformable) version, intended perhaps for circulation in book-form.

    Consider the various humorous techniques exemplified in the play, including slapstick (which Aristophanes says that he never uses, line 543), e.g. the burning of the phrontisterion and that important subclass, doorway-slapstick, low humour with references to sex (a man can never be alone in bed without masturbating, 734), shit (the son farts in his sleep, 9, as does Strepsiades, 390, a gnat hums through his anus, 157, a gecko shits on Socrates' head, 169, Zeus makes rain by pissing in a sieve, and Strepsiades' describes Pheidippides' toilet-training, 1384), bugs ("I am bitten by a demarch out of the mattress", how many of its own feet does a flea jump?, does a gnat hum through its mouth or its anus?, 157), jokes including puns (heaven is an oven and we are the coals [anthrakes, cf. anthropoi/andres, "people"]), and situational jokes (the pupil who, having been taught dishonesty, refuses to pay his teacher), breaking of the dramatic illusion by breaching "the fourth wall" ("I don't see them" "There-in the wings! 326, Wrong Argument calls the audience buggers, 1352, the two parabases), parody of life including social classes, with the "pre-cuckolded" Strepsiades, the sophistic movement, witchcraft (drawing down the moon) and cockfighting (the agon), and paratragedy with the burning of the phrontisterion echoing the end of Sophocles Women of Trachis (as the Birds parodies Soph. Tereus and Lysistrata in his Tyro).


    • K. J. Dover, Aristophanes: Clouds (Oxford 1970) introduction.
    • L. E. Woodbury, "Strepsiades' Understanding: Five Notes on the Clouds," Phoenix 34 (1979) 15-25 = C. G. Brown et al. edd., Collected Writings (Atlanta, Ga. 1991) 335-54.
    • D. Fausti, "Aspetti di sophia nelle Nuvole di Aristofane," AFLS 3 (1982) 1-28.
    • Z. P. Ambrose, "Socrates and Prodicus in the Clouds," in J. P. Anton and A. Preus edd., Essays in Greek Philosophy 2 (Albany 1983) 129-44.
    • D. Ambrosino, "Nuages et sens. Autour des Nuées d'Aristophane," Quaderni di storia 9 (1983) 3-60.
    • C. G. Brown, "Noses at Aristophanes Clouds 344?" Quaderni urbinati di cultura classica 14 (1983) 87-90.
    • M. Delaunois, "Le comique dans les Nuées d'Aristophane," Antiquité classique 55 (1986) 86-112.
    • T. K. Hubbard, "Parabatic Self-Criticism and the Two Versions of Aristophanes' Clouds," Classical Antiquity 5 (1986) 182-97.
    • D. Ambrosino, "Ar. Nub. 46s. (Il matrimonio di Strepsiade e la democrazia ateniense)," Mcr 21/22 (1986/7) 95-127.
    • S. Byl, "Pourquoi Aristophane a-t-il intitulé sa comédie de 423 les Nuées?," RHR 204 (1987) 239-48.
    • J. Tomin, "Socratic Gymnasium in the Clouds," Symbolae Osloenses 62 (1987) 25-32.
    • R. K. Fisher, "The Relevance of Aristophanes: A New Look at Clouds," Greece and Rome 35 (1988) 23-8.
    • H. Tarrant, "Midwifery and the Clouds," Classical Quarterly 38 (1988) 116-22.
    • H. Tarrant, "Alcibiades in Aristophanes' Clouds I and II," Ancient History 19 (1989) 13-20.
    • E. C. Kopff, "The Date of Aristophanes' Nubes II," American Journal of Philology 111 (1990) 318-29.
    • R. D. Griffith, "Strepsiades' Bedroom, Wife, and Sufferings: Three Notes on the Prologue of Aristophanes' Clouds," Prometheus 19 (1993) 135-42.



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