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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


(tr. Jeffrey Henderson)

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Clouds

Title: Clouds
Author: Aristophanes
Genre: Play
Written: 423 BCE; rev. ca. 419/6 (Eng. 1998)
Length: 211 pages
Original in: ancient Greek
Availability: in: Clouds. Wasps. Peace - US
in: Clouds. Wasps. Peace - UK
in: Clouds. Wasps. Peace - Canada
Nuées - France
Die Wolken - Deutschland
Le nuvole - Italia
in: Las Nubes. Las Ranas. Pluto. - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • Greek title: Νεφέλαι
  • Edited and translated by Jeffrey Henderson
  • There are numerous other translations of this work
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Greek text

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Our Assessment:

B+ : lots of good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
BMCR . 11/7/1999 Ian Storey
The New Criterion . 5/1999 Donald Lyons

  From the Reviews:
  • "Jeffrey Henderson (...) has provided us with both a useful text and idiomatic, if prosaic, translation. It is certainly a work that scholars may use with confidence and may recommend to their students for consultation and, yes, for help with translation. (...) The introductions are too brief and do not direct the reader adequately. That to Clouds is only three pages, and while it does deal with the problem of the two versions and does introduce the reader to the “Socrates-problem”, Henderson does not discuss the poet’s motivation for the distorted picture of Socrates (hostile attack, essentially complimentary, indifference, comic exploitation), and there is no treatment of the volte-face at the end of the comedy." - Ian Storey, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Clouds centers around relatively few characters, the most prominent being father and son Strepsiades and Phidippides, famed teacher and philosopher Socrates -- and the Chorus of Clouds. Strepsiades is a self-described 'rustic', who lived: "a very pleasant country life, moldy, unswept, aimlessly leisured, abounding in honey, bees, sheep and olive cake" until he married a spoiled urban woman from a high-society family. He still has something of the country bumpkin to him -- but his current problem is a son who is obsessed only with horses and betting on them -- and the debts he's racked up.
       As the play opens, Strepsiades has come up with a plan -- pointing out the nearby academic institution, the φροντιστήριον (translated by Henderson as 'Thinkery') to his son and noting that there's something to be learned there that sounds like just the ticket:

οὗτοι διδάσκουσ᾽, ἀργύριον ἤν τις διδῷ,
λέγοντα νικᾶν καὶ δίκαια κἄδικα.

[These people train you, if you give them money, to win any argument whether it's right or wrong.]
       Phidippides wants nothing to do with these -- as he calls and considers them -- charlatans and refuses to enroll at the Thinkery -- so Strepsiades decides to check it out for himself and is soon eager to gain entry as a pupil in his own right, exclaiming: μαθητιῶ γάρ ("I yearn to learn !" as Henderson conveys his eagerness to become a disciple). Socrates takes him on, but of course these are two very different minds meeting -- not least with Socrates' head in (or at least focused on) the clouds, while Strepsiades isn't after deeper wisdom but rather just wants to learn some rhetorical trickery that will help him escape his creditors.
       Clouds amusingly satirizes Socrates' methods and the subjects he teaches, as Socrates struggles to impart his wisdom and his (godless, among other things) ways on this old pupil who remains narrowly fixated on his real-world problems and can't get the hang of what Socrates has to offer. When Socrates finally completely despairs of being able to teach him anything, and dismisses him -- οὐκ εἰς κόρακας ἀποφθερεῖ, ἐπιλησμότατον καὶ σκαιότατον γερόντιον; ("To hell and be damned with you, you oblivious, moronic old coot !") -- Strepsiades turns to the Clouds for advice, and they suggest he send his son to the school in his place. Phidippides is still not enthusiastic about the idea, but, after two of Socrates' associates, the arguments themselves -- 'Better Argument' and 'Worse Argument' (Κρειττων Λογος and Ηττων Λογος) -- debate between themselves as to their superiority, he is taken in (by Worse Argument ...).
       When Phidippides emerges from the Thinkery again, he's a changed man -- and, while Strepsiades faces down the two creditors who then come demanding their money, he soon comes to rue having educated his son (in Thinkery-ways, which have led the boy to abandon good old ways and traditional morals). The play closes with Strepsiades taking radical action as a consequence, now entirely convinced that the Thinkery is a deeply flawed institution which everyone would be better off without.
       Aristophanes has Strepsiades find that the biggest fault of Socrates and his followers is that they wronged -- by denying -- the gods, notably Zeus, but the play goes far beyond this in its critique. He mercilessly mocks Socrates' methods and arguments -- arguably hardly always fairly (the portrait of Socrates is at odds with the generally accepted historical record), but certainly amusingly, with the very full of themselves students and arguments easy pickings which Artistophanes has good fun with. The Socratic method of argument-in-dialogue naturally lends itself to the play-form, and Aristophanes shows a comfortable command in using it to good comedic effect: banterful though often very acid, Clouds is still very funny.
       As always, Aristophanes' wordplay -- like much comic wordplay -- is difficult to translate, but Henderson's version is solid enough. Even some good choices -- 'Boy, boyo' does hit the spot for παῖ παιδίον -- can be somewhat jarring, and it's hard to sustain an evenness of tone, especially with all of Aristophanes' very creative swearing, but overall the translation reads quite well. And there are some very nice turns, such as Henderson's choice for when Strepsiades explains to his son that he hasn't lost his cloak, that: "It's not lost, merely sublimated" (for ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἀπολώλεκ᾽, ἀλλὰ καταπεφρόντικα. -- which the previous Loeb version, in Benjamin Bickley Rogers' translation, had very awkwardly as: "It's very absent sometimes: 'tisn't lost.").
       The play-specific Introduction (as opposed to the longer one introducing the series as a whole) to this Loeb edition is very short -- just three pages --, and while to-the-point in its useful quick summary, more discussion would certainly have been welcome.
       Without a very complex plot, Clouds is a quick, enjoyable comedy, amusingly poking fun at Socrates and higher learning. A good little entertainment.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 November 2022

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Clouds: Reviews: Other works by Aristophanes under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Greek playwright Aristophanes (Ἀριστοφάνης) lived ca.446 BCE to ca. 388 BCE.

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© 2022 the complete review

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