Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.10


Daphne Elizabeth O'Regan, Rhetoric, Comedy and the Violence of Language in Aristophanes' Clouds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. 216. $39.95. ISBN 0-19-507017-8.


Reviewed by Sheila M. Colwell, University of Washington.

Strepsiades, the hero of Aristophanes' Clouds, is doomed to be dominated by those around him. As he tells us in the prologue, first the deceptive matchmaker, followed by Strepsiades' aristocratic wife, his spendthrift son, and finally his importunate creditors, all have tempted, cajoled, and railroaded him into a course of action which has resulted in near financial ruin. Strepsiades' misfortunes are not yet at an end; later in the play, the audience will witness his humiliation when he is beaten metaphorically and literally by his disrespectful son Pheidippides, who has just emerged reeducated from Socrates' school next door. Again Strepsiades' downfall is the result of listening to others, in this instance to the duplicitous persuasion of the chorus of Cloud goddesses, who had earlier encouraged the old man to send his son to the Phrontisterion as part of a scheme to escape paying his debts.

In an ironic twist which Aristophanes might have enjoyed, scholars writing on this play have tended to focus on the intriguing figure of Socrates rather than on the deluded Strepsiades. Some would even argue that Socrates is the real comic hero of this play. In the Introduction to Rhetoric, Comedy and the Violence of Language in Aristophanes' Clouds, O'Regan makes it clear that her study will avoid such subjects as the relation of this comic version of Socrates to the historical person or the supposed anti- (or pro-) Socratic bias which previous scholars have discerned in the Clouds. Instead, O'R.'s examination of the Clouds is focused on the play's central themes, which she identifies as the status of logos in 5th century Athens, the function of rhetoric and the claim of sophistic rhetoric to possess an irresistible power of persuasion equivalent to that of bia. In O'R.'s analysis, Aristophanes dramatically tests these claims of rhetoric by contrasting the power of logos with the responses of the "generically comic 'natural' man" Strepsiades to it. As O'R. observes: "The result is highly damaging to the power of the word. For as comic man proves immune to speech, so the 'invincible' force of rhetoric is revealed as derived not from verbal technique but from an appeal to the appetites freed from all civic or moral constraints." So, while Strepsiades may finally receive top billing in this study, he still has to inhabit a play that O'R. characterizes as "obsessed with logos" in which the hero functions mainly as the comic foil to "contemporary rhetorical theory."

In Chapter One, O'R. cites the usual ancient authorities (Plato, Gorgias, Thucydides) whose work attests to the central status of logos in Athens. This chapter provides a clear discussion of the power of logos (particularly as political rhetoric), its relationship to peitho and bia, its role in the construction of the political community, and finally, its potential for destruction of that community if rhetorical logos is misused only to serve selfish and personal purposes. The following eight chapters are each focused upon the analysis of a particular scene of the Clouds. Through this close, at times nearly line-by-line, scrutiny of these scenes, O'R. admirably supports her assertions concerning the prominence of the themes of logos in this play. The author states that she chose this "linear form" of analysis in order to demonstrate the interdependence and evolution of the themes of the play and also to create for her readers a link to the experience in which the original audience "encountered and learned to appreciate our second Clouds." Inevitably, the scene by scene scheme breaks down occasionally, as when references to the agon between the two logoi suddenly intrude into the discussion of the parabasis. Generally, however, this book, in imitation of its subject, engages the reader in the unfolding plot while exploring the significance of jokes, puns, gestures, and speeches and effectively demonstrating how the scenes and speeches gradually build upon each other.

It is in the dramatic climax of this book, and of the comic plot as well, that the reader/audience is finally confronted with the result of Strepsiades' plan to escape his debts. We meet a Socratic Pheidippides for whom logos has become merely another form of bia -- a weapon both useful for the gratification of personal desires and lethal to social norms. Strepsiades is confronted with an ugly, violent world of his own making and his response is yet another violent outburst against those he blames for his final misfortune. In the finale of this play essential distinctions such as that between logos and bia are erased and as O'R. sums it up "Blows are preferred to words; debates turn to fights; philosophers are banished or killed." The Clouds' final vision of Athenian society might well seem to place the play in the realm of the tragic, rather than the comic.

Yet there is a comic saving grace to the Clouds, O'R. argues, stemming from the experience of the Athenian audience. In this study, O'R. has also set for herself the ambitious goal of uncovering Aristophanes' purpose in creating this anomalous second version of his first Clouds. The first Clouds came in last when it competed in the City Dionysia of 424/3; the revised version was, as far as we know, never produced. From a close reading of the second Clouds' parabasis, O'R. concludes that this revision of the play was composed in order to allow Aristophanes the opportunity to rescue his thoughtful comic masterpiece from that defeat. In this new Clouds, Aristophanes has mapped out a campaign to attack, reproach, persuade, and conquer his unappreciative Athenian audience. Granted, in the parabasis Aristophanes appears to express his frustrations with an Athenian audience which preferred the vulgar comedy of his rivals to the allegedly intellectual, chaste, and innovative first Clouds. Yet, as Hubbard points out in his recent The Masks of Comedy; Aristophanes and the Intertextual Parabasis, this claim to novelty is a common element of the comic parabasis. How literally or historically, then, must one take the second Clouds' parabatic complaint that the audience was not sufficiently appreciative of the first version of the comedy primarily because it was too intellectually innovative for them? Surely some irony or hyperbole might be at work here.

However, if one accepts the more literal analysis of the parabasis, it makes perfect sense that in the final chapter entitled "Conclusion: Our Innovative, Democratic Clouds" O'R. suggests that Aristophanes intends the audience itself to provide an extradramatic and properly "happy" comic ending to his play. Despite the bleak violence of the concluding scenes, this drama is no tragedy. Rather, O'R. argues, if the audience has learned properly "The knowledge and self-knowledge these wiser spectators bring from our second Clouds will help them assess all speech in the city. Aristophanes' true audience will greet logos with an alert and wary pleasure, appreciative of its power and of the grounds for this power, awake to the conflicting motives for persuasion on both sides, the intimate play of gaster and logos, appetites and mind, that informs speaking and listening alike." Since this book stresses the importance of audience reaction, I want to comment on O'R.'s use of a particular stylistic device; she often describes the supposed audience reaction to the drama using the first person plural: "we feel" "we laugh" "we are alienated." At times, I found myself rebelling against her assumption that there will be some kind of unanimous, negative reader/audience response to Strepsiades or his plots and misbehavior. In Chapter 3, regarding the Socratic curriculum, O'R. states that "Strepsiades' increasingly stupid and concrete responses must begin to alienate the spectators from him." Later, she uses this coercive first person plural to imply that the spectators will of course condemn his plan to escape his debts. While I admit Strepsiades' comic ambition is by no means as noble as Lysistrata's plan to stop the war, is it (in the end) any worse than Pisthetairos'? Is Strepsiades any more selfish than Dikaiopolis? I feel some sympathy for the old scoundrel; after all, his debts are incurred because of his wife's ambitions, her indulgence of their son, and Pheidippides' own self-indulgence in the gentlemanly pursuits of horse and chariot racing. Although O'R. argues that Strepsiades has cooperated with the forces which ultimately bring him down, and the Cloud chorus certainly will not let him off the hook, clearly Strepsiades is a victim of forceful persons more skilled at persuasion of various sorts and certainly more strong-willed than he at getting their own way. Yet by the end of the play, Strepsiades fits right into the Aristophanic paradigm of the tricky, aggressive and triumphant hero. While he may not succeed in escaping his debts, once his eyes are opened to the deceits of the intellectuals, this shrewd Athenian countryman at least does succeed in getting revenge. Yet, both O'R. and Hubbard have opted for a depressing interpretation of this play. I wonder if perhaps the heroic and martyred Socrates has insinuated himself too deeply into our minds. Might it be possible that only an audience composed of intellectuals finds it tragic when Strepsiades burns down the Phrontisterion?

Despite such objections, I found this detailed study of the Clouds both illuminating and useful. Anyone who works on comedy or teaches the Clouds will welcome this thoughtful treatment of such an important and complicated comedy. The author's responsiveness to the significance of both broad Aristophanic humor and his complex, subtle text sets high standards for the study of comedy which I can only hope others will follow. In contrast to scholars who have been all too willing to disregard certain sections of the Clouds or to dismiss them as the result of partial revision, O'R. treats the second Clouds as a complete and artful creation. In this book, O'R. fully vindicates her claim that, through a close reading, the second Clouds will be revealed as a work of "impressive thematic unity."