Rhetoric, Comedy, and the Violence of Language in Aristophanes' Clouds

By Daphne Elizabeth O'Regan | Go to book overview

2
Setting the Scene: Lines 1-132

From the first moments of the Clouds, the audience is oriented in a comic world quite different from those of the Acharnians and Knights. As the Peloponnesian War is dismissed and civic problems ignored, 1 Strepsiades' opening complaint and his subsequent interaction with his son, Pheidippides, present us with a new kind of issue, language, its power, and the grounds for this power. Strepsiades is in trouble because he cannot speak effectively, while those who can, work their will on him and others. The examples of the matchmaker and Strepsiades' wife lead into the introduction of the sophists, 2 men who theorize a new heaven and a new earth and have devised a supremely powerful logos, mastery of which will rescue Strepsiades from his misfortunes. Comic convention, 3 as well as Strepsiades' assertions, prepare us to believe this. Language must possess the overwhelming influence that makes it the ultimate weapon in the struggle for survival. At the same time, however, that we are presented with this picture we are introduced to a comic dynamic that undermines it. From the beginning, the comic festival provides the arena where the weapons of comedy -- pun, nonsense, incongruity, obscenity -- can suggest, at first only indirectly, that there is something amiss with what we are learning about this sophistic logos and those who wield its power. 4

The Clouds opens with a monologue. All alone Strepsiades laments his fate. 5 No one will listen to him, and this is precisely the problem. Because his words command no force, he is beset with debts not of his making and he is unable to persuade his son to curtail his expensive ways. Moreover, this past ineffectiveness has now landed Strepsiades in further trouble: his irate creditors are about to take him to court. Once there, his inability to speak will surely cause the loss of his sureties. When Strepsiades tries again the same tactics that have already failed, ordering Pheidippides to reform, their exchange illustrates his powerlessness. Pheidippides is oblivious; the pleasures of horse racing and the immediate joys of sleep far outweigh his father's words.

When Strepsiades turns from his present problems to dwell on their origins, we learn more: Strepsiades is not only afflicted with ineffective speech himself, but he is beset by others who are excessively persuasive. This is responsible for his marriage, source of all his troubles. Agonized and furious, Strepsiades groans,

-22-

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