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

By Daphne Elizabeth O'Regan | Go to book overview

5
Aristophanes' Failures -- The Parabasis:
Lines 510-626

In spite of theoretical misgivings and dissonances, at the moment of Strepsiades' disappearance into the Thinkery, things look good, and the chorus' subsequent praise (510-17) encourages us further. Perhaps the awkward combination of comic man and philosopher may work out well, at least for our hero. Such expectations are reinforced both by the rules of comedy (where the hero normally procures complete satisfaction, often through unorthodox, not to say immoral, means) 1 and by the spectacles of the Knights and the Acharnians. These plays, as well as the Birds, portray skillful speech, however comically interpreted, as central to individual power and impunity in Athens. 2 We may not like it, it may not seem particularly edifying, but we confidently await Strepsiades' success, anticipating that such doubts as the comedy has already raised will remain a thought-provoking shadow, rather than a barrier, to the expected progress of the plot.

The intrusion of the parabasis at this crucial moment gives the first concrete hint that such is not to be. The failures recounted in its various parts -- of "Aristophanes" and his sophisticated first Clouds, of the comic clouds/chorus, and of the moon -- are jarring and contrast strongly with the expectations built up by the first part of the play. 3 Most obviously, Strepsiades' future is threatened. The audience that failed to appreciate the novel creations and verbal power of the first Clouds does not differ significantly from that which will judge political oratory and judicial pleading, the object of the sophists' teachings. The failure of such a "sophistic" play is worrying for the future of the sophistic speakers in ours. But there is more at stake than the power of rhetoric. For following the story of the first Clouds is a startling new accusation of neglect made by the clouds/chorus itself. Speaking in terms that leave no doubt about the reference to the thunderous comic omens of the Knights, the clouds paradoxically charge that this wildly popular play was a failure too -- although winning first prize, it had no noticeable effect on its hearers. Apparently even "successful" speech is disturbingly impotent when it comes to action in the real world. And supposedly divine or natural regulatory phenomena do not fare much better. The parabasis ends with the picture of the irrelevance of the phases of the moon to Athenian legal and religious "rites" alike.

The parabasis as a whole thus refracts the drama's thematic preoccupations through a new lens, using the vicissitudes of comic logos to paint an increasingly

-67-

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