Strepsiades is in a twister. It's the 25th of the month, and he owes a couple of creditors more money than he cares to pay. To make things more complicated, his lazy, horse-obsessed son Pheidippides (named for his favorite animal, no thanks to Strepsiades' damnable wife, niece of Megacles that she is) is a leech, living at his father's house, even though he's well into adulthood. Then, a lightbulb flashes over Strepsiades' head: He will send his son off to the Thinkery, that wonderful school of rhetoric, and have him learn the fine art of bullshit. Perhaps, once the young man is armed with knowledge on how to win arguments, he will be able to shake the debts off Strepsiades' back. Of course, as both father and son learn, twisters are twisters for a reason and are not easily untwisted.
Aristophanes' Ancient Greek comedy, originally written in 423 BCE and revised some years later, was originally written for Dionysia, a festival honoring Dionysus, the god of wine and partying. It shows, no thanks to the humor, which is crude and at times scatological. It treats the viewers like morons, making a complete fool out of Socrates (who, although he is a Magnificent Bastard, was certainly not an idiot) and making fun of his profession. Perhaps that's why it was voted last out of three plays which were performed at the Dionysia that year. Nevertheless it's still performed; it's the oldest of Aristophanes' works that anybody who isn't a specialist has heard of, and so is quite possibly the oldest comedy still staged with any regularity.
The Clouds provides examples of:
- Affectionate Parody: Debatable: Socrates was accused of worshiping new gods and being a sophist in his trial, while this play shows him doing exactly that. It's hard for people nowadays to say whether the play was meant to be ridiculous or if there was some indirect accusations in it that Aristophanes didn't want to bring to court. At very least, it's Harsher in Hindsight but it might also be a massive Take That! that led to some younger people taking Socrates to court themselves.
- Barefoot Loon: How Socrates is portrayed.
- Bigger Is Better in Bed: Inverted. According to the play, if you're a good man, your penis will be nice and small. This reflects contemporary Greek values, which idolized prepubescent males (who aren't known for large penises).
- Disproportionate Retribution: When the philosophers fail to teach his son properly, Strepsiades sees fit to burn down the Thinkery.
- Gone Horribly Right: Strepsiades gets out of debt by turning his freeloading, parasitic son into a Manipulative Bastard and setting him the task of persuading his creditors to go away. He now has a freeloading, parasitic Manipulative Bastard of a son to deal with, and things begin to get worse.
- Good Angel, Bad Angel: The roles of Good and Bad Angel are played by a personified Right and Wrong arguments, who try to persuade the protagonist's son Pheidippides either to avoid or to enter into Socrates's sophistical "Thinkery," making this trope palaioteros apo to chôma.
- Heaven Above: The Clouds presents Socrates as an atheist who denies the existence of a god who throws thunderbolts in favor of worshipping the clouds who shit out the thunder. As a parody of Socratic philosophy, the idea of worshipping clouds, the sky, and other objects of study in place of the actual gods is Played for Laughs.
- Hollywood Atheist: Socrates and the sophists are portrayed as being atheists who don't believe there's any objective basis for morality, corrupting people with their philosophy. Atheism was among the charges against Socrates raised at his trial, possibly based on this perception (which he denied, while noting the contradiction in also being accused of worshiping new gods), and Plato portrays him as opposed to sophism.
- Metaphorically True: Socrates' teachings are based on relativity of everything and bending word meanings to suit one's will.
- NEET: Pheidippides starts as this before he goes to the Thinkery.
- Science Is Wrong: It's up to debate whether The Clouds is a diatribe against philosophy in general, or only against its excesses, but it certainly contains a very scathing portrayal of philosophical wisdom.
- Solar-Powered Magnifying Glass: The gods used a set of lenses to ignite the Olympic torch.
- Take That!: An example lost to time; Strepsiades argues that Zeus throws lightning to smite evil-doers, but Socrates retorts that if he did so, wicked men like Simon, Cleonymus and Theorus wouldn't be alive anymore. That'd be pretty funny, if they hadn't died two thousand years before you read it.
- Take That, Audience!: In a fourth-wall-breaking moment. While it differs by translation, basically, the personification of Right Argument suggests clean living is important because otherwise you'll have a radish shoved up your ass and people will think you're a sodomite. The personification of Unjust Argument then points out there must be nothing wrong with being a sodomite, pointing to all of the ones in the audience.
- Toilet Humor: At one point, Strepsiades is speaking to one of the students at the Thinkery, surrounded by kneeling students. When he's told that they are studying the reaches of Hell, he's quick to point out that their "third eyes" are facing the sky.