The Clouds is the only work in which Socrates plays a definite role that is contemporary with Socrates himself. Aristophanes first presented at the competition in the Dionysia festival in 423 BC. It came in last of the three plays presented, which seems to have disappointed Aristophanes greatly. He made some revisions of it, and our version of the play comes from that revised version. The play itself seems to have little to do with Socrates himself, and to be instead a general criticism of new movements in education. The nature-philosophy school of Anaxagoras (who had been charged with impiety and exiled fifteen years earlier) and the rhetoric-oriented approaches of the Sophists are particularly in view. Socrates himself was partisan of neither, and a critic of both, but he was perhaps an obvious target, since he did have associations with both: he had studied the thought of the Anaxagorean school when young, and regularly interacted with sophists like Prodicus. Plato has Socrates mention the play in the Apology, claiming it had done serious damage to Socrates' reputation.
You can read The Clouds online in English at the Perseus Project.
The Plot and Thought
The play concerns Strepsiades, a farmer with serious debts, and Pheidippides, his gadabout son. Strepsiades is considering sending his son to the Phronisterion (Thinkery), where Socrates teaches, to learn how to win lawsuits against his creditors. Strepsiades has difficulty convincing his son, so joins the Thinkery himself. While he's learning some of the recent discoveries of the school, Socrates shows up in one of the great entrances of all time, swinging in a basket overhead, where he has been among the Clouds. The Clouds, the only gods of the Thinkery, parade in. Socrates gives reductionistic, naturalistic explanations for things traditionally associated with the gods. Socrates and Strepsiades go inside the Thinkery and the Clouds address the audience, criticizing the Athenians for not appreciating the play the first time and attacking the politician Cleon. Socrates and Strepsiades come back, with Socrates quite put out by how stupid his new student is. After a lesson in which Strepsiades fails to learn grammatical gender properly, Socrates has him lie under a blanket to try to get him to focus his thoughts. This turns out as well to be a failure and Socrates refuses to teach him anything else. The Clouds insist Strepsiades bring his son to learn instead, which he does. Then there is a teaching demonstration between Better Argument and Worse Argument -- they argue back and forth about which is the most important, but Better Argument loses to Worse Argument because Worse Argument has managed to fill the audience with his partisans. (The standard charge against the sophists, found also in Plato, is that they taught the young to make the worse argument seem the better argument; so we get this represented literally. And note that Worse Argument manages to win not by argument but by manipulation of the crowd.) The Clouds then speak to the audience and demand that the play get first prize or they will ruin crops.
Later, Strepsiades returns to bring his son back home. They have a celebration, and Strepsiades starts mockingly dismissing his creditors. He and Pheidippides get into a fight over the celebrations, however, and Strepsiades emerges to complain that his own son beat him. Pheidippides also comes out and then argues that sons have the right to beat their fathers. Fathers, after all, are able to beat their sons for their own good; so it follows that sons have the right to beat their fathers, for their own good. If childhood is supposed to give the parent the right to do it, then equally, second childhood or senility is a good reason for the reverse. Strepsiades insists that the law does not have any provision allowing children to beat their fathers. Pheidippides responds that laws are made by fallible mortals, and everyone has the right to overthrow the laws by persuading enough people to go along with the action. Strepsiades replies that Pheidippides will beat his son, if he has one; but Pheidippides replies that if he doesn't have a son, then nothing will counterbalance his being beaten by Strepsiades. Strepsiades concedes the argument. Pheidippides proposes another advantage that will come if Strepsiades lets him beat him: Pheidippides then can also beat his mother. The Worse Argument that applied to the beating of fathers would also apply to the beating of mothers. This is too much for Strepsiades, who flies into a rage and curses Socrates, the Thinkery, the Worse Argument, and the Clouds. He insists that they go to the Thinkery to beat Socrates and Chaerephon, but Pheidippides refuses; he also refuses to show reverence to paternal Zeus. Strepsiades burns down the Thinkery for their impiety against the gods. Socrates and Chaerephon burn to death and the Clouds flee.
Besides being funny in its own right, the argument over whether sons can beat their father serves as a general summary of the criticism of the new education. Strepsiades essentially forces the education on his son, who mostly just wants to waste money on horses, because he thinks that by it he can solve problems in his own life. The education itself is focused entirely on success: it does not matter how you win, as long as you do. The Worse Argument dominates. Inevitably, this teaches Pheidippides to reject the traditional morality, not for good reasons, but simply because he can. He is actually able to get Strepsiades to go along with this -- until he goes one step too far, and awakes Strepsiades to the sheer danger of what is going on. What the education, focused on success above all, has taught Pheidippides is that he can do anything he pleases. And so, having reached a point where he is no longer willing to go along with the destruction of the old ways, Streipsiades rises up against the source of the education itself.