First, let's get the translation out of the way. I like it. A lot. These first two plays are translated by Arrowsmith, and he went to a lot of trouble to put the play in its context (with endnotes) and to modernize it as much as possible. Someone speaking in incomprehensible scientific jargon 2500 years ago won't sound like jargon to a modern reader, but like incredibly archaic, semi-mystical tomfoolery. Also, a good chunk of the humor comes from puns, most of which are untranslatable (being not merely contextual to the ancient Greek, but also to the people and places and events of Athens in the fifth century BC), so he either notes where/what the puns were or replaces them whole cloth with modern (ish, this was written in the 60s) English puns.
Now, a bit of info about Aristophanes. He was a crusty, curmudgeonly, conservative playwright. I'm tempted to say that affects the humor (because everyone knows conservatives aren't funny), but the fact is that 2500 years dates the humor a great deal more. It's hard for me to find hysterical the mockery of a notorious effeminate gay man. Also, fart jokes and dick jokes, though timeless, don't light me up. I'm also not a big fan of Mel Brooks. However, Aristophanes's conservatism does let me talk about a few things, like the fact that Ecclesiastes, with its criticism of the varieties of human condition, is also timeless. There is nothing new under the sun.
Aristophanes here criticizes Sokrates and the Sophists, also a number of things he disliked about "modern" Athens.
Sokrates and the Sophists, and the "new science" (my words, they don't actually appear in the play). The Sophists have become renowned for specious arguments, and this is the focus of Aristophanes's criticisms, and Plato later repeats them. Where Aristophanes and Plato differ is on Sokrates, who Aristophanes lumps in with the Sophists and who Plato places in an entirely different category.
Aristophanes believed that Athens had gotten excessively litigious, and that specious arguments were being used to sway juries to unjust causes. The parallel really couldn't be any clearer. Twinkie defense? Chewbacca defense? Anyone? Bueller? McDonald's coffee?
Sophistry is today used to mean "specious arguments intended to deceive", more or less, and sophists also charged money for education (gasp! like common laborers!) which was another black mark against them. In the play, Srepsiades wants his son to learn sophistry so he can get out of paying debts the son accrued.
He also attacks the modern science in The Clouds, and yet again we see the same argument still being made. The eponymous clouds are worshiped by the sophists as the actual cause of lightning, thunder, and rain rather than Zeus. Science is just a faith like science is, right? If you worship the clouds, won't they rain on your fields when they want?
The play centers on the "agon", or argument between the Old Education and the New Education. The Old Education, the traditional, would have been learning the myths and fables that instilled proper moral virtue along with regular exercises (gymnastics, basically) to give the wealthy young men of the city proper moral behavior and good physical form; ideally broad shoulders, a narrow waste, well defined musculature, and a small penis*. The New Education focused on rhetoric and resulted in (according to Aristophanes) emaciation, a bad attitude, and an enormous pecker.
The play culminates in Pheidippides using sophistry to prove it's logically necessary to beat up his father (a theme repeated in "The Birds"), following which Strepsiades burns down the Thinkery (Sokrates's house of teaching, a good modern translation of "Academy", which serves to distinguish it from the modern usage of the word).
Whereas The Clouds has a straightforward theme of condemnation of the modern practice of sophistry, The Birds is less clear. I think it may be a cautionary tale, because Aristophanes uses it to condemn a lot of the people he hates (disrespectful youths, scientists, polticians, imperialism) but he puts that condemnation in the hand of a protagonist who is practicing the rankest sort of blasphemy, which Aristophanes also would have condemned.
Two Athenians, tired of the bullshit Aristophanes hates (lawsuits, taxes, the then-current military expedition to Sicily) go to live with the birds. Upon arrival, they immediately convince the birds to form an Athenian city-state and challenge the gods for supremacy. They then beat up a number of people while engaging in some slapstick.
They beat up:
- A Prophet: Basically, a prophecy mongerer looking for a handout.
- Meton, A Geometer: He's given scientific jargon to spout and is beaten, presumably, for cowardice (he faked madness to keep his son home from war) and for his part in overturning social order (redistricting was a common tool used by demagogues to help control elections, and that was helped by surveyors, ie. gemoters)
- An Inspector: An agent of the Athenian government who profited from maintaining the empire.
- A Legislator: Another aspect of Athenian imperialism was the passage of many, many laws that were difficult for the client-states (and presumably ordinary Athenians) to keep up with, so professional law-men went around to help keep track of these things. Again, we have a modern reflection. "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
- A Patricide: A young man who hates and wants to murder his father. (Told you that would be coming back) Not actually beaten, but convinced to join the military instead.
- A Plagiarist: A terrible poet who steals other poets' lines.
- An Informer: A professional perjurer. A guy who instigates lawsuits against Athenian client-states, lies at their trial (in absentia), then collects the earnings against them. Portrayed as a vicious cycle. He's in Athens perjuring himself while they're at home, then he's at their place stealing their stuff while they're in Athens, too late to defend themselves.
Like I said, I'm seeing a lot of concerns from these plays shared in common by modern and ancient conservatives. Along the way, Aristophanes also took shots at illegal immigrants, draft dodgers, and politicians popular with the poor (usually his political opponents).
Remember how I mentioned blasphemy? Well, the guys who set up an Athenian style imperialism in the Birds (because the birds own the skies, they have the legal ability to tax commerce between men and the gods, meaning they control the sacrifices. This is a comedy, remember?) eventually ascend to godhead. I'm not sure where Aristophanes was going with that, as he was generally against imperialism, but had the imperialists espouse his own hatreds. So was it a cautionary tale? "Our imperialism can achieve great things, but don't get above yourself."
In the end, what I've taken from these, in addition to the occasional hurricane of puns is that conservatives haven't really changed much**. They prefer the old myths over the new science, the rich over the poor, and us versus them.
Next up, his next two plays: Lysistrata and The Frogs.
* Seriously. The ideal of Greek masculine beauty included the penis of a prepubescent boy. Don't ask me why. However, it does explain why Michelangelo short-changed David.
** I'm pretty sure that's not irony; conservatives don't change much because that's precisely what they don't do.