The play is a satire on the workings of the law courts and of politics in general in ancient Athens, but uses anthropomorphic birds to represent jurors, scribes etc. in the system to parody contemporary politics without being seen to attack it outright.
The play concerns two human Athenians, Pisthetaerus and Euelpides. The two are disgusted at the corruption of the Athenian justice system, and by chance, come across an anthropomorphic Hoopoe, who had once been the famous mythical ruler Tereus. Together, they decide to create the perfect city in the clouds, called Cloudcuckooland, which is to be inhabited by anthropomorphic birds.
However, when Cloudcuckooland has been established, Pisthetaerus and Euelpides fall foul of the laws of the new city, which the birds enforce with zeal, to the point where Cloudcuckooland is entirely dependent on law enforcement to remain a functioning city. The two men, realising their mistake, struggle to find a solution to their dilemna as the birds continue with their overzealous practices.
- Pisthetaerus - a human Athenian
- Euelpides - a human Athenian
- The Footbird - servant to the Hoopoe
- Hoopoe - ruler of Cloudcuckooland, formerly Tereus
- A priest
- A ragged poet
- An oracle man
- Meton - a famous mathematician
- A statute seller
- An inspector
- 1st messenger - a bird
- 2nd messenger - a bird
- Iris - daughter of Zeus
- 3rd messenger - a bird
- A rebellious youth
- Cinesias - a famous poet
- An informer
- Prometheus - a demigod
- Poseidon - the god of the sea
- Heracles - a demigod
- The God of the Triballians
- Heavenly herald
- Xanthias - slave to Pisthetaerus
Several species of bird appear in the play in non-speaking roles as dancers, musicians etc. These species are:
The name Cloudcuckooland has since become a modern term for a state that is unrealistically idealistic and perfect in every way. It was also the name of the debut album of music band The Lightning Seeds, and was recently used to describe Washington DC under Barack Obama.