38 pages 1 hour read



Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 422

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Summary and Study Guide


Cyclops is a satyr play composed by the Athenian tragedian Euripides, usually thought to have been initially performed in 408 BCE (or earlier). The play is a burlesque retelling of the myth of Odysseus and his encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus, also known from Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey, and explores themes of The Uses of Language, The Relationship between Gods, Mortals, and Mythical Creatures, and The Nature of Masculinity.

The only satyr play to have survived intact from antiquity, Cyclops has received much attention from scholars for what it reveals about an important dramatic genre.

This study guide refers to William Arrowsmith’s translation of the play from the third edition of the University of Chicago Press series The Complete Greek Tragedies (2013).

Content Warning: The play features references to violence, including sexual violence.

Plot Summary

The play is set beneath Mount Etna in Sicily, before the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus. The satyr Silenus takes the stage and, in a prologue speech, lavishly introduces himself and his many years of devoted service to Dionysus. He has been shipwrecked on Sicily with the other satyrs while chasing after Etruscan pirates who had kidnapped Dionysus. Polyphemus discovered the satyrs and took them captive; he sent most of the satyrs to work as shepherds in the hills, while putting Silenus in charge of his cave home.

The Chorus, made up of Silenus’s satyr followers, enters the stage now. They sing of their work tending to Polyphemus’s livestock, emphasizing the difficulty of their labors and the harshness of the surrounding landscape. They wish for the life they lost: drinking and reveling with their master Dionysus.

The first episode begins with Silenus spotting some men coming ashore. He speaks to their leader Odysseus, a Greek hero from the island of Ithaca who is sailing home after fighting in the Trojan War. Odysseus asks about the island and its inhabitants, and Silenus is eager to trade Polyphemus’s sheep and cheese in exchange for wine from the ship. As Silenus goes off to round up the sheep and cheese, Odysseus converses with the Chorus. Then, Polyphemus returns, so Odysseus, his men, and Silenus flee into the cave.

Polyphemus arrives on stage and demands to know what is going on from the terrified Chorus. Silenus finally gives up Odysseus and his men, claiming that they have come to steal from Polyphemus. As Polyphemus starts a fire and calls for his carving knives, Odysseus tries in vain to reason with Polyphemus, saying that he and his men wish him no harm. He makes a speech in which he claims that the Greeks have benefited the gods and their temples, and stresses the piety of helping shipwrecked sailors. But Polyphemus does not honor the gods and has no interest in piety. When he announces his intention to eat Odysseus and his men, Odysseus prays in horror to the gods. The Chorus sings the first stasimon (choral ode), describing Polyphemus’s feast of human flesh and hoping that they will not be eaten too.

In the second episode, Odysseus comes out of the cave and tells the Chorus that Polyphemus killed, cooked, and ate two of his men. Odysseus reveals that he has made Polyphemus drunk on wine. Now, he asks the Chorus to help him take revenge on their inebriated captor in exchange for aid in fleeing Sicily. They plan to wait for Polyphemus to fall asleep and then burn out his single eye. As Odysseus and his men return to the cave, the Chorus discusses the plan to blind the Cyclops in the second stasimon. Their song is interrupted by off-key singing by Polyphemus, who demands more wine as the Chorus tries to get him back into the cave.

Odysseus plies the Cyclops with more wine. Silenus, acting as pourer, tries to steal some wine for himself. Polyphemus catches Silenus in the act and orders Odysseus to replace him. Growing more intoxicated, Polyphemus becomes convinced that he is Zeus and Silenus Ganymede, the beautiful cupbearer of the gods. He snatches Silenus and drags him into the cave (with the implication that the two will have sex). In the third stasimon, the Chorus eagerly anticipates their return to Dionysus once they have blinded the Cyclops.

Odysseus gathers his men and the satyrs to blind Polyphemus. But the satyrs withdraw one by one, each one feigning an injury. Odysseus is left to put his plan into motion with only his men; The Chorus of satyrs stands by and sings an incantation. Soon the Cyclops returns to the stage, blinded and screaming in pain. The Chorus mocks him as Odysseus returns, revealing his identity and boasting of his triumph. Polyphemus recognizes Odysseus’s name, having learned from an oracle that Odysseus would blind him and would wander for many years as punishment. In the closing choral ode, the Chorus speaks eagerly of returning to the service of Dionysus.