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Ancient Tragedy, Greece and Rome

Andrew Scholtz, Instructor

Ancient Tragedy, Study Guide. . .

Euripides Cyclops

Text Access

Euripides. 10 Plays. Trans. Paul Roche. New York: Signet Classic, 1998. Print.

Journal Prompt

More critical-thinking, counter-intuititive reflection - that sort of thing. . . .

Now, Euripides' Cyclops is a satyr drama, generic markers for which are mentioned in the next section.

So it's supposed to be funny, though technically, it's not comedy. What I'd like to know is, does the resemblance to tragedy go beyond superficial features as per below? Are there things about this particular satyr drama (the only one to have survived complete) that, at a deeper level, suggest tragedy, whether in terms of general mood, theme, treatment, etc.? Can, in other words, tragedy be funny and still be tragedy? If so, will this be what "funny tragedy" will look like. If not, why not? What is tragedy, anyway?

Play Facts

This is a satyr drama, the fourth in the usual set of four plays produced by a given tragic playwright for performance on a single day. In form it is very like a tragedy (prologue, parodos, episodes, agon, stasima, exodos). Still, it matters that it's meant to evoke a lot of belly laughs, indeed, to appeal to a rather puerile, arguably male-centered mentality. In that respect, at least, it won't be much like any tragedy you'll have read, though maybe the dress-up scene in Bacchae is somewhat similar.

It was composed after 411, and probably produced in 408 BCE. It dates, in other words, from the end of Euripides' life. We do not, alas, know how it and the other plays (whatever they were) in its tetralogy placed in competition.

Situation

This play is a burlesque upon the story told in book 9 of Homer's Odyssey of how the Greek hero Odysseus, homeward bound from the sack of Troy, was captured by, and then escaped from, Polyphemus, son of the sea god Poseidon and a not very hospitable Cyclops — a monstrous being with but one eye in the middle of his forehead.

Into this treatment of the myth, Euripides has introduced a band of young and lusty Satyrs with their father, Silenus. Like Odysseus, they have been blown off course: they're on a mission to save Dionysus (aka Bacchus, Bromios "The Roarer," etc.), god of wine and their true master, who has been kidnapped by Lydian pirates. Having put in at Aetna, a volcano on the island of Sicily, they've been taken prisoner by this same Cyclops, who has put them to work tending house and the monster's animals.

Satyr
Satyr

Characters

Chorus of Satyrs: Part human, part horse (horse-goat?), children of Silenus, the satyrs form an important part of the retinue (the thiasos) of Dionysus, their leader.

Dionysus: Aka Bacchus, Evoeus (both related to the cry, "Evoe Bacche!" "Hey Ho Bacchus!") , Bromios ("The Roarer," i.e., Dionysus as bull). Not actually a character in the play, more like a constantly felt presence-absence. Dionysus is the god of wine; of socializing, carousing, losing your inhibitions, your sense of separateness; of the erasure of borders (social, gender-related, etc.), of fertility; OF DRAMA. Silenus and the Satyrs are his followers: they are trying to be reunited with him.

Silenus: He is an old satyr - old enough to be the father of the young satyrs making up the chorus. In some ways he is like the chorus leader, but without actually being the chorus leader. He is in between being a separate character in his own right, and a member of the chorus

Polyphemus: The huge, monstrous Cyclops (one-eyed giant) of the play's title. He lives in a cave on the island of Sicily (near Mount Aetna, on the east coast of the island) - doesn't get out much, not much interested in religion. But he's a clever fellow: skillful with words. Also, he has a yen for human flesh, among other things . . .

Odysseus: He's headed home from the Trojan War. He got blown off course, though; arriving at the cave of the Cyclops, he's seeing what provisions he can pick up there by hook or by crook. Here, as in Euripides' Iphigenia, Odysseus is presented as the son of the evil trickster Sisyphus rather than of Laertes, as in Homer's Odyssey.

Further Questions

  • How do you, a modern-day audience member, respond to Euripides' Cyclops?
    • Do you
      • like/dislike
      • stomach/find repugnant
    • the crudity and cruelty of the humor? Why or why not?
  • How do you respond to particular characters . . .
    • Odysseus?
    • Polyphemus?
    • Silenus?
    • The Satyrs?
  • How do you think an ancient audience would have responded? Why?
  • What, if any, "Euripidean" features do you find here? Possible other connections with readings for our class?

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