Excerpt from “Embodiments of Masculinity in Euripides’ Cyclops” by Jackson Barnett ‘18

Euripides’ Cyclops is a satyr-play: a distinct category of Greek drama separate from comedy and tragedy. Within this category, only the Cyclops survives. The Cyclops exhibits qualities of both comedy and tragedy, but, as Mark Griffith argues, although the characters are at some points comedic, there are significantly more consistencies between satyr-plays and tragedies than satyr-plays and comedies (Griffith, 163), such as the dialogue, the rhythm and meter, and the function of the chorus. In Cyclops, Euripides distributes qualities of masculinity among each of the three categories of characters in his satyr-play (and, notably, there are only male characters in the play): the satyrs, the Cyclopes, and the heroes. Because each type of character possesses unique (and sometimes extreme) qualities of masculinity, which are both good and bad, the audience’s self-identification shifts between the three types of characters fluidly throughout the play. The different characters interact among themselves and with each other, prompting the audience to relate to each of them in some way or another.

However, the conclusion of the play affirms that Odysseus is the character most worthy of the audience’s self-identification. Euripides writes in an if-this-then-that way, reminding the audience that certain performances of masculinity will result in specific outcomes, concluding that the hero’s outcome is much better and more desirable than the outcomes for the satyrs and the Cyclops.

Later, the Cyclops begins to drink — following Odysseus’ plan to burn out his eye. As he gets drunk, he makes several statements that are indicative of his personality and masculinity: concern for his brothers (“Shouldn’t I share the wine with my brothers?” [531]), arrogance (“I’m so drunk nothing could hurt me now” [535]), and desire for company (“But the man’s a fool who drinks by himself” [537]).  If the Greek men in the audience could not immediately relate to these characteristics of masculinity present in the Cyclops, it is likely that they would have been able to relate to the Cyclops’ homosexual desire for the satyrs, equating it to Ancient Greek beliefs regarding male prostitution. The Cyclops’ desire for sex with the satyrs overcomes him, and he says: “No, I couldn’t make love to you! The Graces tempt me! My Ganymede here [Silenus] is good enough for me. With him I’ll sleep magnificently. By these Graces, I will! And anyway, I prefer boys to girls” (581-584). Polyphemus then drags Silenus into the cave, presumably to rape him.

The aspects of the characters’ masculinity crosses boundaries fluidly, and the audience could potentially identify with many of the characteristics displayed.  The Cyclops Polyphemus is another very fascinating example of masculinity. When he meets Silenus and the Greeks, he exhibits a state of indifference of and independence from the gods:

      “I’m not afraid of Zeus’s thunder; in fact, I don’t believe Zeus is stronger than I am. And anyway I don’t care, and I’ll tell you why I don’t care. When Zeus pours down rain, I take shelter in this cave and feast myself on roast lamb or venison …. And as for sacrifices, I make mine, not to the gods, but the greatest god of all, this belly of mine!” (320-325, 334-336).

The Athenian audience likely would not have appreciated Polyphemus’ godlessness.  At some points, the audience might watch the satyrs and think about drinking wine at a symposium; at other points, the audience might think about Polyphemus’ lust for boys. At other points,  the audience might think of the heroic patriotism of the Greek men

At the end of the play, however, there is a clear answer for the character (or characters) with which Euripides wants the audience to identify. At the conclusion of Cyclops, the satyrs, whom Euripides writes as hypersexual and alcohol-obsessed beings, return to the servitude of Dionysus. In the last line of the play, the chorus recites: “From now on our orders come from Bacchus” (709). It is also important to note that the hypersexuality of the satyrs never experiences release. Coryphaeus says, referencing his phallus: “This poor hose has been a bachelor a long time now” (439-440). At the conclusion, the Cyclops is blind. The Greeks, on the other hand, return home, finally about to reap their reward for their heroic acts at Troy. “As for me,” Odysseus says, “I’m off to the shore where I’ll launch my ship on the Sicilian shore and sail for home” (701-703).

Euripides urges the audience to value the masculinity of the heroes and identify with them over valuing the masculine traits of the other characters in Cyclops. The Cyclops Polyphemus wanders through the play with several reprehensible traits: irreverence towards the gods, homosexual lust, and disrespect, among other things; and, at the end of the play, the Greeks and the satyrs burn out Polyphemus’ eye. The satyrs exhibit an unquenchable thirst for wine and an unmet hunger for sex throughout the play; at the conclusion, they return to Dionysus, likely to continue drinking more wine and having no sex. The Greek heroes, on the other hand, despite their arrogance and their extreme violence, end the play sailing home as heroes, undoubtedly preparing to be received at Athens with open arms. Perhaps Euripides suggests to the audience of Cyclops that heroic actions, such as the Greeks saving the satyrs from the Cyclops, are worthy of reward: heroic actions are worthy of reward, even if the attitudes of those heroes do not match their actions.

Euripides’ Cyclops leaves much to interpretation. It is the only complete surviving play within a category that is neither comedy nor tragedy; it wrestles with themes of violence, control, and masculinity; and it blurs lines between characters on stage and — by extension — the audience’s identification. The Cyclops raises many questions and answers few of them: but one element is certain. No form of masculinity present in the Cyclops is the right form of masculinity, and no form of masculinity is completely good. Despite everything, fortune favors certain masculine performances and punishes others; and the Cyclops suggests that performing acts of heroism is the route most likely to promise reward.


Works Cited

Euripides. “Cyclops.” Euripides II. Trans. William Arrowsmith. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1956. 2-42. Print.

Griffith, Mark. “Satyrs, Citizens, and Self-Preservation.” Satyr Drama: Tragedy at Play. Swansea: Classical of Wales, 2005. 161-99. Print.