BMCR 2018.10.24

Euripides: Cyclops. A satyr play. Companions to Greek and Roman tragedy

, Euripides: Cyclops. A satyr play. Companions to Greek and Roman tragedy. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. xiv, 158. ISBN 9781474245791. $114.00.

Of the thirty-three surviving dramas by the Greek tragic poets, two, Euripides’ Alcestis (438) and Cyclops, were produced in the fourth position, after the three tragedies performed in the competition at the City Dionysia. Normally this fourth play would be a satyr-drama, a light burlesque of stories from myth with a recurring chorus of satyrs and their ‘father’ Silenus as an actor in his own right. But Euripides’ Alcestis, the fourth play in his entry in 438, has no satyrs for its chorus, nor is the comic figure of Silenus present. It is a curious play, set more in the world of traditional folk-tale than in that of the Olympians. It does have its comic moments, a scene with a drunken Heracles, and an ending of unexpected eucatastrophe, when Heracles wrestles Thanatos (Death) to win back the dead Alcestis. That leaves Cyclops as the only surviving satyr-drama, although we do have some papyrus remains of Aeschylus’ Spectators ( Theoroi) and Net-Haulers ( Diktyolkoi) and around 400 lines of Sophokles’ Trackers ( Ichneutai).

Shaw distils his earlier study of the satyr-drama to suit the requirements of a Companion,1 and has provided an informative and commendable introduction to what for some may be an unfamiliar and peculiar form of drama. His analysis argues that Euripides, in what some may regard as ‘a bit of dessert’ to follow the meal of tragedy, lives up to the clever standard that we associate with his more serious tragedies. The monograph falls into four roughly equal sections: an overview of satyr-drama and Cyclops’ place therein, a close-text reading of the play, a discussion of larger themes, and finally the play in its literary context.

In the first chapter (1–28) Shaw accepts, perhaps too uncritically, the familiar theory that the mysterious phrase ‘nothing to do with Dionysus’, cited by the Suda (o 806) and Zenobius (5.40), explains that satyr-drama was introduced to restore the presence of Dionysus in an art-form that had originated out of his rituals, but had turned to other subjects (‘so that they would not appear to have forgotten the god’ – Zenobius). This is a popular and pervasive reconstruction of the early history of Greek drama, but this explanation of ‘nothing to do with Dionysus’ has always seemed to me like a later scholiastic attempt to explain something that the commentators didn’t really understand. Scott Farrington has pointed out that the Suda, Zenobius, and Olympiodorus do offer another explanation of the expression that came from a painting competition in Corinth.2 Shaw does list Scullion’s article in his bibliography, 3 but does not take issue with three questions that Scullion poses: (1) with what god(s) elsewhere was drama associated, (2) if we did not know that drama at Athens was performed at the festival of Dionysus, would the extant plays allow us to draw that conclusion, and (3) was the location of the theatre beside the temple of Dionysus just a geographical convenience? I would add a fourth: do the extant dramas have any more to do with Dionysus than the Christmas pantomime with the birth of Christ? In other words, was Athenian drama primarily a religious event or a popular entertainment?

Shaw’s second chapter (29–63) will be very much appreciated by instructors and students new to satyr-drama. He keeps the reader’s attention focused firmly on the visual staging, especially scenery and costume, and on Euripides’ subtle use of language. He accepts (30) a raised stage—but see Rehm’s strong counter-argument here,4 and there is a minor error (30–1) in that the Odeion was located to the east of the seating, not to the west. For Shaw key terms to watch for are ‘friendship’, ‘slavery’, ‘dancing’, and ‘hospitality’ ( xenia). Linguistic observations include Silenus’ ‘I know the andra ’ (line 104) as referring to opening word of the Odyssey, so that his comment means in essence. ‘I’ve read the Odyssey ’. Certainly Silenus knows the variant version of Odysseus’ parentage (104), the satyrs know all about Helen and the fall of Troy, and even the Cyclops comments on the ‘disgraceful expedition for one woman’s sake’ (280–4). The triple negative in line 120, ‘no-one pays no attention to no-one’ is a set-up for the ‘Noman’ joke, which is played out at length at 672–5. The encounter between human and Cyclops is no longer human-meets-monster, for both antagonists are well versed proponents of contemporary ethics and theology. At line 450 the chorus tell Odysseus that ‘we have heard for a long time how clever ( sophos) you are’. Sophos is not a word used in Homer, but it was very common in the social discourse of the late fifth century. Finally, the absence of wine on the island allows Euripides to portray the inebriation of the uninitiated Cyclops as his entry into the Dionysiac thiasos (57).

In his third chapter (65–85) Shaw identifies and explores the recurring themes of the play. These include the prominence of Dionysus, a development of his interpretation of ‘nothing to do with Dionysus’, a metatheatrical awareness of the religious and dramatic nature of satyr-drama, and the guest-host relationship in which the Cyclops ceases to be a horrific monster, becoming ‘a gourmand and a philosopher’, while Odysseus reveals himself as a ‘cynical agnostic’ (83). While Shaw quite rightly points out the frequent references to Dionysus and his rites in this play, I am not happy with his larger conclusion that this was a feature of satyr-drama generally. Dionysus is a character in Aeschylus’ Spectators, but I can find nothing Dionysiac in the hundred lines from Net-Haulers and in Sophocles’ Searchers there is only ‘you cry aloud around the god’ (F 314.227) and the god whom the chorus call ‘our friend’ is in fact Apollo (F 314.76). Granted that ‘Dionysus as anti-hero’ is a familiar figure in Old Comedy, the scholiast to Peace 740 records also that Eupolis ‘created the starving Heracles, the cowardly Dionysus, the adulterous Zeus’, to which we should add Hermes in his many roles. Dionysus is not the only god of importance in satyr-drama and comedy.

The final chapter (87–118) in a Companion usually addresses the intertextual connections of the play in question. As with Old Comedy, satyr-drama did not leave a legacy like that of tragedies about Medea or Oedipus or Iphigeneia, and any subsequent Cyclopes in modern monster-stories are more likely to have been inspired by the Homeric original. The relationship between Odyssey 9 and Cyclops becomes a metatextual one when at 375–6 Odysseus claims that what he has witnessed ‘unbelievable things inside the cave, like mythoi and not the works of mortals’. Here he could have usefully cited Odyssey 11.362–9 where Alcinous declares that Odysseus’ tale, which includes the encounter with the Cyclops, is not the work of a deceiver but ‘you have told your mythos with the skill of a bard’. Shaw makes the attractive assumption that the deeds listed by Silenus in the prologue (lines 1–9) allude to previous satyr-dramas, rather than to the tales of the oral and visual traditions. He also finds reminiscences of the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, and the comic treatments by Epicharmus, Cratinus ( Odysses) and Callias ( Cyclopes).

With Shaw’s discussion (109–16) of possible links to later tragedies such as Andromeda and Philoctetes, we encounter the thorny problem of the date of Cyclops. Shaw entertains two scenarios: 408 (Seaford, Marshall) and 412 (Wright).5 Much has depended on the similarity of the ‘double-doored’ cave between ( Cyclops 707 and Philoctetes 19: with the later date the satyr-play responds to the tragedy, with the earlier one the reverse. But these attempts appear to start from one or two similarities, and a whole edifice is then based on a less than secure foundation. Arrowsmith used the similar blinding of Polyphemus ( Cyclops) and Polymestor ( Hecuba) to date the satyr-play to the mid-420s.6 My own preference is to look to the 430s, where Cratinus’ Odysses (likely 439–7), Callias’ Cyclopes (434) and Euripides’ Philoctetes (431) belong. Cyclops would fit well with the interaction between comedy and satyr-drama that Shaw sees as arising in the 430s (88–97). A strong argument against a later date is that 412 and even 408 are too close in time to the traumatic defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse. Shaw (83–5) argues that Cyclops intentionally represents the events of 415–413 in miniature, but given the reaction of the proboulos ‘be quiet, do not remind me’, at Lysistrata 590 to her claim that ‘women give birth and send their sons out as hoplites’, I cannot see that setting an ostensibly humorous drama on the slopes of Mount Etna would be well received in the aftermath of the disaster in Sicily.

This final chapter could also have considered afterlife through production. This works well for comedies such as Peace and Lysistrata, where stagings can be closely connected to contemporary events and attitudes. The Archive of the Production of Greek & Roman Drama in Oxford ( lists fifty-eight productions of Cyclops since 1868. Most of these were either performed in theatres in Greece or South Italy or in schools and colleges, but it would have been interesting to investigate how these were staged, for what audiences, and how the possible indecencies were avoided in school productions. In 2003 I did see an unusual production of Cyclops at a conference on satyr-drama at Xavier University in Cincinnati (APGRD 10426), where the choristers were all women dressed like males to avoid unwanted attention, the Cyclops a multi-bodied monster, and the whole performance set at such a slow pace that an intermission was required for a play slightly over 700 lines long.7

To conclude, Shaw has done a first-rate job of making this unusual and unfamiliar drama accessible to students, instructors, actors and producers. He has managed to tease a great deal out of the language of the text and the possible impact of the staging, and he persuasively demonstrates how Euripides ‘updates one of the most Homeric stories for the Athenian stage, rewriting an archaic myth to fit contemporary society’ (118).


1. Shaw, C.A. 2014. Satyric Play: The Evolution of Greek Comedy and Satyr Drama. Oxford.

2. Farrington, S. 2017. Paper presented at CAMWS, April 2017.

3. Scullion, S. 2002. ‘“Nothing to do with Dionysus”: Tragedy Misconceived as Ritual’. CQ 52: 102–37.

4. Rehm, R. 1988. ‘The Staging of Suppliant Scenes’. GRBS 19: 263-307.

5. Seaford, R. 1982. ‘The Date of Euripides’ Cyclops’. JHS 102: 161–72; Marshall, C. W. 2001. ‘The Consequences of Dating the Cyclops,’ in M. Joyal (ed.), In Altum: Seventy-Five Years of Classical Studies in Newfoundland. St John’s NL: 225–41; Wright, M. 2006. ‘ Cyclops and the Euripidean Tetralogy’. PCPhS 51: 23–48.

6. Arrowsmith, W. 1952. Euripides II. Chicago: 2–3.

7. Harrison, G.W.M. (ed.) 2006. Satyr Drama: Tragedy at Play. Swansea: xi–xii.