The Cyclops | Study Guide


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The Cyclops | Themes


Deception, Disguise, and Trickery

One common plot feature of satyr plays is a hero's triumph over a monstrous villain through cleverness and deception. The Cyclops takes its plot from events in Homer's The Odyssey, another work where characters are often in disguise, tricking someone, or being tricked themselves.

Odysseus is both clever and cautious, often concealing his identity. Deception is a skill he uses to defeat foes who are physically stronger, like the gigantic Cyclops. The Leader of the Chorus, who lacks Odysseus's brainpower, is impressed by the war hero's subtle plan and his use of trickery instead of brute force. By giving the false name "Noman" meaning "no one," Odysseus effectively adopts a disguise, though it's not a physical one. The trick works at first since the Cyclops has no idea who blinded him. Because the audience knows Odysseus's real identity they are in on the joke. This deception is an example of dramatic irony, a tension-building device in theater where the audience knows important information a main character does not.

Despite his physical fearsomeness the Cyclops is easy to deceive. Odysseus uses alcohol as part of his trickery, relying on the ability of strong wine to weaken the Cyclops's judgment. Moreover, the monster knows little about social conventions and thus cannot always tell when someone is lying to him. He trusts Odysseus implicitly when he arrives, putting more faith in him than in the famous justice, Rhadamanthus.

The satyrs, more cowardly and selfish than Odysseus, use deception and trickery to save their own lives. To avoid the Cyclops's violence Silenus fakes an injury and claims Odysseus beat him and stole the Cyclops's sheep. The Chorus members act enthusiastic about blinding the Cyclops—tricking Odysseus into thinking they'll be good allies when it's time to gouge out Polyphemus's eye.


Kindness to visiting strangers was a crucial aspect of the ancient Greek social code. Odysseus and other travelers frequently stopped at unfamiliar islands during long journeys at sea. They relied on residents for food, drink, and shelter. Visitors were suppliants or powerless people making pleas out of necessity. Their hosts were expected to meet their needs, especially since they might be travelers themselves someday. Hospitality or xenia showed visitors which strangers to trust. The gods strongly endorsed the virtue—Zeus, the most powerful of the gods, governed respectful treatment of guests. Anyone who violated the code of xenia faced punishment. Odysseus's confrontation with the Cyclops is one of the most notable abuses of xenia in The Odyssey.

A pious warrior who values tradition, Odysseus expects hospitality when he arrives on Mount Aetna. When he asks Silenus if the Cyclopes are reverent to strangers, he's trying to determine if the area is safe. Instead it is a hostile land without law or civilization where everyone protects themselves at the expense of others. In a grotesque inversion of the hospitality code the Cyclopes kill and eat new arrivals to the island. Though Silenus initially sympathizes with Odysseus and offers food, he withdraws his support once the Cyclops returns. Then he encourages Polyphemus to eat Odysseus first and spare Silenus's life. The Cyclops's own idea of generosity to strangers is a darkly comic one. Grateful for the wine Odysseus gives him, he offers to eat Odysseus last.

The Cyclops's refusal to extend xenia soon leads to his downfall. Odysseus points out that Mount Aetna is a part of Hellas or Greece, and the Cyclops is required to abide by Greek national custom. He also warns the Cyclops hospitality is a reciprocal virtue—only if someone offers kindness can they expect to receive kindness in return. Many of the choral songs condemn the Cyclops for harming rather than helping his less powerful guests. The monster's eventual defeat becomes a victory for justice; he gets what he deserves.

Perils of Pride

Hubris, or excessive pride, often topples characters in Greek drama. Humans who believed themselves to be mightier than the gods or stronger than fate, for instance, would be swiftly proven wrong. Both the Cyclops and Odysseus demonstrate pride, and both face consequences for their actions.

The Cyclops begins the play convinced no human or god can harm him. When Odysseus warns him of the dangers of hostility toward guests, the Cyclops insists he fears no danger from Zeus, the god of hospitality. In fact the Cyclops brags about his self-sufficiency—he doesn't need the aid of the gods at all. He claims he can keep himself fed and sheltered in all weather, even rain and snow. He believes the earth is there to serve him and provide grass for his flocks. Moreover, he considers himself superior to others because of his own divine lineage as son of the sea god, Poseidon. He even claims he's a god himself. When Silenus says Odysseus and his men stole from the Cyclops's cave, Polyphemus asks if they knew they were stealing from a god. In the end, however, the Cyclops can't protect himself from blindness. The play suggests his fate is a just punishment—the Cyclops may think he's invincible, but he's as vulnerable as any other mortal.

Odysseus's pride gets him in trouble as well. At first he seems like a warrior who is justifiably proud of his Trojan War victories. However, when he reveals his true name to the Cyclops in Episode 5—despite his earlier success at concealing his identity—he demonstrates a desire to be known and praised for his deeds. Instead he runs up against the tyranny of fate and vengeance. An oracle has already predicted his long years of struggle on the high seas. Poseidon, the Cyclops's father, makes the seas impassable for Odysseus to avenge the blinding of his son.

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