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an analysis of the play by Euripides

The following essay on the Cyclops was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 316-7.

It is impossible to determine the date of composition of The Cyclops. It contains no trace of any allusion to contemporary events, nor is it ever parodied by Aristophanes. The versification cannot be used as a criterion, owing to the peculiar character of the satyric metre, which differed in many respects from that of tragedy. The graceful finish of the language might suggest that it belonged to the same period as the Alcestis and the Hippolytus; but impressions of this kind are not very reliable, unless supported by other evidence.

The play, apart from its intrinsic merits, possesses an extra-ordinary interest for modern readers, as the sole remaining specimen of the satyric drama. It brings us into living contact with ancient customs and with modes of religious worship which have long since passed away. We seem, for the moment, to catch the real spirit of the old Dionysiac worship, with its mixture of fancy, and passion, and riotous indecency. The story is taken directly from Homer's Odyssey, the only innovation being the presence of Silenus and the satyrs. Odysseus is represented, after the Homeric fashion, as a brave and adventurous warrior, pious towards the gods, resourceful in danger, and staunch and faithful towards his companions. The gross and brutal Polyphemus, the drunken Silenus, and the cowardly and licentious satyrs, complete the picture. These discordant elements are combined with rare skill into a work of harmonious beauty. Odysseus, in the midst of his uncouth surroundings, conducts himself with easy yet dignified familiarity, neither descending to buffoonery, nor assuming a tragic solemnity. The tone of the play changes gracefully and rapidly from one mood to another, from humorous pictures of shameless treachery and drunken indecency, to earnest appeals and poetical descriptions. Throughout the whole there runs a breezy air of country life, and a suggestion of an idyllic existence passed in seclusion amid the flocks and herds, in a land of shady thickets, cool streams, and grassy slopes. The play has no exact parallel in modern literature. The combination of lively and serious incident recalls, it is true, the mixed character of the Elizabethan drama; and the vein of idyllic fancy has much in common with the pastoral plays of the Italians, and the romantic comedies of Shakespeare. But the extravagant licence of the satyrs is a unique and peculiar feature which differentiates the Cyclops from all other existing dramas, and places it in a class by itself as a solitary relic of remote antiquity.

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