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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Euripides’s play Cyclops is a retelling of the story of Odysseus and his crew mates being imprisoned by the Cyclops Polyphemus and their subsequent escape. This play, though written around 2,500 years ago, has a surprisingly modern tone, dealing with social justice and welfare issues.

The Necessity of Social Justice and Welfare

A central theme in the play revolves around the idea of social justice and welfare. The satyrs in the play are imprisoned and enslaved by Polyphemus, and he outright states that their weakness caused them to become failures who are unable to provide for and take care of themselves, so it is only natural to exploit them. Polyphemus espouses a very self-serving worldview, arguing that since he is successful, he deserves his wealth and prominence, and the satyrs deserve enslavement because they failed. Odysseus argues the opposite and makes the moral point that people deserve to have rights and not to be enslaved, essentially arguing in favor of social programs to support these individuals.

The Consequences of Dishonesty

Euripides explores the possible consequences of lying and whether or not those lies are justified. Several characters lie throughout the play, but the results are ambiguous. Silenus lies to Polyphemus about Odysseus, claiming he stole the Cyclops’s food. He isn’t immediately punished for his dishonesty but later has to endure Polyphemus’s potential sexual assault. Odysseus lies about his name to protect himself and his men, and this action is rewarded until he ultimately reveals his own name during his departure, which works against him. Lying and deception are common in the play, but their result is not clearly stated.

The Fickle Favor of the Gods

Euripides, like most Greek playwrights, is concerned with the idea of earning and losing the gods’ favor. Many members of the Greek pantheon are mentioned in this play, and many times they are entreated to give their favor or blessing to the characters. The story ends with Odysseus losing the favor of one of the most powerful gods, Poseidon, which causes great calamity throughout the remainder of his voyage. The gods are intimately active in this play and, indeed, throughout most Greek literature.

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