Troy’s Revenge, with the Tragedy of Polyphemus

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Henry Chettle (1599)


Historical Records

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe's Diary)

F. 53v. (Greg I.102)

Lent vnto samvell Rowley the 16 of febreary
1598 to lend in p[ar]te of payment vnto harye
chettell vpon his boocke of polefemos . . . . xxs

Lent vnto Thomas downton the 27 of febreary
1598 to paye vnto harey cheattell in fulle
payment for a playe called Troyes Revenge
wth the tragedy of polefeme the some of fyftye
shellenges & strocken of his deatte wch he owes
vnto the company fyftye shelenges more . . . ls

Payments, Miscellaneous (Henslowe's Diary)

F. 61 (Greg I.105)

Hary cheattell hath strocken of his deate
as foloweth 1598 vnto the companye [...]
pd of his deate in his boocke of polefeme . . . ls

F. 64v (Greg I.112)

Lent vnto the littell tayller the 4 of
octobre 1599 to bye diuers for the play
of polefeme the some of . . . viijs

Theatrical Provenance

The play was acquired in early 1599 by the Admiral’s Men, presumably for performance at the Rose.

Probable Genre(s)

Classical Legend (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues


The character of the Sicilian Cyclops descends from two distinct depictions of him in ancient Greek texts: the man-eating Polyphemus of Homer who terrorizes Odysseus’s crew and the pastoral Polyphemus of Theocritus in love with the nymph Galathea. By 1599, there was no published English translation of the Odyssey. However, Homer’s epic account of Polyphemus was directly paralleled (and readily accessible) in Book 3 of Virgil’s Aeneid, when the Trojans led by Aeneas discover the Greek Achaemenides on Sicily, abandoned by his Ithacan comrades and eking out his survival by feeding on wild plants. Achaemenides’s story to the Trojans preserves the outlines of the Homeric version with its gory depiction of Polyphemus as a man-eater and Ulysses’s escape by blinding his captor. According to Achaemenides, Ulysses waited until Polyphemus, sated with food and wine, fell asleep and then stabbed his eye as an act of revenge for his devoured friends. The story is interrupted at this point by the appearance of Polyphemus himself, causing the Trojan crew to flee. As such, Virgil’s account of the narrative is fragmentary and leaves out many details of the familiar Homeric story: the Ithacans’ optimistic approach; their exploration of Polyphemus’s cave, eating his food; the desire to leave voiced by Odysseus’s crew; Odysseus’s supplication for hospitality and Polyphemus’s blasphemous reproof; the dilemma of needing to keep Polyphemus alive to remove the boulder blocking the cave’s entrance; Odysseus’s identification as “No Man,” and the Cyclops’s promise to eat him last; the escape of the Ithacans under the bellies of his flock; Polyphemus’s address to the ram to whom Odysseus clings; and the escaped Odysseus’s final vaunt.

The other relevant Greek version of Polyphemus comes from Theocritus’s pastoral poetry, in which the Cyclops appears as a lovesick shepherd infatuated with the nymph Galatea. He is alluded to in Idyll 6, but is given a major role in Idyll 11, which may have been accessible to Chettle in a 1586 English translation. Theocritus’s Polyphemus is decidedly un-Homeric. In Idyll 11 his love causes him to neglect his flocks as he spends the day in therapeutic song: “O Galatea faire, why dost thou shun thy louer true? / More tender than a Lambe, more white than cheese when it is new…” (1586 trans., sig. A4r). He is at once aware that his own uncomely visage is the cause of Galatea’s fear (“Because vpon my front, one onlie brow, with bristles strong […] Nethe which, one eie, and on my lips a hugie nose there standes”), while optimistic that he might still win her. In a series of ironic allusions, Theocritus makes it clear that this is the same Polyphemus who will be blinded at the hand of Odysseus, although the epic narrative is deliberately kept out of frame.

These two different depictions of the Sicilian Cyclops are synthesized in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which offers extended accounts of both the Homeric-Virgilian and the Theocritean versions of the character. In Book 14, Ovid picks up where Virgil left off: Achaemenides, already having been taken aboard by the Trojans, recounts his story to Neritian Macareus, an Ithacan who had previously escaped from the Cyclops’ island with Ulysses. Here Achaemenides tells of Polyphemus’s man-eating violence and his anger at the escape of the Ithacan crew, throwing a boulder at the departing ship, and cursing them in their absence. As such, Ovid fleshes out the narrative of Polyphemus in the wake of the Ithacans’ escape, although some of the most memorable elements of the Odyssean story as told by Homer are still left out. Book 13 of the Metamorphoses includes Ovid’s elaboration on the Theocritean Polyphemus, when Galathea relates the tragic story of his envy at her love for Acis. Although the story is narrated by the nymph, Ovid interpolates his own adaptation of Idyll 11, as Polyphemus laments his infatuation, before deciding to take revenge. Ovid’s overriding impulse in this episode is to make the Theocritean Polyphemus more Homeric. The violence that characterizes his murder of Acis is consistent with the boulder-throwing Cyclops of the Odyssey, and Ovid even has Polyphemus’s fate adumbrated in a prophecy by the augur Telemus. (In the sixteenth century, Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia attempts to reconcile the two Greek versions in a different way, by imagining Polyphemus singing love songs to Galathea even after his blindness: see Sonnet X.)

The two major classical strands of the Polyphemus story both remained current in medieval literature that may have been accessible to Chettle: Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (Chaucer’s translation of which was reprinted in 1598) describes Ulysses’s revenge by blinding (Book 5, Metre 7), while Gower’s Confessio Amantis cites the Acis and Galatea story as a cautionary tale about Envy (Book 2). A very different version of the Polyphemus story, however, is found in Lydgate’s Troy Book (printed 1515 and 1555), which is based on the version of the story given by Guido delle Colonne, although modified by Lydgate with classical sources in mind. In Guido’s account, Polyphemus is neither a cyclops nor a giant; Lydgate, who recognizes Polyphemus from Ovid, attempts to adjust his story to accommodate details from the Metamorphoses, resulting in a strange hybrid. In Lydgate’s version, Ulixes and his crew are cast ashore at Sicily, where he is abused by the two cruel kings Sorigenes and Coclopas, and their sons “Alipham, that was ful large and longe, / And Polipheme y[e] mighty gianut [sic] stronge” (sig. B3v). While imprisoned, Ulixes’s brother Alphenor falls in love with Polipheme’s sister and, when Polipheme relents and frees the captives six months later, Alphenor steals the girl. The Greeks are pursued by Polipheme and his knights until, surrounded, Ulixes’s only choice is to blind his pursuer: “To fle death shortly for to sayne, / While this giaunt most fiersly on me set, / With my sworde out his eye I smet.” Lydgate also interpolates a short account of Ovid’s version, with the blinded Polyphemus madly seeking revenge on Ulysses (“Thus sayth Ovide in conclusion; / In his boke of transformacion”). It is perhaps possible that Lydgate’s version might have influenced Chettle’s play.

Besides these major classical and medieval versions of the story, allusions to Polyphemus may have provided more material for Chettle, including details from Homer not included in the Latin sources. Sir Thomas Eliot’s 1532 translation of Plutarch’s essay on the education of children (traditionally the first of the Moralia) interpolated a summary of the story following an anecdote about "One Theocrite a philsopher" who insulted King Antigonus, blind in one eye, by comparing him to the Cyclops (sig. E2v-F1r). After mentioning the philosopher’s unfortunate end, Eliot recounts the Homeric version of the Polyphemus story so "that the taunt or rebuke gyuen by Theocrite may the better be vnderstande." (The digression is not in Plutarch.) Eliot’s version differs significantly from Homer’s but also preserves crucial details not present in the Latin texts. In Eliot, Polyphemus is the captain of the Cyclopses (as opposed to the anti-social loner in the Odyssey); the unlucky members among Greek crew are shared and consumed by multiple giants, not just Polyphemus alone; Ulysses, recognizing his danger, charms the Cyclops with his famous mellifluousness:

he with most swete & delectable wordes appesed the rage of Polyphemus the giante / that toke him, who heringe the wonderfull eloquence of Vlisses, demanded of him his name, and he answered, that he was called Noman. The giant delited & had moche pleasure at the beautie and eloquence of Vlisses, whiche he perceiuinge, gaue vnto the giant a delectable potion, wherof he toke suche abundance, that he became therwith dronke, and fell into a deed [sic] & heuy slepe…

Here, Ulysses’s famous trick of identifying himself as “No Man” is taken from Homer, although his rapport with Polyphemus departs somewhat from the Homeric account. (The detail may be either an incorporation of one of Ulysses’s most celebrated skills, or a kind of inverted reflection of Plutarch’s anecdote counseling restraint in speech.) Eliot’s version follows through with the punchline to the “No Man” joke (his answer to the other giants’ question of who is responsible for his wounds), but again departs from Homer by having Polyphemus awake after Ulysses has already escaped and madly pursue the Greeks into the sea until he drowns.

A number of associations attend allusions to Polyphemus in Renaissance writing, which may have influenced Chettle’s depiction. Predictably, the Cyclops is occasionally mentioned with reference to his great size: “Giants as big as hugy Polypheme” (Marlowe, 2 Tamburlaine, 1.1). He also appears associated with drunkenness (Batman, sig. E3v) and, based on his refutation of gods' power in the epic texts, with blasphemy (e.g. Greene, “A briefe Apologie,” fol. 1r). King James, while still just James VI of Scotland, compared Philip II to Polyphemus in the year of the Armada (Hay 65, 69). Cicero in Tusculan Disputations, Book V cites the Cyclops’s speech with his ram as an example of poetic decorum:

But Homere, fayning Poliphemus to haue bene a rude, and a huge gyant, maketh him talking wyth a ramme, commending his good chau[n]ce, for that he could see to go where he woulde, and touche what he listed. And trulye, that talke was well applyed to such a person. For he was no wiser then the ramme, wyth whom he talked. (1561 trans., sig. E4r)

The association of Polyphemus with homely speech was also mentioned in the context of his pastoral love song: “And in the person of the selfsame Gyant is set out / The rude and homely wooing of a country cloyne and lout” (Golding, sig. A4v); “Polyphemus: who, though vast and rude, yet loued, (such is the force of loue) but loued like a lowte, such is the home-borne education of rurall clownes” (Fraunce, fol. 21v).

References to the Play

(Content welcome.)

Critical Commentary

Greg: "The title Troy's Revenge suggests a play on the fates of the Greek heroes, which would include the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus, though it is a strange incident to select as the central theme of a tragedy." (II.201)

Jenkins: "After a period of inactivity owing to his imprisonment in the Marshalsea, Chettle turned to for his dramatic themes to quite a different field—that of ancient Greek mythology. In February, 1589/9 he wrote unaided the tragedy of Polyphemus, and, including the sum of £2 10s. remitted from his debt to Henslowe, was paid six pounds for it. It was certainly completed early in the year, and the eight shillings laid out to buy properties for it on October 4th, 1599 point to a revival." (217)

The Admiral's Men's Trojan Plays

Five titles, all lost plays, apparently depicting the subject of the Trojan War and its aftermath appear in Henslowe's Diary between 1596 and 1599. In addition to "Troy's Revenge" of 1599, performances of a play called "troye" are recorded in June and July 1596 (fol. 21v); Chettle and Dekker were paid for a play on Troilus and Cressida in April and May 1599 (fol. 54v, fol. 63); payments to Dekker are recorded in May 1599 (fol. 62r) for a play called "orestes fvres"—a title which critics have interpreted differently (Hazlitt, Fleay, Haliwell, Greg and Gurr have suggested "Orestes Furiens," "Orestes Furious," "Orestes Furies," "Orestes' Furies" and "Orestes Furens" respectively: see Greg II.202 and Gurr 244); and payments to Dekker and Chettle for a play called "the tragede of Agamemnon" appear on May 26 and 30 (fol. 63r). (See Troy, Troilus and Cressida, Agamemnon, and Orestes’ Furies.)

For more, see the discussion under "Critical Commentary" for Troilus and Cressida.

For What It's Worth


There is perhaps a possibility that the depictions of Polyphemus as a lovesick shepherd in Theocritus and Ovid may have suggested pastoral elements in Chettle’s play. Although pastoral drama does not appear to have been an overwhelmingly popular genre on the sixteenth-century commercial stage, some relevant examples in the years around "Troy's Revenge" may open up the possibility. Sidney's The Lady of May was published in the 1598 folio of the Arcadia. The first performance of As You Like It by the Chamberlain's Men is traditionally supposed to have taken place between 1598 and 1600. (The most recent Arden editor even suggests a precise date of 20 February 1599 for a performance, if not the first: see Dusinberre 37.) The anonymous Maid's Metamorphosis was published in 1600, having been "sundrie times Acted by the Children of Powles." Most closely relevant, in July of 1599, the year of "Troy's Revenge," the Admiral’s Men paid George Chapman for a “a pastrall tragedie” and in December paid Chettle and Haughton for a play called “The Arcadian Virgin,” which Harbage speculates may have been a pastoral play. (Content welcome: pastoral subplots? influence of Lyly?)

Works Cited

Batman, Stephen. A Christall Glasse of Christian Reformation. London, 1569.
Cicero. Those fyue questions, which Marke Tullye Cicero, disputed in his manor of Tusculanum. Trans. John Dolman. London, 1561.
Dusinberre, Juliet, ed. As You Like It. Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series. London: Thomson Learning, 2006.
Eliot, Thomas, trans. The Education or Bringinge vp of Children, translated oute of Plutarche. London, 1532.
Fraunce, Abraham. The Third Part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch entituled, Amintas Dale. London, 1592.
Golding, Arthur, trans. The XV. Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, entituled, Metamorphosis. London, 1584.
Greene, Robert. “A briefe Apologie.” In Planetomachia. London, 1585.
Hay, M. V. The Life of Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester (1563–1626). Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1984.
Jenkins, Harold. The Life and Work of Henry Chettle. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1934.
Lydgate, John. The Auncient Historie and Onely Trewe and Syncere Cronicle of the Warres Betwixte the Grecians and the Troyans. London: 1555.
Theocritus. Sixe Idillia; that is, Sixe Small, or Petty Poems, or Æglogues, Chosen Out of the Right Famous Sicilian Poet Theocritus, and translated into English verse. Oxford: 1588.

Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, Reed College; updated 18 May 2013.

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