Critical note on the function of the Chorus in Oedipus Rex

As a Representative of the Citizens and of the Audience


In any consideration of Oedipus Rex, the role of the Chorus cannot be ignored. The Chorus used to be an inescapable part of ancient Greek drama, and its role was thought to be vital. The Chorus was a group personality consisting of twelve or fifteen elder citizens. This group wa not intended to represent literally all of the citizens, but. it did possess a representative• character. Oedipus Rex opens with a large delegation of Theban citizens before Oedipus’s palace, while the Chorus proper enters only after the prologue. Nor does the Chorus speak directly for the audience all the time. The Chorus represents the point of view and the faith of Thebes as a whole, and, by analogy, of the audience. Thus the -Chorus represents the citizens and the audience in a particular way not as a mob formed under the stress of some momentary feeling, but rather as an organ of a highly self-conscious community, something like the conscience of the race. –

The Chorus, One of the “Dramatis Personae”


In its entry-song the Chorus invokes the various gods and describes the misfortunes which have befallen the city of Thebes. With the entry of the Chorus, the list: of the essential dramatis personae is complete, and the main action can begin It is the function of the Chorus to mark the stage of this action, and to perform the suffering and perceiving part of the tragic rhythm.

The Choral Odes


The Choral odes are lyrics intended to be danced and sung. Each song represents one passion or pathos in the changing action of the whole. This passion, like the other moments in the tragic rhythm, is felt at so general or so deep a level that it seems to contain both the mob fury and, at the other extreme, the patience of prayer. The opening song of the Chorus has two themes: the plague raging in the city of Thebes, and the message from Delphi. Both these themes have already been dealt with in the prologue. But we do not here get any feeling of needless repetition: both these themes now become something much more immediate when presented through song and dance. A feeling of apprehension and fear is the dominant mood of – this ode in which a prayer for help and relief is offered to the gods. The second ode comes after Teiresias’s denunciation of Oedipus. The Chorus here pictures the guilty an as a homeless outcast shrinking from men’s eyes. The Chorus also expresses its feeling of perplexity in view of the accusations brought by Teiresias against Oedipus. The Chorus cannot disbelieve the prophet because of its respect for him, but it ëannot believe the prophet because of its respect for him, but it cannot believe the prophet either because of its respect for Oedipus. The Chorus is most reluctant to believe that Oedipus can be guilty of any evil. The conflict in the mind of the Chorus reflects the conflict which must at this point be taking place in the minds of the audience. The third song of the Chorus begins with the reverence which the Chorus feels for the laws framed by the gods. It then speaks of the “hubris” or pride which is a hateful characteristic of a tyrant. This ode, apart from emphasizing the importance of religion and religious obseriances, indirectly accuses both Oedipus and Jocasta of the fault of pride. Whether the Chorus consciously accuses Oedipus and Jocasta of the pride which could
– lead them to tyranny, is not quite clear but the audience is in any case made conscious of this defect in the character of the King and the Queen. In its fourth song the Chorus speculates upon the divine origin of Oedipus. This ode is fraught with tragic irony because while the Chorus, like Oedipus himself, is ignorant of the true parentage of Oedipus, Jocasta and the audience have become aware of it. The last song of the Chorus expresses the idea that human happiness is short-lived, the fate of Oedipus being a clear illustration of this idea. This is a mOst pessimistic song: it is a song of despair, though the play itself does not end on a note of despair. Thus the various songs show the changing moods of the Chorus and, to a large extent, of the audience. The Chorus is not just a spectator but a commentator which takes notice of the changing situations and developments and expresses its reactions to them mostly in the form of songs. The songs of the Chorus take the shape sometimes of an invocation, sometimes a prayer, sometimes a wish, sometimes a lament, sometimes an expression of joy or grief.

The Chorus as the Upholder of Religious Piety


The role of the Chorus as the upholder of religious piety and sanctity is noteworthy. The Chorus in its songs expresses a consistent reverence for the gods, and it expresses an unfaltering faith in the oracles. It deplores and condemns the general decline in religion and prays to the gods to restore people’s faith in the oracles and in religious observances. It advocates a strict adherence to laws framed by the gods. In short, the Chorus is a champion of religious sanctity and it draws, too, moral lessons from the various happenings as, for instance, the lesson, drawn from the scene of discovery, that human happiness is short-lived.

The Participation of the Chorus in the Dialogue


The songs are not the only medium through which the Chorus expresses its reactions to the changing and developing plot. The Chorus also sometimes takes part in the dialogue and, therefore, in the action even though it is unable to influence the course of events in any appreciable manner. After Oedipus has proclaimed his purpose of tracing Laius’s murderer and has uttered a curse upon the criminal, the Chorus expresses the view that the oracle should have indicated the identity of the murderer. When Oedipus replies that a god cannot be compelled to speak against his own will, the Chorus suggests that the prophet, Teiresias, should be requested to’ come and help in the investigation. As Oedipus has’ already’ sent for the prophet, the suggestion of the Chorus merely confirms the desirability of the course adopted by Oedipus and does not determine Oedipus’s decision. Later, when Oedipus speaks harsh words to Teiresias, and Teiresias has spoken angrily also, the Chorus tries to soothe both of them, saying that they have both spoken in the heat of passion. When, afterwards, Creon complains that he has falsely been accused to treason by Oedipus, the Chorus tries to assuage Creon’s feelings by saying that Oedipus spoke those words under the stress of anger. When Jocasta arrives on the scene of the quarrel between her husband and her brother, the Chorus expresses the hope that she would be able to compose the quarrel, at the same time appealing to Oedipus to withdraw the sentence of death against Creon When Oedipus persists in the sentence of death, the Chorus urges him not to discard an ally without proper verification of the facts To Jocasta’s question as to how this quarrel arose, the Chorus says that the trouble developed because of a “wild conjecture” on the part of Oedipus Thus, throughout this scene, the role of the Chorus is conciliatory. The effort of the Chorus is to pacify both Oedipus and Creon and to soothe ruffled feelings. In doing so, the Chorus appears loyal to the King but loyal also to the interests of the country. There is not the least touch of selfishness or any bad motive in what the Chorus says. Ultimately, under the pressure’ of the Chorus, Oedipus does withdraw the sentence of death against Creon. To this extent, but to this extent only, the Chorus proves effective in influencing the action. of the drama. Subsequently ‘the Chorus comments upon the mood of grief of Jocasta when she, having’ learnt the ‘real identity of Oedipus from the Corinthian messenger withdraws to her own chamber. The Chorus points out that the Queen has left in a state of “deep passion” and the Chorus rightly predicts that some “vile catastrophe” will emerge from what she is trying to suppress. Of course, neither the Chorus nor Oedipus is at this time aware of the real truth. In the final scene, the Chorus plays a more substantial part. The Chorus holds a dialogue with Oedipus, commenting on the latest evelbpment, expressing its horror and grief at Oedipus’s self-inflicted blindness, probing Oedipus’s mind with regard to his reasons for the self-blinding, offering sympathy and consolation to Oedipus in his misery, and emphasizing at the same time Oedipus’s sinfulness. According to the Chorus, it would have been better for Oedipus to die than to live in blindness In this dialogue, the Chorus does not influence the action in the least but its role as a questioner and as a commentator is valuable: through the questions which the Chorus asks Oedipus and through the comments which the Chorus makes upon the blinded Oedipus, we are enabled to know a good deal about how Oedipus’s mind is working. Both. the questions and the comments of the Chorus deepen the tragic effect At the very end of the play the Chorus announces the moral that “none can be called happy until that day when he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace.”

Providing a Change of Scene

It is also noteworthy that the Chorus occasionally provides a change of the scene which the audience is to imagine. During the scene between Oedipus and Teiresias, the attention of the audience is focused upon their clash and the scene is literal, close and immediate: before Oedipus’s palace. When they depart and the Choral music starts, the focus suddenly widens and the audience feels as if it had been removed to a distance. The audience becomes aware of the interested city ariind the bright arena.

The Manifold Uses of the Chorus

There are times when we feel the Chorus to be an encumbrance and wish that it were not there. On the other hand, the Greek dramatists realised the many important uses which the Chorus could be made to serve. It could expound the past, comment on the present, and forebode the future. It provided the dramatist with a mouth-piece and the spectator with a counterpart of himself. One of the mo important functions of the Chorus was to reveal, in its widest aid most mysterious extent, the theatre of human life which the play assumed. Even when the Chorus did not speak, but only watched it, maintained this theme and this perspective—ready to take the whole stage when the main characters departed. The Chorus also formed a living foreground of common humanity above which the heroes towered, and a living background of pure poetry which turned lamentation into music and horror into peace. It provided a wall separating the drama from the real world, and it served at the same time as a bridge between the heroic figures of legend and the average humanity df the audience The masters of Greek drama used the Chorus,. with eminent success, for the creation of atmosphere, of contrast, of escape and relief. Oedipus Rexillustrates this in an abundant measure. According to Aristotle, a Sophoclean Chorus is a character that takes an important role in the play, instead of merely making incidental music between the scenes as in the plays of Euripides.

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