The Chorus in Oedipus Rex

The Chorus in Oedipus Rex

The Chorus in Oedipus Rex

The Origin of the Chorus

The word “Chorus” was originally used in ancient Greece to mean a place for dancing and singing. At the festival of Dionysus, the function of the Chorus consisted of singing the praises of the god and his achievements. Later, a separate actor was introduced, with whom the leader of the Chorus carried on a conversation instead of, as before, with his fellow-members. From this the dialogue and, with the addition of a second and third actor, tragedy and comedy properly developed. The role of the Chorus then became subordinate. Twelve or fifteen in number in tragedy, it held the place of an impartial adviser, commenting on the incidents of the play, but taking no part in the action.

The Function 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 dramatists realized the many important uses which the Chorus could be made to serve. It can expound the past, comment on the present, forebode the future. It provides the dramatist with a mouthpiece, and the spectator with a counterpart of himself. It forms a living foreground of common humanity above which the heroes tower, and a living background of pure poetry which turns lamentation into music and horror into peace. It provides a wall separating the drama from the real world, and it serves at the same time as a bridge between the heroic figures of legend, and the average humanity of the audience. For the creation of atmosphere, of contrast, of escape and relief, the Greek Chorus in the hands of its masters was consummately used.

The Decline of the Chorus

But the importance of the Chorus soon began to dwindle. More and more this permanent stage-crowd was felt to be a burden on the plot of the dramatist. The characters of Aeschylus had been huge, and even his Choruses of heroic stature The characters of Sophocles were heroic, and his Choruses simply human. The characters of Euripides become human and his Choruses are just half ghosts. And finally, Horace in his Ars Poetica thus sums up the function of the
Chorus: –

An actor’s part the Chorus should sustain
And do their best to get the plot in train:
And whatsoe’er between the acts they chant
Shall all be apt, appropriate, relevant.
Still let them give sage counsel, back the good,
Attemper wrath, and cool impetuous blood,
Praise the spare meal that pleases but not sates,
Justice and law, and peace with unbarred gates,
Conceal all secrets, and the gods implore
To crush the proud and elevate the poor.

After this we find the Chorus in the tragedies of Seneca, wailing, like phantoms, between the Acts. The Chorus that once had unified the plays now serves to divide them into Acts.

The Drawbacks of the Chorus

The Chorus produced some of the finest passages in ancient literature, but also some of the flattest Thomas Gray neatly points out the drawbacks of the Chorus. The passions àf the soul, says Gray, will not bear the presence of a gaping, singing, dancing, moralizing, wirnteresting crowd And he goes on to say “How could Macbeth and hs wife have laid the design for Duncan’s murder? What could they hve said to each other in the hail at midnight if a Chorus had been ere? Could Hamlet have met the Ghost, or taken his mother to task
– their company? If Othello had said a harsh word to his wife before they would have called the watchmen. The ancients were tually confined and hampered by the necessity of using the Chorus and, if they have done wonders despite this drawback, they would have performed still greater wonders without it.”

The Importance of the Chorus in Oedipus

In the development of the action as a whole it is the Chorus that plays as important a part as that of Oedipus. The Chorus holds the balance between Oedipus and his antagonists, marks the progress of their struggles, and re-states the main theme and its new variation after each dialogue. (The Chorus in Oedipus Rex is the element that throws most light on the ritual form of the play as a whole).
The Chorus, a Group Personality
1he Chorus consists of twelve or fifteen “Elders” of Thebes. This group is not intended to represent literally all of the citizens. The play opens with a large delegation of Theban citizens before Oedipus’s palace, and the Chorus proper does not enter until after the prologue. Nor does the Chorus spak directly for the audience of the time. The Chorus represents the point of view and the faith of Thebes as a whole, and, by analogy, of the audience. The function of the Chorus before Oedipus’s palace is to watch a sacred combat, in the issue of which they have an all-important and official stake, like the audience. Thus they represent 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. 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. The Sophoclean Chorus may be described as a group personality. It exists as a living entity, but not with the sharp actuality of an individual. It perceives, but its perception is at once wider and vaguer than that of a single man.

The Chorus to Mark the Stages of the Action

The Chorus enters after the prologue. It invokes the various gods and it describes the affliction which have befallen the city of Thebes.. With the entry of the Chorus, the list of essential dramatis persorn is complete, and the main action can begin. It is the function of the Chorus to mark the stages of this action, and to perform the suffering and perceiving part of the tragic rhythm. The protagonist and his antagonists develop the purpose with which the tragic sequence begins. The Chorus broods over the agons, marks their stages with a word (like that of the Chorus leader in the middle of the Teiresias scene), and suffers the results (expressing its emotions in song and dance).
The Choral Odes
The choral odes are lyrics; they are intended to be danced and sung. Each ode has its own shape—its beginning, middle, and end. But each represents also one passiàn 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 a mob fury and, at the other extreme, the patience of prayer. It is informed by faith in the unseen order of nature and the gods, and moves through a sequence of modes of suffering. This may be illustrated from the ode which occurs at the end of the Teiresias scene.

An Analysis of One of the Odes

This ode begins with images suggesting that cruel “Bacchic frenzy” which is supposed to be the common root of tragedy and of the “old” comedy: “In panoply of fire and lightning the son of Zeus now springs upon him.” The images are close to the savage emotion of the end of the fight. In the first antistrophe these images come together more clearly as we relish the chase. The fleeing culprit, as we imagine him, begins to resemble Oedipus, who is lame, and always associated with the rough wilderness of Cithaeron. But in the second strophe, the Chorus sinks back into a more dark and patient posture of suffering, “in awe”, “hovering in hope.” In the second antistrophe this is developed into something like the orthodox Christian attitude of prayer, based on faith, and assuming thp possibility of a hitherto unimaginable truth and answer: “Zeus and Apollo are wise”, etc. The whole ode then ends with a new vision of Oedipus, of the culprit, and of the direction in which the welfare of the city is to be sought. This vision is still coloured by the Chorus’s human love of Oedipus as hero, for the Chorus has still its own purgation to complete, and cannot as yet accept completely either the suffering in store for it, or Oedipus as scapegoat. But it marks the end of the first complete “purpose-passion-perception” unit.
The Change of Scene Through the Chorus
It is also noteworthy that the chorus changes the scene which the audience is to imagine During the scene between Oedipus and Teiresias, the attention of the audience is fixed 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 distanöe. The audience becomes aware of the interested city around the bright arena; and beyond that, still more dimly, of Nature, sacred to the hidden gods.

Revealing the Theatre of Human Life

The Chorus’s action is not that of passion but suffering informed by the faith of the tribe in a human and a divinely sanctioned natural order: “If such deeds as these are honoured,” the Chorus asks after Jocasta’s impiety, “why should I dance and sing?” Thus it is one of the most important functions of the Chorus to reveal, in its widest and most mysterious extent, the theatre of human life which the play assumed. Even when the Chorus does not speak, but only watches, it maintains this theme and this perspective—ready to take the whole stage when the fighters depart.
Moving to a New Perception of the Immediate Situation
The tragic rhythm analyzes human action temporally into successive modes. The Chorus, always present, represents one of these modes, and at the recurrent moments when reasoned purpose is gone, it takes the stage with its faith-informed passion, moving through an ordered succession of modes of suffering, to a new perception of the immediate situation.

The Opening Song of the Chorus

The opening song* of the Chorus has two themes, the plague raging in the city of Thebes, and the message from Delphi. Although both these themes have already been dealt with in the prologue, we do not here get any feeling of needless repetition: both thesethemes, vividly though they were presented through the dialogue, now become something much more immediate when presented through song and dance. It is not repetition but fulfilment. But the most interesting point is not so much the substance at the arrangement of this first ode. The two themes appear in the reverse order, first the message and then the plague. Sophocles follow this reverse order because it will make the transition from the prologue to the first episode more smooth. The Chorus enters on the stage with a note of hope on which the prologue ended, and the first ode closes on the note of apprehension and prayer with which the next starts.

The Second Ode

In the second ode, after Teiresias’s denunciation of Oedipus, the Chorus proceeds to picture- the guilty man as a homeless outcast shrinking from men’s eyes. Not until the ode is half over does the Chorus mention the prophet. This means that the Chorus has either not fully understoodwhat Teiresias said, or has understood it is so clearly that itis deliberately fighting down his disturbing suggestion.. But one thing is clear; the Chorus isbehaving like a person and not like a machine. According to one view, the Chorus in Greek tragedy commented on those things of importance which had happened since it had last spoken. But this view is not quite correct, because Sophocles did not write according to any formulas. This second ode is, however, immediately relevant to the situation and it is highly dramatic in that the Chorus postpones, as long as it can, the expression of the mental disturbance which Teiresias has caused. Further, the scene which is to disturb the Chorus, as much as the prophet has done, is introduced with the confident words: “Never, therefore, will I consent to think him other than good.” The long scene of Oedipus with Creon is broken by the entrance of Jocasta, and here the Chorus is used effectively. The quarrel between Oedipus and Creon shows Oedipus’s hasty judgment which will lead to the sentence of death for an innocent kinsman. The angry climax must calm down before the action can continue. – But -Sophocles does not wish Oedipus to admit his error of judgment. Therefore, to Jocasta’s plea is added the lyrical appeal of the Chorus. In this way Oedipus is made to withdraw the sentence of death against Creon, though he still thinks himself to be right in his assessment of Creon.

The Third Ode

The third ode offers some difficulty. Its first stanza describes the majesty of the unwritten laws. This stanza seems to be quite remote from the existing situation, for we naturally ask how the observance of these laws could haye saved Oedipus from marrying Jocasta about whom he does not have the faintest suspicion that she is his mother. Then the Chorus sings of hubris**: we think it will obviously be the hubris of Jocasta or ofOedipus; but which it is, we do not know. It is not likely to be Jocasta’s. Certainly we have just witnessed an outburst of tyrannical hubris in Oedipus. But we have been looking upon Oedipus as an ideal king, and the Chorus speaks in terms that can only shift our thoughts away from Oedipus; the man of hubris is depicted in the ode as ambitious, as winning his gains unjustly, as enjoying his pride, as recklesly impious. Evidently Sophocles is here thinking not of the persons in the play but of the underlying idea of the play. The Chorus has the stage wholly to itself while singing this song.
The Fourth Ode
The next ode not only ushers in the catastrophe; it takes up and develops the idea of “chance” which has become in important part of the tragic theme. This ode shows also that Sophocles did not alway characterize his Chorus consistently. He sometimes used the Chorus:
• purely as a lyrical instrument: Such it was in the previous ode, whei despite its loyalty to Oedipus, it had prayed for the fulfilment of th oracles. Now the Chorus becomes once more the group of loya
• citizens. Oedipus has just declared himself to be the son o “Chance”; the Chorus takes up the idea with music and dance. The Chorus expresses the hope that Oedipus will prove to be the sonoj some god and a, mountainnymph. Then comes the Theban Shepherd to prove that Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta

The Fifth or Last Ode

The last ode provides lyrical relief. Once more the order of the theme is important Had the Chorus sung, “Alas for Oedipus’ Yet how like human life this is1” the effect would have been one of conscious moralizing, a little unnecessary and certainly undiamatic. As it is, the effect is perfect. The words, “All the generations of mortal man add up to nothing,” coming immediately after the horrible discovery, are not moralizing but an immediate reaction. Dramatically their very remoteness is a wonderful relief Then, in the most natural way, to the general succeeds the particular. The personal cry, “I wish I had never seen you, offspring of Laius,” vividly expresses the peculiar horror of Oedipus’s fate by directly Conveying the dreadful feeling of disgust which the Chorus feels. This personal tone, drawing our minds away. from the tone of philosophic reflection, is also an excellent means of transition from the catastrophe to its results, the blinded but not broken Oedipus.
According to one critic’, the choral ode which separates the scenes with Teiresias and Creon has two leading themes,

(1) “Who can be the murderer? (first strophe and antistrophe, referring to the first part of the preceding episode before the entrance of Teiresias).

(2) “I will not believe that it is Oedipus” (second strophe and antistrophe referring to the second part).


It is difficult to speak with real confidence about the effect of the choral odes. We cannot take them naturally, however much we may pretend to. This view that the Chorus stick to their formal task in an- orderly manner may be quite right, but one doubts whether that is the sole justification. A choral ode, we would assume, depends for its effect upon the knowledge possessed by the audience. They do understand what Teiresias has said, though the Chorus do not, and therefore they have been seeing during this scene Oedipus’s fate closing in upon him. Their sense of its significance is here put into words but into such words as are in accordance with the knowledge of those ‘who utter them. And, as for the second half, while it is formally a comment on what Teiresias has said, its dramatic point is rather to call the attention of the audience to the fact that Oedipus’s wisdom is undergoing now another test, and to throw up Oedipus’s ready suspicion of a tried friend.

The Famous Central Ode of the Play

The choral ode on the moral laws and the fate and character of the tyrant is famous. It is the central ode of the play and is, from the point of view of choral tragedy, vital in its place. The Chorus are in a state of dilemma: they believe in the oracles; they believe in Oedipus. They have now heard from Oedipus of the oracle that sent him wandering from Corinth. Their religious faith requires them to wish to see that the oracle is justified. And yet, according to tradition, such a calamity as it foretells can come only as a punishment of wickedness. There go over in their minds the traditional signs which precede a great man’s fall. In the light of what they have seen and heard there is enough to make them afraid for Oedipus, afraid that he may have exhibited the fatal marks of hubris. Thus the ode gathers up and establishes explicitly, as Greek tragedy often does, the impressions conveyed by the action of the preceding scenes.

The Dramatic Merits of this Ode

But this ode has more truly dramatic merits than this: it affects the mood in which the audience enter upon the next scene. The impressive opening strophe may well be Sophocles’s declaration of his own personal belief in the sanctities of the moral law. But the main function of this ode is to set the spiritual atmosphere which is to surround and colour the great event that follows. It puts into words the feeling aroused by the narratives of Jocasta and Oedipus; it conveys the sense of moral chaos consequent upon the discrediting of the recognized means by which the gods make their will known to men. For the time the moral laws seem to have been abolished, and it is in that atmosphere that the catastrophe takes place. But the catastrophe is in fact the triumph of the discredited oracles. Hence, before the gloom and confusion in which the ode ends, we are given a glimpse of the eternal laws moving in serene majesty untouched by the darkness that covers the earth. The intention is to make the catastrophe appears to be as terrible and significant as possible.

Jocasta’s fate underlines that of Oedipus. So does the great song of the Chorus on the laws which are “enthroned above.” The song, and in particular the denunciation of the tyrant, are relevant to Oedipus and Jocasta. The song begins with a prayer for purity and reverence, clearly an answer to Oedipus’s and Jocasta’s doubts about the oracles. It ends with an even more emphatic expression of fear of what will happen if the truth of the divine oracles is denied. Between the first and the last stanzas the Chorus describes the man who is born of hubris, such hubris as is displayed by the King and the Queen. This description follows to a large extent the conventional picture of the tyrant, mentioning his pride, greed, and irreverence. Not every feature fits the character of Oedipus, nor should we expect that. The Chorus fears that he who behaves with presumption, pride, and self-confidence will turn tyrannical and impious, and they foresee that Zeus, the true King of the world, will punish the sins of the mortal King. If he does not do so, all religion will become meaningless, and all will be lost.

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