The chorus. Where did it come from? Why is it so important? Why have so many writers included it within their work such as Shakespeare? Well, let’s take a trip back to 776-336 BC.
In Ancient Greece, the chorus was a very important part of Greek tragedies, if not the most important part. Daniels and Scully, authors of “What is really going on in Sophocles' Theban Plays”, state, "No feature of Greek tragedy is more intractable than the chorus." For Ancient Greeks, the chorus' role was an obvious one and although the language was always in a formal dialect, it wasn't difficult to understand the chorus' message. Tragedies were written in verse, and actors would either say or sing their lines. Only men could perform in the plays, females performing was unthinkable. In Ancient Greece, the playwright was a choreographer and a composer in addition to being a playwright. He choreographed the dances for the chorus as well as composing the music that the chorus sang. The chorus usually sang and danced between lines, and the role of the chorus, in this regard, could be seen as a form of entertainment and the audience would have been highly interested upon watching this.
Aristotle argued in “Poetics” that “…the chorus should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be a part of the whole and should participate in the drama not as in Euripides but as in Sophocles.” From this we can gather that Aristotle values the chorus greatly as part of a play and believes that Sophocles was superior in his choral writing. Choral odes should not be “mere interludes,” but should contribute to the unity of the plot – which according to Aristotle was the most important element in a tragedy. The masks that were worn during the performances were generic for the chorus, and this was to highlight the chorus as a whole rather than individuals. This reinforced the viewpoint of how the audience of the time would view the chorus as a whole body, rather than individuals and the viewpoints of the chorus was relatable to the viewpoints that the community held as a whole, not just individual beings.
Like most of the ancient Greek tragedians, Sophocles divides his choral odes into strophic pairs – strophe and antistrophe. Both sections have the same number of lines and metrical pattern generally. In Greek, ‘strophe’ means ‘turn,’ and ‘antistrophe’ means ‘turn back/against.’ During the strophe, choruses danced from right to left and during the antistrophe they did the opposite. Sophocles may have split the chorus into two groups, so that it was as if one part was conversing with the other. The oppositions created by strophe and antistrophe may represent the endless, irresolvable debates which were prevalent in Ancient Greek society.
An example of the chorus’ integral role within a Greek play, ‘Oedipus Rex’ serves a fitting illustration. The first time we hear from the chorus in ‘Oedipus Rex’ is directly after Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law returns from the God Apollo, with Apollo's message about how to save the city of Thebes from plague and ruin. The strophic pairs are generally in more extravagant and ambiguous verse than the actors' lines are. The strophe is reacting to the news from Apollo and in some ways foreshadowing the events to come when it says, "I am stretched on the rack of doubt," and then words are used that express fear and foreboding, like "terror and trembling" and "full of fears" and "doom." The language is rich with metaphors, and for Aristotle, “it [metaphor] is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance.” The antistrophe is calling on the Gods to help them, such as ‘Athene’, ‘Artemis’ and ‘Phoebus’, thus reflecting the polytheistic beliefs held by the Ancient Greeks. The function of the chorus here is split into two. The first function is to show a reaction to the news that they have just received and the second is to plead to the Gods, thus showing the integration of the chorus into the play. G. M. Kirkwood states in his journal “Phoenix”, titled ‘The Dramatic Role of the Chorus in Sophocles’ that “It is generally assumed that the main function of the Sophoclean Chorus is a philosophical one; that it serves above all as the spokesman for a certain view of life.” The chorus were seen as the voice of the community and perhaps due to this, those that were performing as part of the chorus were local men and it was seen as their duty.
Unlike his contemporary Euripides, Sophocles was known to mix his chorus into the action of the play. In ‘Oedipus Rex’ we see the chorus advising Oedipus to remain calm, such as when they tell Oedipus and Creon to stop arguing, “My lords, an end to this.” There is direct address between the chorus and Oedipus which shows that the chorus were not just overseers but involved in the plot too. After Oedipus pieces things together and realises what he’s done and sees the truth, ‘anagnorisis’, the chorus mourns the tragedy.
Alternatively, the chorus in ‘Oedipus Rex’ manages to convince Oedipus not to banish or execute Creon at the start. Although the chorus only speaks once in a while, it is present throughout the play as an observer. This is rather significant as they oversee all of the action and help make decisions, such as when Oedipus asks the chorus to help send him out of Thebes or kill him and the chorus leader replies that Oedipus should go “To a fearful place from which men turn away, a place they hate to look upon.” This shows the significance of the chorus, not just as narrators of the action, but as an integral core to the play.
Therefore, the chorus especially within Greek tragedies has a variety of roles and functions. The chorus comments on the play's action and foreshadows future events. As well as this, the chorus help characters of a play and therefore are connected directly within the play. The chorus also give an in depth view of the character’s emotions and thoughts as they explain Oedipus’ feelings, “Unhappy in your fate and in your mind which now knows all.” Sophocles also used the chorus to comment on the larger impact of the characters' actions and to illustrate a play's central themes.
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