The Different uses of Choruses in Ancient Greek Drama
The chorus in ancient Greek drama has always been misunderstood. From chanting, to ritual singing, to mask wearing and dancing, it has always been seen to be so different then what we are used to now when we attend a drama. Although, the chorus was the nucleus form which tragedy evolved and had a central place in the drama throughout classical times. In the beginning a tragic chorus consisted of 12 to 15 choreuts (dancers), who were young men just about to enter military service after some years of training. There were five objectives that the Greek chorus had. First was to serve as an agent, they would act as the person to give advice, express opinions and ask questions. The second is to establish social and ethical framework. The third was to serve as the “ideal spectator” throughout the play. The fourth was to set the overall mood for the audience. The fifth and final objective was the use of their rhythmical function and spectacle (dress). With the passage of time, the inclination in tragedy was toward a decline in the significance of the chorus. This was caused mostly by the introduction of additional actors and rising sophistication in their dramatic use, and by the more personal and complex nature of the stories chosen for dramatization. The quantity of choral to individual lines decreased significantly, and the dramatic objective of the chorus, aside from the continued use of choral odes, which were performed between episodes, were greatly reduced. We shall examine the decline and transformation in the chorus as we look at the ancient Greek dramas of Agamemnon, Oedipus Rex, and Medea.
In the drama of Agamemnon the chorus is very abundant in use and in lines. We may be tempted from time to time to skip a few pages until the next person enters and the action moves forward. But, to do so would be a mistake because following what is happening to the chorus in play is essential to understanding the significance of what is going on. The chorus is made up of adult male citizens of Argos, who ten years ago were too old to join the expedition to Troy, for this reason they were extremely old and very aware of their own physical weakness. They make an observation of themselves in saying “and we are aged past aging, gloss of the leaf shriveled, three legs at a time we falter on, Old men are children once again, a dream that sways and wavers into the hard light of day.” (Ag 87-92). The chorus is very conscious on everything that is about the story. They know the history of this family, they know very well about the sacrifice of Iphigeneia; and they have a very strong sense of what Clytaemnestra is about to do. Agamemnon is coming home, and justice awaits. They know what that means. Its is impossible to read very much of those long choruses without deriving a firm sense of their unease at what is going to happen and their refusal and inability to confront directly the sources of that unease. The chorus also gives important information to the audience so we can understand the story. For example, when they tell, in emotional detail, the story of Agamemnon about to sacrifice his daughter. The chorus says “Yes, he had the heart to sacrifice his daughter! - To bless the war that avenged a woman’s loss, a bridal rite that sped the men-of war.” (Ag, 223-226). We are looking at this play in the eyes of the chorus, how they see Agamemnon, Clyteamnestra, and Cassandra. We, the reader, are feeling the choruses anguish, weakness, and fear. The chorus is made to be the most important element or the center of attention in Agamemnon.
In the drama of Oedipus Rex, the chorus has started to change. The first change that you observe is that the chorus has seemed to diminish in lines. The chorus was made up of Theban citizens. They are observing what goes on, reacting and offering opinions at regular intervals throughout the play. The chorus acts as the voice of reason when Oedipus accuses Creon irrationally of conspiring against him. The leader said “Those who jump to conclusions may go wrong.” (Oe, 692). The chorus plays a more commentarial role, rather than involving itself in tandem with the action. The chorus clarifies the situation to the audience in a way that enables the audience to fully comprehend the nature and general flow of the plot. For example the chorus gives a nice closer to the story by saying “Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.” (Oe, 1683-1685). In Oedipus Rex, I feel that Sophocles intended the chorus to be a constant significant part of the play, observing and reacting to situations, while never being the center of attention during the main story, and only emerging during the narrative passages of the play.
In the drama of Medea the chorus continues to be ever changing. The gender has changed from men to women, which is the primary change that we observe from the chorus. The chorus is made up of Corinthian women who are completely on Medea’s side. Medea wins over the chorus in her first speech by a plea to unity in the face of women’s victimization by a male-dominated society. The chorus says “This I will promise. You are in the right, Medea, in paying your husband back. I am not surprised at you for being sad.” (Me, 265-267). I feel that the chorus does play the part of the “voice of Every woman.” Along with the chorus, a woman can understand the wanting of revenge on the husband and a women doesn’t approve of killing her own children. The chorus doesn’t really get involved in story and the extent of the Corinthian women getting involved is when they try to discourage Medea from killing her children. They said to Medea “Since you have shared the knowledge of you plan with us, I both wish to help you and support the normal ways of mankind, and tell you not to do this thing.” (Me, 795-797). The chorus in Medea really just seems to be witnesses of the events of the play but they helped to give visual indication of its sympathy for, even complicity with Medea.
As we examined the decline and transformation of the choruses in these various dramas, we see all three chorus are very different, but they are helpful and I appreciate the authors for including them in the plays. The chorus was used as more of a main character in Agamemnon, which helps me as the reader better understand the feelings of the chorus, the people of Argos, throughout the play. The chorus in Oedipus the King was used to comment on the action and sometimes to narrate events, which I thought, made the story much easier to read. The chorus of Medea was used to give me the women’s point of view in that time in the city of Corinth. I don’t feel that one chorus was better than the other, just the different authors chose to use the choruses differently threw changing the size, or involvement, or even gender. Overall, each chorus helped me to understand the characters and the stories better.
Article name: The Different uses of Choruses in Ancient Greek Drama essay, research paper, dissertation