In Greek tragedy the chorus consisted of a group of 8 to 10 members. Chorus dances and sings and their main role is to comment throughout the play on every character and situation thus also conveying the themes. The chorus introduces every action and character, summarises the action that has preceded as well as foreshadows future events. The chorus also interacts with the other characters and are shown to modify their opinion with respect to other characters and the situations. Most importantly they guide the response of the audience to the happenings on stage.
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The Chorus is an important part of Euripides’ Medea and Sophocles’ Antigone. “Medea” is a tragedy of a woman who feels that her husband has betrayed her with another woman and the jealousy that consumes her. She is the protagonist who arouses sympathy and admiration because of how desperate her situation is. Euripides uses the Chorus as a literary device to raise certain issues, and to influence where the sympathies of the audience lie. In Antigone the chorus was not only a major part, but also the most insightful portion of this play’s cast. It is about a girl who is fighting back for her brother against the king. Antigone has two brothers who had both killed each other in the war, one was given the proper funeral and that was not given to another brother. So here Antigone fights for her dead brother’s right to a funeral but the support that she gets from the chorus is different and delayed.
In “Antigone” we see that the chorus consists of wealthy, political minded men while in “Medea” the chorus consists of women. In “Antigone” the chorus is godfearing, patriotic and political minded so they are loyal to Creon. In the parados the Chorus sings “The man swinged down, torch still in hand, and smashed into unyielding earth-the one who not so long attacked” and thus describes the defeat of their enemies, this build up their strength and this shows that the enemy were powerful. Their God fearing nature is also shown as they give the credit for their victory to the Gods – their patriotism and pride in their hard won victory shine through. They celebrate the supremacy of man, “There are many strange and wonderful things, but nothing more strangely wonderful than man”, yet they conclude that man is not more superior than the state, “If he treats his country’s laws with due respectâ€¦ he wins high honours in his city” (lines 418 – 420) showing that the state was more important than man.
In the play “Medea” the Chorus has feminist ideas so they can understand Medea’s pain and hence they support Medea. “Flow backward to your sources, sacred rivers, And let the world’s great order be reversed. It is thoughts of men that are deceitful” Here the chorus mean to say that men have dishonest thoughts and they support Medea even in the assassination of their King in the interests of female empowerment. “O God and Earth and Heaven! Did you hear what a cry was that Which the sad wife sings?” This initial outburst of the chorus in “Medea” shows the chorus is consoling and sympathising with Medea, and supports her. The chorus supports Medea as chorus can understand the situation through which Medea is passing and after listening to Medea’s plan the chorus thinks that she is on right track, “You are in the right, Medea, in paying your husband back”. They criticize Jason after the quarrel between husband and wife, “You have betrayed your wife and are acting badly”. Till this stage Medea was successful in manipulating the Chorus even though she is a foreigner and plans to kill their king. But when Medea communicates her wish to kill her children as a means of revenge the chorus’s response is typical of their feminine nature. “Since you have shared the knowledge of our plan with us, I both wish to help you and support the normal ways of mankind, and tell you not to do this thing”. The Chorus tell her that not go through this plan because no one can bear the pain of killing their own children and also the chorus tells her that this act is against the ways of mankind. After this stage, the Chorus didn’t openly support Medea.
In the play “Antigone” the same whole hearted support was given to Creon initially by the chorus. “It’s clear enough the spirit in this girl is passionate- her father was the same. She has no sense of compromise in times of trouble” here the chorus opposes Antigone, though they appreciate her resolute nature, as she is against Creon and chorus as a political minded group helps their king and they believe that going against the king is illegal. The reference to the father also reminds the audience of the tragic curse on the family. But as the play progresses the chorus does seem to be unsure about giving total support. When the guard reports the burial rites the chorus fears that this act could be “something from the Gods” suggesting God’s are not happy with Creon’s actions. Yet they do not openly come out against the King partly because of their loyalty to the throne and partly because of their fear of Creon. The Chorus openly urge Creon to change his orders. Through the chorus Creon begins to see that he is wrong and God is superior to himself, but by then it is too late. It is only the loss of his family that makes him change his belief in his ultimate authority.
The Chorus tries to understand the cruel nature of Medea’s actions, “Often before I have gone through more subtle reasons, and have come upon questioning greater than a woman should strive to search out. But we too have Goddess to help us and accompany us into wisdom” here the chorus speaks a very feminist speech and this speech was spoken before the chorus killed her children. Initially when the Medea decides to kill her children at that time the Chorus opposed it. In this speech, the chorus says that one doesn’t know how one’s children will turn out when they will grow and chorus also say that women’s life is wasted because when the children are small we toil for them and we bring them up well, but when the children grow up they may ignore their parents from their life. In Antigone the chorus helps in reversing Creon’s decision to execute Antigone, “Yes, my lord, as fast as possible swift footed injuries sent from the Gods hack down those who act imprudently”. Here the Chorus explains to Creon that whatever he had done is wrong and the Chorus tells him that now he has the last opportunity to save his family.
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In the plays “Antigone” and the play “Medea” the chorus explain and interpret the action in relation to the law of the state, to foreshadow the future, to serve as an actor in the play, to present the author’s views. Through the chorus Creon begins to see that he is wrong and God is superior to himself. The chorus and the audience realize that Antigone was right all along. The chorus in “Medea” shocked at first into silence, leaves the issue to be decided by the Gods in its concluding address. In both cases the audience has been guided to a greater or a lesser degree by the chorus.
Thus what we see is that with the shift in the position and sympathies of the chorus there is a corresponding shift in the attitude of the audience towards their characters. But there is a reverse process as well. While the audience would have sympathized with Medea’s predicament, supported her in her plan of revenge, they would definitely not have pardoned her murder of her children. Similarly, while the audience’s patriotic nature would have understood the Chorus’s initial support of Creon, they would not have gone against the Gods as they would have been reminded of their obedience to the Gods at this religious festival when the play was performed. Thus the audience in turn controls the reactions of the Chorus which would be guided by public opinion of the times
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