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DIONYSUS VOLUMES I III OMNIBUS EDITION

THE SOPHOCLEAN CHORUS


Mr. Gordon Cockburn
University of Durham
Thursday 8th December 1994

from a lecture given by

I shall divide this lecture into two parts, and talk first about the chorus in general, and then look at the chorus in three plays of Sophocles, Electra and Oedipus, and then finally at Antigone itself. The chorus always seems to be one of the more alien aspects of Greek tragedy from the point of view of the modern audience, and one is often asked what role it plays in tragedy. In fact, there is no simple answer to that. The role changes with the passage of time. For example, it changes quite considerably from Aeschylus, in the first half of the C5th, to Sophocles and Euripides in the second. It alters also from writer to writer, so that you find slight differences of practice from Sophocles to Euripides, and it also alters from play to play. The fact is that the chorus performs several functions, and sometimes one or let us say one group is more important in any given play,.sometimes another. A good, but by no means comprehensive summary of the functions of the chorus is given by the Roman poet, Horace, in the Ars Poetica, which was written about four hundred years after Sophocles and Euripides. It has the advantage that it takes the form of advice to a young writer who is about to compose a set of Greek plays a tetralogy by the looks of things in the Classical Greek manner, and so it is good practical advice, rather than airyfairy theoretical advice. What Horace says is as follows: The chorus should sustain the role and functions of an actor, and should not sing anything between the acts which does not contribute to the plot, and fit appropriately into it. It should side with the good characters and give them friendly advice, and should control those who are out of temper and show approval to those who are anxious not to transgress. It should commend moderation in the pleasures of the table, the blessings of law and justice and times of peace, when the Gates lie open. It should respect confidences, and should pray and beseech the gods to let prosperity return to the wretched and desert the proud. Now, Horace, or his source, probably had Sophocles' practice mainly in mind here and that is perfectly reasonable for his own didactic purpose, but what it means, of course, is that he omits from consideration Aeschylus, where the chorus had a much bigger role and bore a lot more of the weight (and in some cases even all of the weight) of the play. The reason for this is that tragedy had begun as a choral performance only, and then it underwent the process of adding actors, until the third actor was added sometime around the middle of the C5th, thus altering the balance of the play. Aeschylus is at a very much earlier stage. in the process than Sophocles. Let us take a couple of examples from Aeschylean plays to show what the chorus looks like there: Persians, the earliest extant tragedy, dated to the year 472 B.C., describes the effect on the Persians of the defeats they

suffered at the hands of the Athenians, and the battle of Salamis in particular, and the play concentrates on the effect on the chorus of elders, and hence the totality and pathos of the defeat. Xerxes, the Persian king, who is responsible for this defeat through his pride, is not ignored, but he only appears in the last sixth of the play, and the play is, therefore, held together by the chorus. We find an interesting contrast with Oedipus, in fact, because there too the fate of the chorus of citizens and the king is also very closely interlinked, but in that case all the weight of the play is really on Oedipus himself. Aeschylus' Agamemnon, too, gives a major role to the chorus, though the major role is given to Clytemnestra. The first half of the play is dominated by the theme of Agamemnon at Troy and this is both narrated and assessed at considerable length by the chorus. Again, a good contrast is provided by Oedipus, where the events of the past, the events surrounding the death of Laius are also important, but where they are narrated by the major actor in the play, Oedipus himself. The second half of Agamemnon is held together and linked to the first half by the chorus who form a common factor in the scenes with Cassandra and then with Clytemnestra. Their opposition to Clytemnestra towards the end of the play is both a major function in itself,and it links back to the scenes at the beginning of the play where they question her and have misgivings about what she is up to. Initially rather similar to Horace, and perhaps indeed to his source, whether direct or indirect is the little that Aristotle says in his Poetics, written in the second half of the C4th. It is closer to Sophocles and Euripides than Horace, but nonetheless tragedy had undergone a number of changes. This is what Aristotle says: The chorus should be regarded as one of the actors. (Horace says the same thing.) It should be part of the whole, and should assume a share of the action as happens in Sophocles but not in Euripides. With other playwrights, the choral songs may have no more to do with the plot in hand than with any other tragedy. They are mere choral interludes, according to the practice first introduced by Agathon. But what difference is there between the singing of interpolated songs like these and the transference of a speech or whole episode from one play to another? Two points emerge from this. The first is that by the end of the C5th, when Agathon was writing (his first production is usually dated to 416), it had become the practice for the chorus simply to provide musical interludes between the scenes with no special relevance to the plot in hand. We can actually detect a similar development in comedy around this time, or slightly later, and perhaps it shows a loss of artistic maturity on the part of the Athenian audience, as the great period of dramatic art and literature was drawing to an end. It appears that the audience now wants exciting, fastmoving plots without the distraction of choral reflections. The second point that emerges from Aristotle's discussions of the chorus is that Euripides (and it is important to notice this, because people sometimes get this wrong) is not accused of that crime, but in Aristotle's opinion, by comparison with Sophocles, he does not integrate his chorus so well into the plot of the play. Now that's a slightly surprising statement to us, and it is not obviously borne out by the surviving plays, although we must remember that a fairly small percentage of the plays of these authors does survive (about a fifth of Euripides' plays, between a fifteenth and a twentieth of Sophocles'). Nor do they bear out what Aristotle says about the practice of Sophocles and Euripides as far as the chorus as an actor is concerned. If what he says is true, I think that it is so only on balance rather than as an absolute distinction and perhaps refers (though other things may be thrown into the meltingpot as well) to the preponderance of reflective choral songs that you get in Euripidean plays.

A good example of that is in Hippolytus: after the revelation of Phaedra's impossible love for Hippolytus, the chorus sings an ode on the power of love (of course, the chorus in Antigone does likewise, but this is much more a feature of Euripidean plays) and half of an ode, a couple of stanzas, is devoted to the theme of its destructive powers. Then, as is the fairly standard practice, the second half of the ode gives mythological examples of the point, namely Iole who was destroyed by Heracles' love for her, and Semele who was destroyed by Zeus' love for her. Although there is no direct reference to the present problem of Hippolytus, the relevance is nevertheless clear: the destructive nature of love, with examples. All of that may help to suggest a somewhat broader definition of the role of the chorus and a rather more positive definition of its role than that given by either Horace or Aristotle. What I think the chorus does is enable the author to explore themes which go beyond the direct action of the play without obtruding on that action or on the characters themselves. (If the characters themselves spent too much time reflecting on these questions, this would obtrude on the characterisation.) This is similar in a way to the flashbacks and authorial reflections that you get in other literary genres, where they are not nearly so out of place, such as novels in the modern world, or epic in the ancient. The author is freer there to reflect on the background to the themes that he is talking about. These themes may be quite different. They may be historical (looking at prior events, Agamemnon's earlier history, or the earlier history of his household); they may be mythological (mythological parallels to suggest what is right and what is wrong); they may be moral reflections. These are not separate things, but they are all linked in either widening the scope of the play or, perhaps more normally, drawing attention to an already existing width, to themes that had been hinted at by actors, who do not normally have the time to speculate in detail. Now to the specific plays of Sophocles, starting with Electra, a good example of Horace's advice. The chorus here sides with the good characters against the bad, and it is much concerned with the theme of commending moderation. Let us take these two themes separately. A clear distinction in tragedy between good and bad and right and wrong is rather rare. There is certainly no such clear distinction in Antigone for example. It is not obvious that Antigone is morally superior or inferior to Creon. The case in Electra is rather different. Here Sophocles wants to present a version of the revenge of Orestes for the killing of his father, Agamemnon, a revenge which involves the killing of his mother, in which the deed is entirely justified, including the deed of matricide itself, and in which Clytemnestra in particular, but also her lover, Aegisthus, are shown as villains. There are very few villains in tragedy. Again, Creon is certainly not one, but I think in Electra Clytemnestra and Aegisthus come fairly clearly into the category of villains. Why Sophocles does that is worth a very brief comment. The relative dating of the plays is uncertain, but I myself suspect that he may well be responding to a very different version of the story by Euripides, which took entirely the opposite point of view, presenting us with a sympathetic Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and making the whole deed of matricide seem very shabby indeed. But also, he has his own purpose within his own play, and what he wants to do is make a clear contrast between the deed, which is acceptable and right, and the tragic obsession with the deed which Electra herself shows. Now, of course, much of the moral background to this is shown by the characters themselves, but the constant presence of the chorus emphasising the same point throughout shows that these are not temporary or

insignificant character traits but are fundamental to the message of the play. You see it in the chorus' very first speech, part of a duet with Electra, which ends with the words: So, God forgive me, may they die that did that thing. There are similar supportive comments to Electra and her side, leading to the final words of the play: Now for the house of Atreus, .freedom is won for all her suffering, and this day's work well done. This is a somewhat free translation, but it is not misleading in its general sense or import. The chorus also, in that play, sings three odes at key points of the play, all of which stress the justice of the murder and the villainy of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. To take one example from the first ode: This omen (the dream of Clytemnestra), if 1 rightly understand its message and am not deceived, speaks with the voice of Justice, and 'ere long she will be here, fighting for us in all her righteous strength. That dream we heard of breathes comfort and new courage. Your royal father has not forgotten you, nor does the bronze blade sleep. What can such portents mean, if not the downfall of culprits and confederates? Mere may well despair of interpreting dreams and the signs of heaven, if this night's vision does not point the way to a safe and happy issue. No room is left for doubt here in the moral direction of the play through the attitude of the chorus. Then we come to the other side of the chorus' function as mentioned by Horace and as is relevant to Electra: the recommending of moderation. Moderation is a very important Greek notion indeed, which has strong religious connotations to it. Lack of moderation is connected very directly with pride, and pride is connected in turn with a human desire to go beyond the mortal lot and challenge the gods. Of course, that is very bad; it brings about downfall; it brings about tragedy. I sometimes think that it is a more Greek way of defining tragedy than the common modern way of looking for a flaw of character or even of looking at Aristotle's concept of the mistake, the hamartia the big mistake, which I take to mean a culpable mistake. One can say things on behalf of both of these views, both the Aristotlean hamartia and the flaw of character, but I suspect that the strongest way of looking at it is the notion of lack of moderation, excess, on the part of tragic characters. Many tragic characters (perhaps all of them in some way or another) start off in the right, but put themselves in the wrong through lack of moderation. We can take this back much earlier than tragedy to Achilles in the Iliad, a tragic figure, who initially is wronged by Agamemnon, who takes away his prize, but later on attempts to make reparation to him. Achilles turns down Agamemnon's apology and turns himself into a tragic figure by so doing. Then there is Agamemnon himself in Aeschylus' play. Agamemnon is sent to Troy by Zeus, so it is quite right from Agamemnon's and the gods' point of view that Troy should be punished, but Agamemnon exacts from Troy excessive punishment and for that he himself must in turn be punished. Then there is Antigone, who takes the law into her own hands and thus brings about her own downfall another form of excess on her part. Finally, in Hippolytus, Hippolytus is quite right to reject the Nurse's proposition that he should have a loveaffair with his stepmother, but what he lacks (and this is where his excess comes into the picture) is human sympathy for Phaedra at all: he says extremely harsh and cruel things about her, which are quite unnecessary, and indeed are wrong.

When we come to Electra herself, we have already established the initial justice of her case: the chorus is on her side; the characterisation is all on her side; it appears to be right and unquestioned that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus deserve to die. Despite the fact that right is initially on their side, Electra is unlike her brother, who simply carries out the deed as required by the gods, and is obsessed and soured by her desire for revenge. She is excessive in this, and therefore this brings about her tragic status. All of her emotions are excessive: not just her hatred, but her grief for her father, her hatred for her mother and her love for Orestes. All the characters at one point or other in the play attempt to control her. There is a good example of that in the recognition scene towards the end of the play when there is a great risk that Electra's joy on discovering that Orestes is alive will give away Orestes' return to their enemies. But although everyone tries to control her, the single most consistent moderating influence on Electra throughout the play is the chorus, and this along with their other concern for Justice brings out most clearly the message of the play: the murder is just, but nevertheless the hatred and other excessive emotions that Electra shows threaten to undermine that Justice. For example.in the debate which Electra has with her mother towards the middle of the play, the chorus says: She is angry now, and little concerned with Justice, if you ask me. In other words, Electra has put the key issue of Justice out of her mind because of excessive anger. Indeed, in their very first speech in the play, they ask Electra why her lamentation for her father is so constant and so insatiable. Right from the start of the play, then, the chorus draws our attention to the excessive nature of Electra's emotions. Moving on now to Oedipus. Here the situation relating to the commending of moderation is potentially, at least, very similar to the one that we have in Electra. Oedipus shows a form of excess, an excess of anger, from an early stage in the play. Perhaps we first detect it when he utters his own personal curse upon the unknown murderer, which of course goes beyond the divine order, which was simply to find out who this person is and expel them from the city. This is not good enough for Oedipus. His anger projects itself into the personal curse that he utters on them. Similarly to Electra, the chorus is sympathetic to his cause, and so everything is being set up for the likelihood that the chorus will try to correct Oedipus' errors. But that is not what happens. Sophocles very strikingly ignores Horace's advice (if you will pardon the anachronism) and presents us with a very strangely uncritical chorus. For instance, during an extremely immoderate, excessive argument that Oedipus conducts with the blind prophet Teiresias near the beginning of the play, they criticise very mildly both parties; then in the ode that follows this they say: Never therefore will 1 consent to think him (Oedipus) other than good. It is really quite surprising in view of what we have seen of Oedipus already that the chorus are so restrained in their thoughts about him and criticism of him. The basic reason is straightforward enough. It is not that the chorus is afraid of Oedipus directing his anger against them, but because of the high respect that they have for this man who has already saved the city once most importantly from the Sphinx. This ties in with the opening scene of the play when the citizens bring their problem to Oedipus because they respect him. Here we see Oedipus at his peak, a peak from which (like Creon) he gradually degenerates as the play goes on.

The effect in Oedipus on the play as a whole is quite remarkable, even though the reason for this treatment by the chorus is straightforward enough. The fate of Thebes is an important theme in the play. It is stressed in that opening scene, when the citizens, represented by the priest appeal to him to save them from the plague, and it is stressed again when the chorus come in another slightly different body of citizens and they too pray for relief from the plague and describe some of its ravages. What this stress on the plague and citizens' appeal means is that ultimately, when Oedipus is shown to be the cause of the plague, towards the end of the play, the chorus as citizens must withdraw their support form him, because the safety of the city depends upon that. But by making Oedipus' ties with the city so strong at the beginning of the play, through the fact that he had saved it from the Sphinx, and showing also the chorus' reluctance to criticise Oedipus, even as his excesses become more and more apparent, Sophocles turns that renunciation of Oedipus by the chorus (which does not appear until about line 1220) into a final blow against Oedipus. Teiresias has long since left; Creon has been banished; Jocasta has run off to commit suicide having realised the truth before Oedipus was in a position to do so; the messenger and the old shepherd, who have finally between them revealed who Oedipus is, have departed lamenting the truth; leaving only the hitherto loyal chorus to express their support, and what do they do? First of all they reflect on the fickle nature of mortal life (a very typical Greek sentiment in many ways): All the generations of mortal man add up to nothing. Show me the man whose happiness was anything more than illusion followed by disillusion. Here is the instance. Here is Oedipus. Here is the reason why I will call no mortal creature happy. They then expand on that example of Oedipus for a little while, showing how in former times he was very successful, a great man (thinking again, of course, of the Sphinx); He was our bastion against disaster, our honoured king. All Thebes was proud of the majesty of his name. But then the second half of that is the passage to disaster, the disaster of killing his father and marrying his mother. But then, at the end of the ode (their last ode in the play, but not their last contribution to the play) their renunciation of Oedipus comes very markedly: I wish I had never seen you, offspring of Laius, yesterday my morning of light, now my night of endless darkness. That renunciation by the chorus brings out again the full extent of Oedipus' isolation, and ties in quite closely with the selfblinding which he inflicts upon himself. It is striking that the chorus, rather than one of the actors, is used for this purpose, but it relates to the chorus' role of being constantly present and holding the play together. No other character, except for Oedipus himself, would have the same impact by their change of stance at the end of the play. This takes us back to Horace and Aristotle: the chorus is the constant actor in this play. Now turning finally to Antigone: the position of the chorus is again different. It is different from Oedipus in that it has to deal with two opposite arguments of Creon and Antigone, and it has to try to balance those two arguments in its thoughts; and it's different also from Electra in that, yes, there were two sides to the question in Electra, but here the two sides were very clearly good and bad, and that is equally clearly not the case in Antigone.

The chorus in our play knows and respects both parties, Creon and Antigone, and like the audience in some ways it is caught in the middle of a contemporary debate. (There was a contemporary debate going on in the C5th between on the one hand natural or divine law and on the other hand manmade law: which was the more important of these laws? Most of the sophists, for example, would argue in favour of the primacy of manmade law.) In their first two songs, before the identification of the burier is actually known, the situation is perfectly clear as far as the chorus is concerned. Thebes has recently been delivered from a dangerous attack from an impious army of villains in support of the quarrelsome traitor, Polyneices; and something is made of the etymology of his name which, of course, means "very quarrelsome". The gods, they say in their first ode, supported the city by ensuring the defeat of their attackers, and the victory is therefore cause for rejoicing. If Creon, as part of that rejoicing, wishes to forbid the burial of Polyneices, the chorus sees no reason to object to his doing so. They don't positively support it, but they certainly don't offer any indication when Creon first does it that there is anything wrong with it. For those of us who remain, your will is law, they say, accepting what is proposed. After the burial is announced, that is after someone has buried the body against Creon's edict, but before Antigone is actually revealed as the burier, the chorus contrast the welldirected cleverness of Creon (in the, famous ode that begins there are many clever things in the world, but none is more clever than man ) who has by his cleverness enhanced his city and made it great, with the misplaced cleverness, the wicked cleverness, of the burier who is undermining the city. Thus, towards the end of that ode: O, wonderous subtlety of man that draws to good or evil ways. Great honour and power is given to him who upholdeth his country's laws and the Justice of heaven (that by implication is Creon), but he who, too rashly daring, walks in sin, in solitary pride to his life's end (that is, the burier) at door of mine shall never enter in to call me friend. Now, they would not speak in these terms if they knew that Antigone was the burier but that does not mean that the judgement they have made is necessarily wrong. But at the same time although it acts as a judgement against Antigone, and directs our thoughts to exactly how we should view her (and not view her perhaps entirely favourably, the way in which she has taken the law into her own hands) at the same time, although the chorus don't intend this I am sure, their criticisms of impiety and their mentioning of solitary pride also hint at Creon's present and future position in the play. In other words, the chorus are being used to point out the other side of the argument, the other side of truth, by irony. They don't mean it, but we, the audience, can pick up a secondary meaning in what they say. That sort of irony by the chorus is another very important use that they can be put to. Immediately after that ode, Antigone is brought in, having been captured by the guards. The chorus is initially shocked by the discovery of Antigone's guilt, but apart from that they say very little in the long scene (a couple of hundred lines) that follows, reflecting their confusion at what has happened. That confusion then finds expression in their next song further evidence of the chorus as a character reacting emotionally to the situations, rather than simply commenting on what they find, because in that ode, the chorus tries to explain away the lack of moderation of mainly Antigone, but perhaps reflecting a little bit on Creon, with a reference to the curse on the house, explaining it in terms of divine jealousy of all greatness and all

wealth. Now, these are traditional Greek views we find them in early Greek thought in particular, but normally by the time of CSth tragedy the poets insist on personal responsibility as being the reason for the downfall of the characters. I believe myself that you can see personal responsibility, forms of excess, in all cases, so it is rather strange that the chorus bring in at this stage divine curses on the house, curses upon previous generations of the house, and the gods' jealousy of the wealth of the house. I suspect that the audience, as opposed to the loyal and confused chorus has seen enough of Antigone and Creon by this stage, and their excesses, to recognise that the chorus' explanation is in fact misplaced. In other words, again, not all of the chorus' judgements are to be taken at face value. We have seen that irony can operate, and we can now also make allowance for situations in which the chorus are actually confused by what they see and get the explanation wrong, as I believe is the case here. A similar confusion in the chorus is to be seen at the end of the next scene, the scene between Creon and his son, Haemon. Here they sing of the dangerous power of Love, which mars the righteous man, driving his soul into mazes of sin and strife, dividing a house. This is not necessarily untrue with regard to Haemon, whose loss of selfcontrol in the scene with his father is indeed alarming, but it is clearly only half the truth, and half the truth can be very misleading. They fail to see the responsibility that Creon bears for the breakdown 6f relationships between himself and his son. In other words, the chorus are confused again. In the previous ode, out of their respect for Antigone, they put most of the blame onto the curse on the house; in this ode, out of their respect for Creon, they put most of the blame onto Haemon and his excessive love as leading to the breakdown of relations between him and his father. The first part of the next scene, Antigone's last scene, consists of a duet between her and the chorus which sheds further light on her character. She manages to quarrel (and I am reminded here as she picks the quarrel of her brother's name, the veryquarrelsome, Polyneices) with what is really a very sympathetic chorus who are simply trying to find some way to console her for what has happened to her. She imagines also in the course of that scene (quite wrongly, but she shares this with several other tragic figures) that she is being mocked. (Both Medea and Ajax imagine that they are being laughed at by people who are not laughing at them at all.) The final use of the chorus that I want to comment on is the use of the chorus as creators of mood. A good parallel of that is the escapesong which the chorus sing in Hippolytus, which manipulates the audience to accept Phaedra's suicide and enable us to pass on to the next stage of the play. The song here, in Antigone, is unusual in many ways in that it consists simply of three examples from myth (rather obscure myths, actually: one has to look them up in handbooks of mythology to remember exactly what's going on) of wellknown people who suffered parallels to Antigone. This song exhibits irony in that two of the characters, the two female characters, are victims of misguided (I hesitate to say wicked, because I don't think Creon is wicked) men, and that points very clearly to the folly of Creon again, not what the chorus intends, but there is a touch of irony working there. But the main purpose of the ode is to console themselves and thus the audience also to the loss of Antigone so that the rest of the play can concentrate on the tragedy of Creon without the need for any great lamentation for Antigone, whose tragedy at that stage is effectively over. Manipulation of the mood, then, by the use of mythological parallels is the final use of the chorus I shall mention.

I said at the beginning, perhaps slightly critically, that Horace had given us one or two, but by no means a comprehensive list, of the functions of the chorus. I have tried to pin down one or two of the other functions of the chorus in tragedy in general and in Sophocles, but I certainly don't believe that I have given a comprehensive view, but I hope I have shown some of the things that the chorus can do both in our play, and in Sophocles, and perhaps in tragedy in general.
ACTORS OF DIONYSUS