The role of the chorus in Greek theatre was integrally linked to the performance and the narrative. A staple component of Classical Greek dramas, the chorus typically consisted of a group of actors, traditionally ranging from 12 to 50 performers. The chorus was present throughout the entirety of a performance, except in cases where they were explicitly dismissed from the stage.
The fundamental function of the chorus was to provide commentary on the play’s events, present a collective viewpoint, and reveal the broader social and ethical context in which the narrative unfolded. As a collective entity, the chorus could represent any multitude of groups relevant to the drama’s narrative or setting, such as the elders of a city, a band of soldiers, or a group of women.
Role of the Chorus in Greek Theatre
1. Narrative Intermediary
As a narrative intermediary, the role of the chorus in Greek theatre was pivotal in bridging the gap between the audience and the characters on stage, ensuring that the audience could follow and comprehend the unfolding events and themes of the play. This function was executed through several key tasks.
1.1 Exposition and Contextualisation
One of the most important roles of the chorus was to provide exposition, often relating relevant past events or background information that shaped the current narrative but took place outside of the play’s time frame. This sometimes involved recounting historical events, explaining a character’s past actions, or describing off-stage actions, thus providing essential context to the audience.
In Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” the chorus of Argive elders provides extensive exposition at the play’s beginning, describing the Trojan War’s events and Agamemnon’s role in it. This contextualises the action of the play, which takes place upon Agamemnon’s return to Argos.
1.2 Interpretation and Analysis
The chorus often offered an interpretation or analysis of the events occurring on stage, often unpacking the motivations or intentions of the characters, discussing the ethical implications of their actions, or exploring possible future consequences. This analysis deepened the audience’s understanding of the play and promoted critical engagement with the narrative.
In Sophocles’ “Antigone,” the chorus analyses and interprets the unfolding events, offering insights into the actions and motivations of the characters. For instance, they contemplate Creon’s harsh law against Polynices’ burial and Antigone’s decision to defy it, helping the audience understand the moral complexities at hand.
1.3 Emotional Guidance
The reactions and sentiments of the Greek theatre chorus provided an emotional barometer for the audience, guiding them on how they should respond to the play’s events. This emotional guidance, often rendered through song and dance, offered a lens through which the audience could view the narrative.
In Euripides’ “Medea,” the chorus of Corinthian women plays a critical role in guiding the audience’s emotional response to Medea’s plight. Their sympathy for Medea elicits similar feelings in the audience, yet their horror at her ultimate actions in killing her children ensures that the audience’s emotional response remains balanced.
1.4 Reflection of Societal Norms and Beliefs
The chorus also embodied societal norms and values, allowing the audience to comprehend the narrative within a broader social context. This often involved expressing popular moral perspectives, religious beliefs, or social customs of the period, providing an interpretive framework for the audience.
In Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” the chorus of Theban elders embody Theban society’s traditional beliefs and values. Their reactions to Oedipus’s transgressions, including his patricide and incestuous marriage, reflect societal norms and offer a moral measuring stick for the audience.
1.5 Transition Between Scenes
The chorus often facilitated smooth transitions between different scenes or acts, narrating the passage of time or shifts in location. This transitional role helped maintain the continuity of the narrative and ensured the audience could follow the progression of the story.
In Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” the chorus of bacchants often functions as a transitional device, performing choral odes between episodes. Their performances provide both a narrative and physical transition, allowing for changes in time and place, while maintaining the drama’s momentum and coherence.
2. Collective Character
The chorus’s function as a collective character is of significant interest. The chorus contributed substantially to the narrative progression, dramatic tension, and thematic exploration of the play.
2.1 Unified Entity with Individual Presence
While the Greek theatre chorus consisted of multiple members, it often functioned as a singular, unified entity, speaking and reacting as one. This collective character often had a distinct identity tied to the setting of the play, such as the elders of a city, a group of citizens, or a band of soldiers, and was thus able to interact with the individual characters, either passively or actively.
In “Antigone” by Sophocles, the chorus consists of Theban elders who collectively represent the societal order and the views of the city’s citizens. They serve as a unified entity, commenting on the action, interpreting the unfolding events, and collectively interacting with the individual characters.
2.2 Participant in the Drama
As a collective character, the chorus was not merely an observer but a participant in the drama, with the ability to engage in dialogue with individual characters. The chorus’s dialogue often took on the form of stichomythia (a rapid exchange of single lines), contributing to the dynamic interplay and rhythm of the scene. This active participation provided additional perspectives and responses to the unfolding events, adding depth and complexity to the narrative.
In “The Eumenides” by Aeschylus, the chorus of the Furies plays a significant role in the drama, directly engaging with characters such as Orestes and Apollo, and participating actively in the trial at the heart of the play.
2.3 Reactive Role
The chorus also had a reactive role, responding collectively to the play’s events. Their reactions could reflect the ideal or expected responses from the society they represent, thereby guiding the audience’s understanding and emotional response to the events on stage.
In “The Bacchae” by Euripides, the chorus of bacchants reacts emotionally to the tragic fate of Pentheus, thus intensifying the audience’s response to his downfall.
2.4 Amplifier of Dramatic Tension
Through their collective reactions, the chorus sometimes amplifies the dramatic tension in the play. Their collective fear, joy, or sorrow, expressed through choral odes, often heightens these emotions in the audience, contributing to the overall dramatic effect.
In “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles, the chorus of Theban elders enhances the dramatic tension throughout the play, particularly as Oedipus edges closer to discovering his true identity. Their reactions of fear and dread amplify the emotional intensity of the narrative.
2.5 Moral and Ethical Dimension
As a collective character, the chorus often embodied the moral or ethical norms of the society they represent. Their collective judgement, approval, or disapproval of the actions of the individual characters often underscores the moral or ethical implications of the narrative, thus serving a didactic purpose.
In “Agamemnon” by Aeschylus, the chorus of Argive elders frequently comments on the moral implications of the characters’ actions, particularly those of Clytemnestra. They underscore the tragedy of Agamemnon’s murder and question the moral repercussions of Clytemnestra’s act of revenge.
3. Reflection of Public Opinion
The role of the chorus in Greek theatre also included being the voice of the polis, or city-state, reflecting societal norms, moral codes, and public sentiment. This representation of collective public opinion significantly impacted the dramatic narrative and the audience’s interpretation of the unfolding events.
3.1 Mirror of Societal Values
The chorus often embodied the prevalent values, traditions, and norms of the society they represented, whether it was the citizenry of a city, a group of soldiers, or a band of women. Their collective viewpoints provided an insight into the societal framework within which the narrative unfolded and the characters operated.
In Euripides’ “Medea”, the chorus is comprised of Corinthian women who express the societal norms of the time. They sympathise with Medea’s plight but also voice disapproval of her plans for revenge, mirroring societal expectations and moral codes.
3.2 Interpreter of Actions
By responding to the actions of individual characters, the chorus helped shape the audience’s understanding and evaluation of those actions. Whether they expressed approval, disapproval, fear, or hope, their responses could reflect how society might judge the same actions, thus providing a moral and ethical barometer for the audience.
In Sophocles’ “Antigone”, the chorus of Theban elders often comment on the actions of Antigone and Creon. They reflect societal views about the conflict between divine law (as represented by Antigone’s actions) and man-made law (as represented by Creon’s decree)
3.3 Expression of Collective Emotion
The chorus also served to reflect the collective emotional response of society to the unfolding events. Their shared emotional reactions, expressed through choral odes, often intensify these emotions in the audience, reinforcing the narrative’s emotional impact.
In “The Persians” by Aeschylus, the chorus is composed of Persian elders who express collective sorrow and despair over the Persian defeat at the Battle of Salamis, effectively conveying the national tragedy to the audience.
3.4 Representation of the Democratic Ideal
In the context of Athenian democracy, the chorus’s reflection of public opinion held particular significance. The chorus represented the idea of ‘kratos’ (power) of the ‘demos’ (people), reflecting the democratic process of collective decision-making and public discourse.
In Aristophanes’ comedy “The Knights”, the chorus is made up of Athenian citizens. Their critique of the protagonist, a thinly veiled satire of a contemporary Athenian political figure, reflects the democratic ideal of public discourse and criticism of the powerful.
3.5 Advisory Function
The chorus often served an advisory role, cautioning or counselling individual characters based on societal wisdom and experience. This function can be seen as a reflection of the collective wisdom of society.
In “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles, the chorus of Theban elders frequently advises Oedipus, offering wisdom and urging caution. Their role as advisors reflects the societal expectation of elders imparting wisdom to younger generations.
4. Mood Setting and Foreshadowing
The role of the chorus in Greek theatre also included mood setting and foreshadowing, employing their unique collective voice and dramatic techniques to influence audience emotions, build suspense, and hint at upcoming events.
4.1 Mood Setting
The chorus was particularly effective in establishing a scene’s emotional tone or mood. Using choral odes—structured songs often composed of strophe and antistrophe sections—the chorus could evoke a wide range of emotions in the audience, from fear and sorrow to joy and anticipation. The mood created by the chorus often reflected or contrasted with the emotional states of the individual characters, thereby enhancing the overall emotional texture of the narrative.
In “Antigone” by Sophocles, the choral odes often set the emotional tone for the scene. One particular ode, known as the “Ode to Man,” reflects on the achievements and the follies of mankind, setting a contemplative and sombre mood that underscores the play’s tragic events.
4.2 Building Tension
The chorus often built suspense and tension, preparing the audience for significant dramatic moments. This was variously achieved through the rhythm and tempo of their songs, the intensity of their dances, and the urgency of their dialogue. By modulating these elements, the chorus escalates tension or provides relief, influencing the audience’s emotional engagement with the drama.
In Aeschylus’s “Agamemnon”, the chorus of Argive elders helps build tension through their dialogues and songs, particularly in anticipation of Agamemnon’s return and the impending disaster they sense but cannot quite articulate.
The chorus often used their songs or dialogue to provide hints or warnings about impending events, a literary device known as foreshadowing. This often involves references to future calamities, prophecies, or ominous warnings. Foreshadowing heightened suspense and prepared the audience for future plot developments, ensuring dramatic events did not seem abrupt or unheralded.
In “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles, the chorus frequently hints at future events. Their comments on the nature of prophecy and their fear of what Oedipus’s investigation might foreshadow the tragic revelation of Oedipus’s true identity.
4.4 Manipulation of Time
The Greek theatre chorus also had a unique capacity to manipulate perceived time within the narrative. Through their songs or dialogue, they could indicate the passage of time, creating anticipation for future events or a sense of retrospection for past actions. This time manipulation was critical in setting the mood and foreshadowing events.
In Euripides’ “The Trojan Women”, the chorus of Trojan women sings of their past happiness and the recent siege, effectively indicating the passage of time and building a sense of retrospection that deepens the sense of tragedy.
4.5 Evoking Audience Empathy
The chorus’s collective voice and emotional expressiveness evoked empathy in the audience. By mirroring or responding to the emotions of the individual characters, the chorus enabled the audience to share in the narrative’s emotional journey, enhancing their emotional investment in the drama.
In “The Bacchae” by Euripides, the chorus of bacchants elicits empathy from the audience through their passionate songs and dances. Their wild celebrations of Dionysian rituals and their lamentation for the suffering Dionysus contrast sharply with the rationalist views of Pentheus, inviting the audience to empathise with the god’s followers and understand their perspective.
5. Rhythmic and Aesthetic Elements
The role of the chorus in Greek theatre also involved a rhythmic and aesthetic element. This role manifested through incorporating choral odes, dance, music, and poetry, which enhanced the narrative structure and contributed to the overall dramatic spectacle.
5.1 Choral Odes
The choral odes were a distinctive feature of Greek tragedy, characterized by their structured lyric poetry set to music. These odes were often composed of strophe and antistrophe sections, with the chorus moving in one direction during the strophe and in the opposite direction during the antistrophe. This alternating movement provided a rhythmic structure punctuating the drama and enhancing its momentum.
In “Antigone” by Sophocles, the chorus sings the “Ode to Man,” a renowned choral ode, between episodes. The rhythm and structure of this ode, alternating between strophe and antistrophe, provide a rhythmic pulse that punctuates the dramatic action.
5.2 Integration of Dance and Music
The chorus’s role was not confined to the spoken or sung word. Dance was vital to their performance, bringing a kinetic dimension to the dramatic narrative. Choreographed movements in unison added to the spectacle and emphasized the chorus’s collective character. Similarly, the use of music, whether instrumental or vocal, contributed to the rhythmic structure and mood of the play, evoking a range of emotional responses from the audience.
In “The Bacchae” by Euripides, the chorus of bacchants frequently engages in ecstatic dances and songs in honour of Dionysus. Their dances and songs contribute to the rhythmic structure and mood of the play, creating a kinetic spectacle that enhances the dramatic narrative.
5.3 Aesthetic Appeal
The combination of music, dance, and poetry in the choral odes created an aesthetic experience that was visually, sonically, and intellectually engaging. This enriched the performance beyond the main narrative, providing a multi-sensory spectacle that amplified the dramatic impact.
In “The Persians” by Aeschylus, the chorus of Persian elders adds to the aesthetic appeal of the performance with their lamentations for the Persian defeat at the Battle of Salamis. Combining poetic language, music, and movement, their choral odes create a visually and sonically rich spectacle.
5.4 Respite from Tension
The choral odes, performed between episodes of the main plot, offered a pause from the escalating tension of the narrative. This served to regulate the emotional intensity of the drama, providing moments of reflection, relief, or anticipation for the audience.
In “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles, the choral odes serve as a pause from the escalating tension of Oedipus’s investigation into the cause of Thebes’s plague. These interludes offer the audience moments of reflection and anticipation, effectively regulating the emotional intensity of the drama.
5.5 Orchestration of Time and Space
The chorus’s movements around the orchestra (the performing space) and their rhythmic chanting helped create the dramatic space and time. Their presence and performance underscored the rhythm of the unfolding drama and marked the passage of time within the narrative, thereby enhancing the sense of temporal and spatial continuity.
In “Agamemnon” by Aeschylus, the chorus of Argive elders’ movements around the orchestra and their rhythmic chanting help orchestrate the dramatic space and time. Their presence and performance underscore the rhythm of the unfolding drama and mark the passage of time within the narrative.
6. Moral and Philosophical Commentary
The chorus frequently provided moral and philosophical insights, often reflecting on the ethical implications of the character’s actions and decisions. This aspect underscored the educative function of Greek drama, promoting reflection and discourse among the audience.
6.1 Ethical Evaluation
The chorus often provided an ethical lens through which the drama could be interpreted. They reacted to the actions of the individual characters, expressing approval, disapproval, or uncertainty, thereby providing an ethical evaluation of their choices and conduct. This assessment played a vital role in reinforcing or challenging the moral norms of society, engaging the audience in an exploration of ethical issues.
In Sophocles’ “Antigone”, the chorus, comprised of Theban elders, often comments on the actions of Antigone and Creon. They question Creon’s decision to deny Polynices a proper burial and Antigone’s rebellious action, expressing uncertainty and concern about the ethical implications of their choices.
6.2 Philosophical Commentary
Beyond ethics, the chorus also contributed philosophical insights into the unfolding drama. They pondered on the nature of human existence, fate, the divine, justice, and other philosophical concepts that were woven into the narrative. Through their songs and dialogues, the chorus invited the audience to contemplate these profound themes, enriching the intellectual depth of the drama.
In Euripides’ “The Bacchae”, the chorus of bacchants frequently reflects on the power and mystery of the gods, particularly Dionysus. Their songs praise the god’s dual nature as both a bringer of joy and a terrifying force, encouraging the audience to contemplate the complex and unpredictable nature of the divine.
6.3 Didactic Function
The moral and philosophical commentary of the chorus underpinned the didactic function of Greek theatre. Greek drama was not merely a form of entertainment but was also a medium of education and social discourse. The chorus’s commentary encouraged reflection and discussion among the audience, promoting ethical understanding and philosophical inquiry.
In Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon”, the chorus of Argive elders reflects on the destructive consequences of hubris, as seen in Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia and his arrogant behavior upon his return from Troy. Their commentary offers a didactic lesson on the dangers of excessive pride.
6.4 Collective Wisdom
The chorus often symbolized the collective wisdom of the community, a reflection of societal norms and expectations. Their commentary represented the communal voice, providing counsel, caution, or critique in response to the characters’ actions. This communal perspective added a layer of societal validation or critique to the individual experiences depicted in the drama.
In Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex”, the chorus of Theban elders represents the community’s collective wisdom. Their reactions to Oedipus’s investigation into the cause of Thebes’s plague provide a societal perspective, expressing caution and fear about the potential consequences.
6.5 Emotional Resonance
The chorus’s moral and philosophical commentary resonated emotionally with the audience. Through their collective voice, they expressed feelings of fear, hope, sorrow, joy, and confusion in response to the moral and philosophical dilemmas presented in the drama. This emotional resonance helped the audience engage more deeply with the ethical and philosophical themes of the drama.
In Euripides’ “Medea”, the chorus of Corinthian women expresses sympathy for Medea’s plight as a foreign woman betrayed by her husband. Their emotional reactions resonate with the audience, encouraging empathy and deeper engagement with the drama’s moral complexities.
7. Religious Function
The origins of the Greek theatre are closely connected to religious festivals, particularly those dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine, agriculture, and fertility of nature, who was also the patron god of the Greek stage. The chorus maintained a religious tone and helped imbue the drama with a sense of reverence and ritual.
7.1 Dionysian Festivals
Greek theatre emerged from the Dionysian festivals, where choruses would sing and dance in honor of Dionysus. The chorus in the theatre maintained this link to the original Dionysian context. Their songs, dances, and dialogues contributed to the sacred atmosphere and served as a constant reminder of the theatre’s religious origins.
In Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” the chorus of bacchants, followers of Dionysus, perform hymns and dances in honor of the god, reminiscent of the Dionysian rituals that were the roots of Greek theatre. The chorus’s ecstatic worship maintains the strong connection to the play’s religious origins.
The chorus’s performance was inherently ritualistic. Their synchronized movements, rhythmic chants, and the cyclical nature of their odes had a mesmerizing, almost hypnotic effect. This ritualistic element, combined with their songs’ spiritual content, helped create a reverential aura and connected the audience to the divine.
In Aeschylus’ “The Eumenides,” the chorus of Furies provides a strong ritualistic element with their rhythmic chants and synchronised movements. Their haunting presence and ritualistic performance instil a sense of dread and reverence, emphasizing the sacred nature of their role as avenging spirits.
7.3 Religious Commentary
The chorus often provided religious commentary, reflecting on the role of the gods in human affairs, the nature of fate, and the moral and spiritual implications of the characters’ actions. This commentary served to reinforce the religious themes woven into the drama and encouraged the audience to engage with the spiritual dimensions of the narrative.
In Sophocles’ “Antigone,” the chorus of Theban elders frequently reflects on the role of the gods in human affairs, particularly the consequences of defying divine laws. Their reflections and comments imbue the drama with a strong sense of religiosity.
7.4 Representing the Divine
The chorus sometimes served as a mouthpiece for the gods, delivering divine messages, prophecies, or judgements. This function further underlined the religious function of the theatre, establishing a direct link between the divine realm and the dramatic action.
In Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” the chorus communicates the prophecies of the Oracle of Apollo to Oedipus, effectively serving as a messenger of the gods. Their role underscores the divine presence in the unfolding tragedy.
The chorus also contributed to the cathartic experience of the drama. The shared emotions expressed by the chorus, and the wisdom imparted through their commentary, facilitated a communal purging of emotions – a catharsis, that had spiritual significance. This cathartic function is a crucial part of the religious aspect of Greek theatre.
In Euripides’ “The Trojan Women,” the chorus of Trojan women contributes to the cathartic experience of the drama. Their shared lamentations and reflections on the devastating consequences of war facilitate a communal purging of emotions, reflecting the spiritual dimension of catharsis in Greek drama.
Playwrights’ Use of the Chorus
Ancient Greek playwrights each had unique styles and approaches to utilising the chorus in their works. There were differences in not only the number of chorus members but also the function and engagement of the chorus in the narrative.
Known as the ‘father of tragedy’, Aeschylus was the first of the three great ancient Greek tragedians. In his early works, Aeschylus typically used a chorus of fifty, following the tradition of the Dionysia festival. However, he reduced this number to twelve in his later works. Aeschylus often made the chorus a central participant in the play’s main action. For instance, in “The Persians”, the chorus represents the council of Persian elders who react to the news of their army’s defeat.
Sophocles was the second of the three renowned Greek tragedians. He made significant innovations in Greek theatre, including reducing the traditional chorus from fifty (as was often employed by Aeschylus) to fifteen members, a convention that became standard in later Greek tragedies. This change perhaps allowed for more focus on individual characters. Sophocles often used the chorus to explore the philosophical implications of the dramatic action, as seen in “Oedipus Rex” where the chorus reflects on the mystery of human life and destiny.
Euripides, the third of the great tragedians, continued to use a chorus of fifteen members, following the convention set by Sophocles. However, he often employed the chorus in a significantly different way. While the chorus had been an integral part of the action in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in Euripides’ plays, they were often more detached from the plot, serving more as observers and commentators. Euripides frequently used the chorus to convey the emotional atmosphere and provide philosophical commentary. In “The Bacchae”, for instance, the chorus of bacchantes often intensifies the atmosphere of wild religious ecstasy.
Aristophanes was a comic playwright whose approach to the chorus was distinctly different from the tragedians. His plays often incorporated a chorus of twenty-four members, which was typical for Old Comedy. Aristophanes creatively employed the chorus not only as commentators but also as active participants in the comedy. The choruses in Aristophanes’ plays are diverse and could be composed of clouds, wasps, birds, or even frogs, as seen in his play “The Frogs”.