Role of Chorus in Oedipus Rex
The chorus in Greek tragedy arouse out of rituals. Lexically the word Chorus means ‘a company of dancers or singers’. Before its special use in the theatre, the chorus had been participants in Greek religious festivals, dancing and chanting.
The chorus in classical tragedies plays a very significant role. Aristotle in his Poetics traces the origin of tragedy in choric songs and hymns sung in praise of various gods particularly Dionysus. It is chorus that in the due course of time developed into tragedy and the choric songs gradually incorporated in them developed into dialogues. Tragedy later on consisted of dialogues and action but the role of chorus was still prominent though this role diminished as time passed. In Sophocles and Euripides the chorus seems to have been exploited differently, but it is still, there all the time for the spectators to see and hear. In Roman tragedies the Chorus only delivered speeches in between the acts. In Shakespeare, in some cases, the Chorus appears as an actor delivering the prologue and the epilogue. Aristotle praises Sophocles more for the proper exploitation of the chorus than he does Euripides. As he says:
“The chorus should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and take a share in the action — that which it has in Sophocles rather than in Euripides”.
As a matter of fact, in most Greek tragedies Chorus does not seem to be an undesirable interpolation rather it contributes positively to the over-all structure of the play.
In Oedipus Rex as in other Greek plays, the Chorus seems well knit in the very structure. The tragedy begins with the pronouncements of the chorus after the prologue. The chorus like the opening scene of Hamlet creates an atmosphere of the play and certain expectations mingled with an element of Suspense. The structural significance of the chorus can well be imagined from the fact that various episodes are marked off by choric odes. Each ode commenting on what has happened, also seems to speculate what is likely to follow. Even the conclusion of a Greek tragedy is clearly marked off by exode or the exit song. The chorus thus comments on the various events and stirs the imagination of the spectators.
In Greek tragedies, the chorus playing the role of an actor, on certain occasions, is found talking with the main characters. The chorus even advises the characters and ‘gives them clues regarding the appropriateness of their actions and utterances. Sometimes we feel as if the pronouncements of the chorus comprise nothing but our own view point viz-a-viz event in the tragedy. At others, it would seems as if the Chorus voices the view points of the dramatist, particularly when we take into account its thought provoking comments on events and characters and also its contribution to create an atmosphere.
The role played by Chorus in Oedipus Rex is no less prominent. The Parodos or the entrance song delivered by the chorus certainly creates an atmosphere of horror resulting from the plague that has stricken the people of Thebes. The misery of the people of Thebes has been very graphically and poignantly depicted. The Chorus seems to lend a helping voice to me entreaties of the suffering Thebans. In fact all the odes say thing that ought to have been said at various stages of the play. The role of the chorus in pacifying Oedipus and Creon is particularly remarkable, it is the role of a moderator. But prior to playing this role, the chorus sides with Oedipus when he has an argument with Teiresias.
Aristotle acknowledged the importance of the chorus and maintains that should be given the status of an actor. But this statement should not be taken too literally. The chorus does at times talk to the characters in tragedy and is found to be advising some of them but it never takes a hand in the action of the play directly rather it influences the action indirectly.
In Oedipus Rex, the chorus seems to have a lot to do with the main action. It is chorus whom Oedipus questions as to who the killer of Laius was. It also advises the king to send for Teiresias though the king replies that he has done so already. Creon needs the testimony of the chorus having hear that he has been accused of treason. The reaction of the chorus on this occasion is balanced and moderating. The role of the chorus, though an indirect one, when it persuades Jocasta to reconcile, Oedipus and Creon is particularly remarkable. It is the chorus again that expresses its veiled apprehension, when Jocasta rushes into the palace having known the truth. The chorus comments on the prevailing mood and prepares the spectators for the imminent disaster. Oedipus questions the chorus if it knows the identity of the Theban shepherd who handed over a child to Corinthian messenger. The chorus wise enough, once again says:
“Jocasta perhaps could tell you something”.
It expresses sympathy with Oedipus when the blinded king enters the stage. Earlier, it has lamented the terrible fall that has occurred in the position of Oedipus. In the final song, it seems to under-line the moral of the play by emphasizing that human happiness is extremely transitory and precarious.
All these instances throw ample light on the influence of the chorus on the action. This influence takes place in many ways. The contribution of the chorus to the impact of tragedy on the audience is also great. The chorus, therefore, is certainly not an undesirable encumbrance. Its presence on the stage keeps the attention of the spectator’s riveted to the action even when there are no actors saying or doing anything on the stage.
Chorus lends continuity to the main plot. Just as in modern plays, we have melody, the chorus (with its songs and dances) satisfied this psychological need of the viewers. In Shakespeare, in the Elizabethan age, the role of the chorus seems to have almost diminished though its remnants can easily be traced in Shakespeare, Marlowe and Johnson. The comic relief that relieves high tension in Shakespeare can also be equated with choral odes in Greek tragedies.
To sum up we can say that the chorus has its significance not only viz-a-viz structural necessity but also the psychological state of mind of the spectators. The odes create an emotional background to the action. They point to the significance of certain facts and also reflect the outlook of the society. Its function, therefore, is not only to mark off scenes and events, but also to control the emotional reaction of the spectators to events taking place on the stage. With the passage of time as the interest of the people in psychology, anthropology and other social sciences increased, more personal and complex stories began to be adopted for the stage and it diminished the significance and role of the chorus.