Role of The Chorus in Antigone
The Chorus is most of the plays of Sophocles do not play any active or decisive part. They are by and large ‘spectators idealized’, and do not take any mentionable share in the action. They are often emotionally connected with the principle characters. They feel for them, but do nothing. They do not interfere in their affairs. Cool, sober, and philosophical, they may be contrasted with the Aeschlean counterparts, who often fare up and fail to retain their dispassionateness.
If style is the man, the spirit of the Chorus brings into focus the character of Sophocles who was essentially philosophical, seeking wisdom as the ultimate reality. Armed with wisdom, they can remain calm and tranquil even in the face of intrigues. What Mathew Arnold has said about Sophocles can well be applied to the Chorus-“He saw life steadily and saw it whole.” They maintain detachment and they are not involved in the storm and stress of the human drama. They have been described by Haigh as the “impartial mediators, holding the balance between the various contending forces.”
Always religious and godfearing, the Chorus always point out the evils of pride and hubris. They can appreciate nobility of character. They are never non conformists, and lend their unqualified moral support to the leaders, kings, heroes, and men in authority. That explains why they support the tyrannical king although they have a sort of feeling that Antigone is right. They feel happy and secure whenever a compromise between the conflicting forces is possible.
The Sophoclean Chorus must not be described as double-dealers. Nothing is farther from the truth. But they say one thing, while the actors are on the stage. As they are off the stage, they can be far above the rough and tumble of life and politics, and discuss the eternal verities and Justice, and religion. In short, the Chorus performs several functions:
(a) It provides poetic interludes which help the spectators to understand the passage of time:
(b) It is expository in the sense that it exposes what happens off the stage:
(c) It serves the purpose of a spokesman for public opinion:
(d) It tells us about the universal significance of what is happening.
Aristotle says in his Poetics that the Chorus should “form part of the whole, and (to) join in the action, as in Sophocles, and not as in Euripides.” It is rather surprising that Aristotle speaks of the Sophoclean Chorus, whose involvement in the action has been reduced to the irreducible minimum. We shall perhaps never understand this paradox.
The characters in the Chorus are all individualized. The Chorus consists of free people. They may be men of humble origin or low social status, e.g. the sailors in the Philoctetes and the Ajax. At times Sophocles purposely formed the Chorus, composed of old men and women, who, for obvious reasons, were disabled, and, therefore, not capable of action, e.g. the old Thebans in The Oedipus Rex, and Antigone, and the young women in The Trachinae.
It is interesting to note that Sophocles increased the number of actors from two to three, and minimized the importance of the Chorus. The number of the characters in the Chorus was also raised from twelve to fifteen.
The Chorus in Antigone consisted of grave and reverend Theban elders, who commanded the respect of the people. They sang celebrating the late victory of Creon, which was possible because of the blessings of Apollo. They recalled how Polynices had created a havoc in his father’s land, but the tragedy could be averted. The seven chieftains, determined to reduce the country to a heap of ruins were completely defeated, and left their armours as trophies for the temples.
Right from the beginning of Antigone we have a strong feeling that the Chorus were essentially pro-establishment. Sick of war and bloodshed, they were looking forward to an era of peace. True, they were not happy about Creon’s order to the effect that anybody burying Polynices would be punished. And yet they did not record their protest. As the king Creon slowly and steadily degenerated into a veritable tyrant, they, no doubt, smarted, but chose to observe discreet silence. Their reactions were, however, not always the same. And we shall make necessary comments as we analyse the different Choral Odes one after another.
The second Choral Ode appears for all practical purposes to be the song of the glorification of Man. Though to a superficial observer, it may sound as the battle-cry of the Renaissance, it has a different meaning altogether in the context of the play.
The Guard reported that some unknown person had left a coating of dust upon the body of Polynices, the Chorus in their bid to defend the unknown transgressor, suggested that possibly a god might have done that. Their suggestion was summarily dismissed. It was then that the Chorus paid warm tributes to the versatility of the human genius. Man, they said was great, and for greater than man were the laws. Man extends his kingdom over the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. And yet proud man does not know his limitations. Pride is the besetting sin of man, and it is this inordinate pride that brings about his ruin. If man disobeys the laws and justice he is both a criminal and a sinner.
“The use of language, the wind-swift motion of brain
He learnt; found out the laws of living together
In cities, building him shelter against the rain
And wintry weather.”
Man’s powers, apparently unlimited, are circumscribed :
“O wondrous subtlety of man, that draws
To good or evil ways! Great honour is given
And power to him who upholdeth his country’s laws
And the justice of heaven.”
Man should therefore, be always law-abiding. If he observes the laws, the laws of the country and the laws of the gods, he will attain prosperity. If he violates the laws, his ruin is assured. It is man who can turn his country to a heaven or a hell. What in him is a promise or a possibility will be a fulfillment only when he is under the protecting wings of the laws.
A problem now arises as to whom the Chorus are speaking about. Creon by his edict violated the laws of the gods. Antigone in her turn violated the laws of Creon. The Chorus sought to maintain peace, law, and order of the city. Antigone for all her goodness posed a problem to the country. The Chorus, of course, did not know that the unknown persons, who had tried to do the funeral rites to Polynices was none other than Antigone. Yet it was Antigone rather than Creon, who was coming in for criticism.
As the Chorus came to know that the transgressor of the royal edict was Antigone herself, they did feel for her. But they did not shift their ground.
“O god! A wonder to see
Surely it cannot be-
It is no other-
Unhappy Oedipus’ daughter, it is she they bring.
Can she have rashly disobeyed
The order of our King?”
So very eloquent about the majesty of the divine laws, the Chorus were demonstrably critical about Antigone, who did not fail to observe the divine laws.
What we feel is that the Chorus were not able to exercise their reason. Loyalty to the King was their watch-word. That is why they condemned Antigone :
“She shows her father’s stubborn spirit: foolish
Not to give when everything’s against her.”
Antigone, they concluded, was the chief of the old block, the proud daughter of a proud father. They could not appreciate the supreme self-sacrifice, she was making for a noble cause. They misjudged her and said that she was suffering from the chastisement of hubris. Blind to the pride of Creon, they emphasized the pride of Antigone.
In the next Choral Ode the Chorus mourned over the ancestral guilt of the House of Labdacus. Laius disobeyed the oracle by begetting a child, and, therefore, his descendants – Oedipus and his children must pay the penalty. The curse fell upon all of them. Even in this Ode the Chorus did not seem to have changed their views about Antigone, who, in their opinion, had violated the royal edict.
“And now for the dead dust’s sake is the light of promise,
The tree’s last root, crushed out By pride of heart and the sin
Of presumptuous tongue.”
The chorus could not appreciate Antigone’s point of view and charged with pride and presumptuousness. Otherwise a nice girl, Antigone, the last of the house of Oedipus, committed a grievous crime in a fit of folly and madness. The Chorus spoke with pontifical solemnity that Antigone was wrong. She was labouring under a wrong impression that her action had divine sanction.
Haemon tried to persuade his father to revoke the order of burying Antigone alive, but to no purpose. It was then that the Chorus, half in awe and half in wonder, sang about the charm of love, which had inspired Haemon to face the king boldly, and face even death. Love is an all-pervading passion that is stronger than King. Even the gods yield to the inescapable force of love.
“Marring the righteous man,
Driving his soul into mazes of sin
And strife, dividing a house
For the light that burns in the eyes of a bride of desire
Is a fire that consumes.
At the side of the great gods
Works her will upon all.”
As Antigone was being led to be buried alive, the Chorus had undoubtedly a measure of sympathy for her. They, however doggedly stuck to their original view.
“My child, you have gone your way
To the outermost limit of during
And stumbled against Law enthroned.
This is the expiation
You must make for the sin of your father.”
Not that they were opposed to the burial of the dead. But to them, the royal edict was sacrosanct. That explains why they said:
“An act of homage is good in itself, my daughter:
But authority cannot afford to connive at disobedience.
You are the victim of your own self-will.”
In their opinion, Antigone deserved the punishment meted out to her.
Towards the close of the play, the Chorus had a moral reflection, and that sums up Sophocles philosophy of life.
“Or happiness the crown
And chiefest part
Is wisdom, and to hold
The gods in awe.
This is the law
That, seeing the stricken heart
Of pride brought down,
We learn when we are old.”
The Chorus in Antigone has spoken eloquently about the supreme value of wisdom. But on close examination one feels that they are not always wise in their views and utterances. At times they have lamentably betrayed their lack of wisdom. They occasionally hesitate and cannot make up their mind. They have their virtues and vices, strength and weakness of the common man.
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