One of the most important literary devices used by Sophocles in his play Oedipus the King is what is known to modern critics as the “Greek Chorus. ” The chorus was an important part of Greek tragedy, not only in the plays of Sophocles, but in the work of many other playwrights as well. Sophocles, in addition to incorporating well-known myths and historical motifs into his play, used the chorus as an additional method by which to ensure the audience’s understanding of the action on the stage.
He also used the chorus to help the audience to feel a sense of a participation in the action of the play and to direct their sense of the plot and to focus the audience’s sympathy on appropriate characters. The use of the chorus in Greek tragedy was, as mentioned, a common literary device, but Sophocles is well known for being a creative adapter of conventions and in his hands, the chorus functions in myriad capacities, some obvious and some subtle.
In order to appreciate the importance of the chorus in a play like Oedipus the King, it is crucial to first have an understanding of how the chorus traditionally functioned in Greek tragedy. Physically, the chorus was made up of “an anonymous group of fifteen” (Taplin 12) who, in addition to functioning as characters within the play, proper, also participated in the orchestra, providing “musical accompaniment [… ] on the aulos, a double pipe with reeds [… ] the aulos-player stood in the orchestra, also in tragic costume” (Taplin 12).
The chorus also chanted, snag, and danced “the choral odes which divide the acts of tragedy” (Taplin 12) while occasionally singing or chanting ” in lyric dialogue with the actors” (Taplin 12) . In addition to these roles, the traditional chorus also featured a leader: “the koryphaios, probably distinguished slightly by costume” (Taplin 12) who might also contribute dialogue to the play. Furthermore, the chorus held a connotation for Greek audiences which is all but unknowable to modern observers and this connotation relates to the presence of “chorale” bodies of chorus-like arrangements in everyday Greek society.
Even the rudimentary aspects of the chorus in its theatrical incarnation: singing and dancing, held for the Greeks, a very different social and cultural resonance than for moderns. In Greek life, ” a chorus was an integral part of many communal occasions, religious and secular—festivals, weddings, funerals, victory celebrations,” (Taplin 13) and the chorus also helped to lend a sense of ritual and ceremony to “all ‘festive’ occasions in Greek life” (Taplin 13).
As such, the chorus as a literary device held for the Greeks in relation to theater: “a prominent and important place [… ] in the performance as a whole” (Taplin 13). The distinction between ancient and modern observers is a very important distinction to make when discussing the Greek chorus as a literary device. Quite simply, for the modern observer, the best understanding of the function of the chorus may well be that the modern observer should regard the chorus as a kind of bridge between the mythical action of the play and the audience who observes this action.
In fact some critics assert that this “bridge” role was also intended by Greek playwrights who used the chorus and specifically intended to be used this way by Sophocles in Oedipus the King. For these critics, the chorus represents “an “ideal spectator” that directs our thought and attention” (Hogan 44) and this is an intentional function of the chorus as a literary device as adopted by Sophocles. Obviously, in its function as a bridge between the audience and the action on the stage, the chorus in Oedipus the King plays a pivotal, rather than decorative role.
For example, in relating a sense of irony to the audience, the chorus is used by Sophocles specifically “On three occasions” (Hogan 21) to provide a focal point of ironic realization on the audience’s behalf. Therefore, when “Oedipus defends his innocence [… ] both he and the chorus of Athenians remain profoundly sensitive to the pollution that still clings” (Hogan 21) while, similarly, when “Oedipus rationalizes the murder” (Hogan 21) he invokes the sense of the chorus-as-court-of-law.
The irony, of course, being that both the chorus and the audience are sympathetic to the plight of Oedipus just as it is hoped on Oedius’ behalf that “A court of law would be sympathetic” (Hogan 21). Another example is when Oedipus speaks to the chorus and says: “I pray god that the unseen killer, whoever he is, and whether he killed alone or had help, be cursed with a life as evil as he is, a life of utter human deprivation. ” (Sophocles 28, 297-300).
Here, the coryphaeus, or leader of the chorus, also speaks lines which, ironically, indicate that he “is thinking of the killer, who is much nearer for questioning than he knows” (Hogan 36). Each of these uses of the chorus by Sophocles heightens the sense of irony in the play while simultaneously promoting a sense of audience involvement and, obviously, forwarding the plot of the tragedy. The chorus is exceptionally important as a device in helping to direct the action of the play to and through the climax. The verbal interplay between Oedipus and the chorus increases near the end of the play.
By inspecting “Oedipus’ words (and to the Chorus’) during the final part of the play, we will learn what beliefs and allegiances have survived” (Sophocles 14) and what little glimmer of redemption can be said to exist in the play’s tragic climax and aftermath can be gleaned from the words of the chorus, which close the play. Although Oedipus’ closing speeches are filled with pain and lamentation, the human world remains to him as “he hears the voice of the Chorus. Clarity and poise return as he tells the Chorus it was Apollo who destroyed his life, but that it was he and no one else who chose to strike out his own eyes” (Sophocles 14).
The chorus,then, emerges as the target Oedipus’s confession and the implied target of the “moral” of his story. The audience, of course, is the chorus and vice-versa, so that the closing lines of the play: “Don’t call a man god’s friend until he has come through life and crossed over into death never having been god’s victim” (Sophocles 67, 1765-1766) emerge as the cathartic “lesson” distilled from the mythic action of the story, by way of the chorus, to enrich the audience’s understanding.
Works Cited Hogan, James C. A Commentary on the Plays of Sophocles. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. Robert Bagg. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982. Taplin, Oliver. Greek Tragedy in Action. London: Routledge, 2003.
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