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In “Oedipus Rex,” the chorus represents the voice of the average citizens and contributes insight that cannot be communicated by the other characters in the play. The chorus moves along the story by announcing the arrival of characters and answering questions that help the plot progress. Sophocles also utilizes a chorus because it helps the audience to see the story from one more angle, providing a fuller picture of the situation. Representing a body of regular citizens, the chorus is level-headed, agreeably predictable, and candid, often giving voice to the thoughts and questions of the audience. Most importantly, the chorus’ sympathy to Oedipus during this catastrophic period in his life pushes the audience to commiserate with the tragic hero.
The chorus serves as the primary medium between the audience and the characters of the play, revealing new perspectives to the audience that the characters themselves cannot show. Paul Roche comments in his introduction that the chorus’ “function in the original (helped on by dance, spectacle, and song) was to bridge the gap between the audience and the players and to intensify emotion” (Introduction xviii). The chorus gains the audience’s trust, thus allowing the audience to be open to the chorus’ opinions. This particularly contrasts the audience’s immediate reaction to the main characters, whose immorality renders distrust. When King Oedipus accuses Creon of being a traitor, for example, the audience is not entirely certain who to believe. Creon is of course quick to defend himself, “Good citizens, I hurry here / shocked into your presence by a monstrous charge / laid on me by Oedipus the King” (Second Episode 28). King Oedipus responds strongly to Creon; “You dare come back? / Have the face to put your foot inside my door? / You the murderer so self-proved” (Second Episode 29). However, the chorus quickly steps in and encourages King Oedipus to trust Creon, “He’s never told you lies / before. He’s sworn. Be kind” (Choral Diaogue 37). The audience’s mind is put to rest as the audience is swayed to perceive the chorus as being fair and reasonable. “We are convinced the taunt was made in anger, not coolly uttered by a mind at calm” (Second Episode 29). The chorus also answers questions for the audience. For instance, the chorus asks Oedipus, “Man of havoc, how / Could you hate your sight so? / What demon so possessed you?” (Epilogue, 72). Oedipus in turn answers this question on everyone’s mind, “Friends, it was Apollo, spirit of Apollo.” (Epilogue, 73). Many wonderings or doubts are fulfilled through the chorus.
The chorus is also significant in developing the plot and propelling the storyline through the use of foreshadow. The chorus foreshadows Oedipus’ doom early on through irony, for example, saying, “Yesterday or today / I knew not, nor know of a quarrel / Or a reason, or challenge to challenge / The fame of Oedipus, / Though I seek to avenge the curious death / Of the Labdacid king.” (Second Choral Ode, 28). Antistrophe responds, “So never in my mind at least / Shall he be guilty of crime.” (Second Choral Ode, 28). Thus, the chorus decisively eliminates Oedipus from being a murderer because of his reputation. This reflects how oblivious Oedipus was even of his own crime, leading him to go out of his way to advocate and solve for “the death and downfall of a king” (Prologue, 10). Another important job of the chorus is to anticipate, and then announce, the arrival of a character. When speaking to Creon, the chorus sees Oedipus from afar and says, “But look! He’s coming from the house himself.” (Second Episode, 29). The chorus has the imperative job of bringing to attention Oedipus’ arrival which leads to great conflict. Conversely, the chorus is also responsible for announcing the arrival of Creon before another dramatic conversation between Creon and Oedipus concerning Oedipus’ future, saying, “Wait! Here Creon comes to hear your pleas and deal with your designs. He takes your place as sole custodian of the State” (Epilogue, 75).
Furthermore, the chorus’ ability to gain the trust of the audience gives them the opportunity to manipulate the audience. After Oedipus’ great demise, the chorus says, “I see it in you Oedipus: Man’s pattern of unblessedness.” (Fifth Choral Ode, 68). The Antistrophe further elaborates, “You who aimed so high! Who hit life’s topmost prize-success! Who-Zeus, oh who-.” (Fifth Choral Ode, 68). The chorus does not point out that perhaps it was Oedipus who has done wrong and brought this fate upon himself. Rather, the chorus focuses upon the fragility of human life and on the rapid downfall of men, even “the mighty and once masterful” (Epilogue 81). “You saw him fall. You saw him swept away. / So, being mortal, look on that last day / And count no man blessed in his life until / He’s crossed life’s bounds unstruck by ruin still” (Epilogue 81). The chorus expresses that all men are destined to be wretched on earth and that only death alone can bring serenity. The chorus’ verdict on life and man influences the audience to grieve for the tragic hero who suffers a catastrophic fate without fault and, also, for the idea that no man can escape misery. The chorus directly persuades the audience to see the events of this play as supporting a pessimistic stance on life: “A Man, alas, whose anguish fits his fate. We could wish that we had never known you” (Choral Dialogue 73).
Sophocles further makes use of the chorus by getting his message across to the audience with irony. At one point, for example, the chorus says, “But how can we say that your design was good? / To live in blindness? Better live no longer” (Epilogue 74). Ironically, Oedipus is, for the first time in his life, not blind to his past. Indeed, it is a subjective matter whether physical blindness is more detrimental to a person than a mental or emotional blindness. One attitude is that physical blindness is not nearly as important as mental blindness and, therefore, Oedipus should rejoice life and his newfound sight. Oedipus’ reaction to the chorus’ distress over his blindness evokes more pity: “What kind of eyes should I need / to gaze upon my father’s face in Hades / or my unhappy mother’s: / Those twin victims ruined by me / for whom I should be hanged” (Epilogue 74). The audience feels compassion for Oedipus because, despite the role of fate, he asserts that he has done wrong and has sinned against his mother, father, children and his city. Oedipus’ belief that he is worthless and abominable presses the audience’s heart. “Pity you, Cithaeron, that you gave me harbor, / took me in and did not kill me straight.” (Epilogue 75).
Thus, the chorus is vital to the completion of “Oedipus Rex.” Without the chorus, the story would not be told so efficiently or so richly. It particularly would lack the component of interaction with the audience, rendering observers less immersed in and empathetic to Oedipus’ situation. The chorus is also critical for the structure and the progression of the plotline through foreshadowing. Above all, the chorus guides the audience by explicitly saying what may be inferred and questioning what is doubtful.
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