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The Role of the Chorus in Antigone and Oedipus the

KingSophocles wrote many works during his life, but none is more remembered than “Oedipus Rex.” This play is fairly well known and respected as a work of art. Although some people don’t realize that this play was the second in a series of three plays written by Sophocles. These plays are very old and represent a simpler time of royalty, honor, and prophecy. The plays have many similarities and differences within them; for example a chorus of men supports them all.

The three plays, which are very obviously linked together by the chronological order in which the myth is presented, are also very similar in the function of the chorus in each. Each play contains a chorus of “elders,” these are, the “old wise men.” These men have lived their entire lives in the city and are greatly respected by the citizens for their leadership roles in the community. The chorus also represents women, children, and soldiers, but they are in the background and basically being spoken for.

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Probably the earliest of these works is “Antigone.” In this work we recognize the concern with public morality, but Sophocles is careful to make sure that his chorus does not become outspoken against the basic ideas of the play. It seems Sophocles intended the act of burying Polyneices to start the disputes in the play. It is generally seen that Antigone’s burial of Polyneices is the “right thing,” and Creon’s opposition to the burial was a sign of his tyranny, although it can sometimes be hard to determine which side the chorus supports throughout the play.

The chorus can be read into in a few different ways. One way is to interpret the chorus as fully devoted to Creon throughout the play, but tend to drift away at certian moments. The next logical interpretation would be to look at the chorus as supporters of Antigone, maybe even her secret supporters from the beginning. Possibly the safest way to read the chorus is to view them as the “middlemen.” These are the people who really don’t show support one way or another, but they are around to keep everything in order and to pass along ideas to better the situation.

The chorus in Antigone is described as “Theban Elders.” This gives the appearance of old age and devotion to the city of Thebes. Besides the fact of being described as “aged,” dialogue reveals an age. The chorus leader once says the he has known Teiresias for a true prophet “Well, I know, since the hair on my head went gray, hes never lied to Thebes.” (Sophocles: lines 1216-1218, p. 661). Later in the play, the chorus is referred to as “Lords of Thebes.” This is an obvious sign of high ranking, at least in the townspeople’s eyes.
The “Theban elders” are summoned by Creon who attempts enlist their active cooperation in helping to prevent the burial. The chorus misunderstands Creon’s request and they use their age as an excuse from the task at hand. In turn Creon continues to force his position upon them and they finally agree only after expressing fear of punishment or even death. Again the chorus sings to no one. They are the only ones around, so we must assume that they are having a discussion amongst themselves. They seem to talk around the subject and yet again take no stand either way and leave us in suspense.

Over and over again, the chorus plays itself on a fine line. This may be one of the things that holds this play together and keeps interest sparked in the reader or viewer’s mind. For example, during a confrontation between Antigone and Creon, both characters direct themselves to the chorus only to no true response.

In the final scene, we finally get an “in your face” response from the chorus. They make it known now that they believe Creon was wrong. This doesn’t necessarily prove that they felt that way all along or not, but now we know for a least the present. The “Lords of Thebes” will now blame Creon, but are careful not to do it in his face. They also discuss the acceptance of fate; if you are destined for something, nothing can stop it from happening. The chorus ends the play with the line “and at long last those blows will teach us wisdom.” (Lines 1470-1471, p.667). Which leads right back to the reason for the specificity of the description of the “aged” men.

The only resemblance that the chorus in “Oedipus Rex” has to the chorus in “Antigone” is the fact that they are upper classmen in the eyes of the citizens of Thebes. From the beginning of the play we see that the chorus is clearly made up of men that they trust as their representatives. Although they are local citizens, they seem to have a superior quality to them. In fact, Jocasta calls them “lords of the land”, which is the same way that the chorus refers to both Creon and Oedipus.
When Oedipus first speaks to the chorus, he speaks to them like they are his equals. He shows that he understands that these are the men that the town trusts to represent all of them. Unlike Creon, Oedipus does not talk down to the chorus, nor does he threaten them. Basically Oedipus is concerned about the murder of his father and is trying to enlist the chorus to help him find the man responsible. The chorus is happy to be of assistance to Oedipus. This brings us back to the fact that this chorus is a paradox to the chorus of the previous work.

The chorus learns of the prophecy that has cursed Oedipus and realizes that all things point to him as the murderer of the king. These men greatly respect Oedipus and the last thing they want to do is to damage him in any way. The ignorant “lords of the land” seek motive and proof, but find none. What’s more, they feel that Oedipus has proved that he is a wise man and an asset to the city. Since the chorus dismisses Oedipus as the guilty party, they turn their search towards someone who would have had reason to kill Laius.

Creon accuses Oedipus of the murder many times, and Oedipus swears that he is not the murderer. He states many times that Creon and Teiresias (the seer) are plotting against him. Oedipus refuses to listen to Creon’s accusations and will not even respond to them. At the end of the play the chorus presents a very important song. In this ode, they reveal some very positive things about Oedipus. They have found proof that Oedipus is a native to the city of Thebes. Added to this, it is certain that Laius is Oedipus’ father. It seems that with the good, always comes the bad. If Oedipus is the son of Laius then it is obvious that he is the murderer. Also, this means that Jocasta is Oedipus’ mother, whom he has already married.

The chorus’ reaction to this news is pity. They do not want to take a side, so they don’t condemn him, but at the same time they don’t show very much compassion for him. This was the man that the whole city had put their faith into and considered their savior, and now he has been destroyed by his own desire for knowledge that he didn’t really need. The chorus and Oedipus now agree that it would have been better if he had never been born.

The men of these “chorus” show many similarities and differences, and they were an important part in the writings of Sophocles. If it weren’t for these important members in these plays, we would have been left in the dark during some crucial moments in the plays. The “chorus” was basically another character in the plays, but at the same time they were the whole town. It is obvious that Sophocles was very intent on making sure that every voice in the cities was heard, and he used a “chorus” to get this across.


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