Thursday, September 17, 2015
The Chorus in Sophocles' Theban Plays
If the natural inclination of man is to follow the crowd, Sophocles must have understood this because of his use of the chorus. It seemed to supply the democratic pull to persuade and convince his audience (or in my case, his reader) to go with the flow. I sensed an intense relief as I read over the following strophe and ceased reading. I was in awe at the power of the chorus. Some of that was due to my directed focus on the purpose of Sophocles’ chorus, but whether or not I was focused, I felt its invisible hand controlling my mood.
The Chorus of all the Theban plays is made up of the old men. Particularly, in his Oedipus at Colonus, the chorus is a group of old men of that city. In all likelihood, they are the wise experienced citizens and owners of land and, apart from the heavily ingrained fate that accompanies all Greek thought, the deciding factor of the play. The chorus, working to unite the audience in a democratic sense, not only gives clarity and provides the bigger picture, but it heavily persuades the mood.
Just before the following strophe, Theseus calms the blind king’s heart, confirming that Apollo sent and guided Oedipus to this particular grove at Colonus, a sacred resting place of the gods. He promises that his name, the name of Theseus, will be his shield of protection from the enemies. The chorus takes the role of a united societal thought and soothes the emotions of the audience, after having suffered with Oedipus over the innocent, but terrible tragedy. It is interesting to note that the “pull” of the gods is not as strong as it once was and it appears that the chorus might be taking over that responsibility. With that said, it is the chorus that changes the mood and furnishes a blanket of peace, tranquility and rest. It clarifies and expands the horizon for his future, but ultimately, it assures that Oedipus has finally found a people who will accept him.
The land of running horses, fair
Colonus takes a guest;
He shall not seek another home.
For this, in all the earth and air,
Is most secure and loveliest.
In the god’s untrodden vale
Where leaves and berries throng,
And wine-dark ivy climbs the bough,
The sweet, sojourning nightingale
Murmurs all night long.
No sun nor wind may enter there
Nor the winter’s rain;
But ever through the shadow goes Dionysus reveler,
Immortal maenads in his train.
We see that these lines are an extension of Theseus’ promise. The chorus expounds upon his oath of peace and protection. It announces, in unison, “Colonus takes a guest.” Undoubtedly, the old men agree with their King, Theseus, to receive Oedipus and protect him as their code of xenia requires. The reader feels drawn in, they are more likely persuaded to agree with the chorus and the King; it is a welcome relief.
The purpose for the chorus here is to demonstrate the belief of the people of Athens, united and amenable to make Oedipus take comfort here, his last home. The strophe assures the audience that the grove is the “most secure and loveliest” than any other place of rest. Furthermore, the words, “In God’s untrodden vale” are a safeguard that trespassers never will bother to come. The last part of the strophe guarantees that the harshness of life has no place in this part of the world. The hot sun has no more power to beat upon, bake or burn. The wind can no longer carry him away as he was wont to wander and the winter’s rain may not pelt, freeze, erode, grind him down, nor deluge him with sorrows. In this manner, the chorus calms the anxiety the audience may feel as a result of the tragedy of Oedipus’ life.
The zeitgeist of the Ancients is not far from the spirit of our times. People naturally tend toward group thought. It is much easier to follow the crowd than to stand up against it. Not that this particular chorus strophe expresses it, but that the chorus ode persuades the mood and unites us in thought, relieves us from this long suffering and influences us to agree with the people, which is not so hard to do since we want relief for poor Oedipus. The chorus is the voice of greater society, most likely the beginnings of what would soon to appear on the horizon: the Greek democracy.