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Hear ye! Hear ye! Ever feel like you're losing the plot? That things just don't make sense? You're not alone - plays can be confusing - but direct your attention to the Chorus because they're here to help you figure everything out! Think of the Chorus (also known as the Greek Chorus) as your guide to a play. They provide the link between the performance and the audience and have the primary function of helping you understand what’s going on at any point in time. Let's learn what the Chorus represents in a bit more detail.
Originating in the classical tragedies of Ancient Greek theatres, the Chorus aims to inform the audience about vital plot elements, reveal the inner thoughts of the characters, and deliver important moral messages to the audience. They would often be the first and last to speak in a play, allowing them to both foreshadow and reminisce on events in the narrative. On some occasions, they would even converse with the characters, offering them wisdom and advice.
The Greek Chorus dates all the way back to the 5th century BCE - that’s over 2500 years ago! The device saw early use in plays such as Aeschylus' The Eumenides (458BC) and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (429BC). Although recent iterations tend to be smaller in number, the original Chorus in Greek tragedy was often up to 50 people who would sing and chant their lines. Imagine the amount of practice required for everyone to speak in perfect unison!
The use of the Chorus declined when it became popular to have multiple characters and complex dialogue in plays1. However, the device saw a resurgence in the Renaissance era when it was used by playwrights like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Even today, the Chorus is occasionally seen in theatre and film.
Let’s look at some of the most common functions of the Chorus.
One of the simplest but most important reasons for the Chorus is to give the actors a breather. Costume changes and prop preparation take time, and the Chorus provides the perfect distraction for the actors to get ready for a new scene.
Did you know? In Ancient Greece, many actors often played multiple parts, with some early tragedies only featuring one actor. This made the Chorus even more crucial, as the actor needed time to change characters.
By providing commentary on the story, revealing hidden messages, and pushing the narrative’s major themes, the Chorus helps to guide the audience's understanding of the direction the play is taking. They also provide clarity to the audience, as when there is one actor playing multiple parts, the play can get confusing!
Without the Chorus there would be few ways to understand the secret feelings and motivations of a character. By granting access to these private thoughts, the Chorus provides the spectators with more knowledge about the action unfolding than the characters have themselves. This creates dramatic irony and helps the audience feel more involved in the action.
Dramatic irony originated in Greek theatre and occurs when the audience’s knowledge of events is greater than the knowledge of a play’s characters.
For example, the audience may know that a character is in danger while the character remains blissfully unaware, leading to frustration among the spectators as they watch the events unfold.
The Chorus often uses the epilogue of a play to deliver moral messages to the audience.
An epilogue is a section at the end of the play, usually used to comment on the action that has just unfolded.
As the Chorus is often the last to speak in the play, they hold the unique position of being able to reflect on the story and offer moral advice to the spectators. In doing so they warn the audience against repeating the mistakes made by the play’s characters.
In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604), Faustus – dissatisfied with the limitations of human knowledge – sells his soul to the devil for immense knowledge and power, eventually being dragged down to hell for his sins. The Chorus reflects on his mistakes:
Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight, and burnèd is Apollo's laurel-bough that sometime grew within this learnèd man.
- The Chorus, Epilogue
The Chorus states that, had Faustus not made a pact with the devil, he may have gone on to greater things and grown ‘full straight’. They therefore imply that the audience should not attempt to step outside of the boundaries of human knowledge and should be content to live within their means.
The Chorus treats the audience as friends, lets them in on secrets and inside information by breaking the fourth wall, and therefore involves them intimately in the action unfolding. This creates a link between the actor and the onlooker, giving the audience reasons to be invested in the story.
The fourth wall is the 'barrier' between the spectators and the performance. The audience can see the actors performing, but it is assumed that the actors cannot see the audience in return.
The fourth wall can be broken by having performers 'step through' the barrier, either by having them acknowledge the audience directly or reference the fact that they are part of a play.
Furthermore, the Chorus can control the pace of the narrative by highlighting certain areas to create suspense and downplaying others for surprise twists. They could even slow down the story to emphasise key points or build tension when necessary to create a climactic ending.
By creating a connection between actor and spectator, the Chorus can also make the audience feel responsible for the action. For example, if a murder is played out on stage after the Chorus warned it would happen, the audience may feel partially responsible!
Let’s take a look at the use of the Chorus from Ancient Greece to now.
Many of the earliest examples of the Chorus from Ancient Greek theatre come from three important dramatists: Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. The Chorus was often large and consisted of people who were usually – but not always – representative of the general population of the play.
For example, in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes (467 BC), The Chorus is made up of Theban women, whereas in Euripides’ The Trojan Women (415 BC), the Chorus was made up of (can you guess it?) Trojan women!
Let’s look at some examples of the Chorus in a popular Greek tragedy, Euripides’ Hippolytus (428 BC), which dramatises the Greek myth of the same name, and features a Chorus of women from Troezen (a town in Greece).
Love distils desire upon the eyes, love brings bewitching grace into the heart of those he would destroy. I pray that love may never come to me with murderous intent.
- The Chorus, lines 525-9
With these lines, the Chorus reflects on the destructive power of love – a force that will destroy the lives of the key characters of Hippolytus as the play progresses. This is an early example of how a chorus can draw the audience’s attention to key themes. By associating ‘love’ with ‘murderous intent', the Chorus both builds tension and influences how the audience perceives different aspects of the narrative.
Let's take a look at another example from the same play, where the Chorus reflects on the decisions of Phaedra, a key character.
The shame of her cruel fate has conquered. She has chosen good name rather than life: she is easing her heart of its bitter load of love.
- The Chorus, lines 773-5
Here we see another function of the Chorus: to reveal the inner motivations of a character. In this case, they reveal that Phaedra would rather choose honour over her own life.
Not all Choruses are created equal! Sophocles, who created several important Greek tragedies, including Oedipus Rex (429BC) and Antigone (441BC) was famed for implementing a Chorus that could interact with his play’s characters and vice versa. Look at this example, where a Chorus of elderly men address the hero in Antigone:
'You went too far, the last limits of daring—smashing against the high throne of Justice!Your life's in ruins, child—I wonder…do you pay for your father's terrible ordeal?'
The Chorus, lines 943-6
The Chorus expresses frustration to the heroine by asking her whether she is doomed because of the actions of her father. Notice the difference between this Chorus and the previous example. While Euripides’ Chorus speaks in the third person and reflects on the action as an external narrator, Sophocles’ Chorus is more involved, acting as a character that can have influence, hold opinions, and offer advice.
One of the most important resurgences of the Chorus was during the Renaissance. In contrast to its use in Ancient Greek theatre, the Renaissance Chorus was often reduced to one person instead of the large, unified groups seen in the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides.
The Renaissance period occurred throughout the 15th and 16th centuries and saw a rise in the popularity of theatre alongside playwrights like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson.
However, the Chorus still served many of the same purposes, such as helping the audience to understand the drama unfolding and influencing their perspective of the characters.
The world’s most famous playwright, William Shakespeare, was one of the key revivers of the Chorus in the Renaissance period. Let’s look at the opening of Romeo and Juliet (1597).
Two households, both alike in dignity,In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;Whose misadventured piteous overthrows,Doth with their death bury their parents' strife
- The Chorus, Prologue
This Chorus sets the scene by providing setting, background and key characters to the audience. While this is to be expected, what is surprising is that Shakespeare’s Chorus tells the spectators exactly what is going to happen – not only showing the forbidden love of Romeo and Juliet but also that they will take their own lives – meaning that the audience will view the whole play with the expectation of what is to occur.
By telling the audience the outcome of the play, Shakespeare implies that the fate of the characters is inevitable. Even the words ‘star-cross’d lovers’ suggest that their destinies are out of their hands and that something external controls their fates. This is another example of how the Chorus can draw attention to important themes and ideas.
Even in modern theatre and film, the Chorus still sees occasional use, with more and more writers using the Chorus in innovative ways.
In Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive (1997) there are multiple Choruses, with each one representing a part of the psyche of Li’l Bit, the main character. The Choruses are made up of memories, recollections and ingrained remarks that have impacted her over the course of her life.
Here, Li'l Bit is remembering something that her grandfather said to her, and then thinking about how she would have liked to respond. In this case, Li’l Bit’s grandfather is represented by the male Chorus.
MALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Grandfather.) "How is Shakespeare going to help her lie on her back in the dark?" (Li’l Bit is on her feet.)
LI’L BIT: "You’re getting old. Big Papa. You are going to die —very very soon. Maybe even tonight. And when you get to heaven, God’s going to be a beautiful black woman in a long white robe. She’s gonna look at your chart and say: Uh-oh. Fornication. Dog-ugly mean with blood relatives. Oh. Uh-oh. Voted for George Wallace."
After recalling a sexist remark from the grandfather (represented by the male Chorus) Li’l Bit responds by insisting that because of his actions he will be turned away from Heaven. Vogel uses the Chorus to help draw attention to the theme of misogyny, showing how, when employed in a unique way, the Chorus can be adapted to tackle modern issues.
For further reading, here is a list of some of the most important plays that include the Chorus:
|Sophocles||Oedipus at Colonus||401BC|
|William Shakespeare||Romeo and Juliet||1597|
|William Shakespeare||Henry V||1599|
|William Shakespeare||Henry VII||1613|
|Christopher Marlowe||Doctor Faustus||1604|
|Paula Vogel||How I Learned to Drive||1997|
|Phil Dawkins||Failure: A Love Story||2014|
1H.C Montgomery, Some Later Uses of the Greek Tragic Chorus, The Classical Journal, 1942
The Chorus is the link between the actor and the audience. They help the spectator understand the narrative, appreciate certain themes, and access the inner thoughts of characters.
The Chorus works by talking to the audience, where they can give opinions on the characters, emphasise certain elements and downplay others to create the effect desired by the dramatist.
Some examples of the Chorus in plays are: Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Euripides Hippolytus, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, and Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive.
The Chorus can reveal things to the audience that they would otherwise have no way of knowing. This links the actor more closely to the spectator, making the audience more invested in the story.
The chorus plays the part of linking the actor to the audience. They help the audience understand the play, and even deliver moral messages to the viewers.
What century did the chorus first originate in?
5th Century BC
Which of these is not a function of the chorus?
To offer the audience advice.
Which of these plays does not include the chorus?
William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1602).
Which of these dramatists was famed for plays where the chorus would interact with the characters, offering them advice and wisdom?
Doctor Faustus, one of the more famous renaissance plays including the chorus, was created by which dramatist?
In which theatres was the chorus first used?
Ancient Greek theatre.
Which dramatist created Hippolytus (428BC)?
Which era were Shakespeare and Marlowe a part of?
The renaissance era.
Who created How I Learned to Drive (1997)?
Which play includes the quote: "A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life"?
Romeo and Juliet (1597).
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