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English 112 (English Composition II)
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Oedipus the Wreck

Who Are the ChorusThe Aquila Theatre Company of London doing Oedipus the King

Are the chorus right about the gods and Oedipus? Does the chorus (townspeople) get anything exactly right in the whole play? If they are not spokespersons for the playwright, what kind of portrayal of human beings are they?

Human emotion: Becky Dorsett (1998) noted: I think the chorus is portraying the emotional, reactive side of human nature when faced with an emotional situation. I think they may be voicing what the audience is thinking. 

Do the townspeople get anything exactly right in the whole play? Obviously not, especially when they think that Oedipus is the son of a god or that Dionysus found Oedipus on the mountain or that the murderer of Laius is hiding in the forest somewhere. 

The Odes were very difficult for me to follow, too lyrical. I had to read them several times over to get their meaning.

Rational vs. Irrational?  Vanessa (2000) saw the chorus this way:

"Back in the old Greek days there were 2 schools of thought-

1 . that you thought rationally and that rationality could get you out of all your messes.

or

2 . that your destiny was left in the hands of the gods and that you could do nothing, simply be their puppet.

this remains the base theme of the Greek chorus in Oedipus rex because it was a topical discussion in Greek circles at the time. Most other theories about the chorus stem from this."

Character analysts: CN, 2001, said: "The chorus acts as an 'inside scoop' to the play. The chorus reveals certain aspects of the king and other characters that we as readers may not realize at the beginning."

Conscience: Catherine said in 2001: "The Chorus' role in the play was to act as a conscience... sort of like the "common sense" in the play. They are the ones that ask the important questions and try to make things clearer."

Emotional Gauge: Peter Phillips (1999) suggested that the chorus echo main characters and feel what the audience should feel: "Throughout the play, the Chorus reflects the thoughts of all non-major characters. It also almost defines the way the audience is supposed to react; e.g., after Oedipus blinds himself, they attempt to express the feelings of horror the audience must be feeling."

O's Pride: Michael Frutiger (1998) sided with the chorus in their estimation of Oedipus: "Look at the response of the the chorus to the conversation between Jacosta and Oedipus. The main metaphor of this passage is pride. Oedipus had so much pride that he failed to even consider the possibility that he himself could have killed Laius."

Elders of Thebes: Neumann (1999) noted that "The chorus are the elders in Thebes. They have a different perspective on Oedipus's problem because they have already suffered the decline to the third stage of the riddle of the Sphinx."

Wise But Not Infallible: Lilk13 (1999) sized up the chorus thus: "The chorus, the townspeople, thought that the gods spoke to Oedipus. They thought this because ten years earlier a sphinx, a beast with the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle and the head of a woman was devouring anyone who tried to leave or enter the city. Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx there by conquering the creature. Since no one else had been able to solve the riddle the townspeople figured Oedipus had spoken to the gods. The problem is that Oedipus had a prophecy told about him many years earlier that he would murder his father and marry his mother. And both had so far come true, so it is possible that if the gods had prophesized about Oedipus killing his father, and then King Laius is the only one the sphinx would allow to pass, that it was the gods who intervened to seal Oedipus's fate, not the gods speaking to Oedipus. The townspeople do see the impending doom about to impale Thebes; they also see the prophecy coming into clear view. The townspeople are not spokespersons for the playwright; they are the portrayal of the kind of human beings that could be the wise men, or the scholars. They have knowledge and do see a lot of the underlying plot, even though they don't see everything."

People of Thebes who comment and foreshadow: "Tyrannus" in 2000 characterized the chorus thus: "The Chorus is the view of the people of the city of Thebes. They express opinions and apply foreshadowing with the help of the Strophe and Antistrophe. The tone of the chorus, at first,  is intense with no form of rhythm. They seem irritated that the plague has almost destroyed the city because of Oedipus' inner-blindness. However, the voice of the chorus--strophe and antistrophe--seems more melodic as Oedipus finds his identity.

The chorus also note the passage of time and what is to come, and what will be happening. They also express the fears of the community, but they know who killed Laius and try to direct Oedipus. They also prepare the next character entering the scene with song or chant.

(Stratford Production shows the strophe and antistrophe in a hard, sharp, quick debate as they face each other at opposite sides of the centre stage. At the end they are in song with a rhythmic pattern that is interesting to watch. If you get the chance to see it done so!)"

Just people:  Kadir Muslu (1998, Northern Virginia Community College) agrees that the chorus represents Thebans, but he stresses that they are just common people.  Since they're the ones being hurt by the plague, they have reason to be scared and to seek aid from their king and to want safety.  If they get things wrong, it is "because they have no special power" [unlike Tiresias, who is never wrong].  "The chorus talk about their lives and what they hope and what they hear. They are only human."  They follow their leaders, trying to stay safe. They regard their leaders as people who do have special powers, but "they are always worried and speak with a lot of emotion," hoping "until the end that Oedipus was not the killer" because they need to believe in their leaders.

Voices of reason and caution: Steve Holt in 1999 disagrees that the chorus never got anything right: "I read all the responses and was surprised by how many people said that the chorus was never right about anything. Their view of Oedipus as the child of the gods was skewed, but another role that the chorus plays in Greek theatre is the voice of reason.  They warn and advise the characters who are acting rashly; for example, right after Oedipus accuses Creon of setting up Tiresias, the chorus warns Oedipus to think, because Creon has never lied before: 'Do not impeach a friend - his oath annulled upon a word.'

"In other plays, such as Antigone, this is especially true, Creon being wrong almost the entire play and the chorus telling him that. Besides being occasional extras in the play, the chorus doesn't usually play characters; rather, they serve as a connection between the audience and the play, restating what is going on and telling the audience how to react. The chorus often came across as really slow, because they would repeat what just happened or in the odes contemplate Oedipus's true past, but since they weren't supposed to know until the end of the play they would promptly forget Tiresias's warnings or whatever else.

"The chorus is very religious in nature, originally being priests reciting songs and stories to honor the gods which then evolved into theater.  That's why they often seem boring to read because the whole play is really just a religious ceremony, and they are the ones who sing praises and prayers to the gods.
"

Theban high priests: Jennifer Tolbert (1998) suggested that the chorus is a group of high priests whose advice is trusted by rulers of the city: "It seems the chorus is in prayer in some of the passages, wailing in supplication to the various gods they feel would be most likely to have the power to help them in their time of need. They also take on the role of counselor/advisor as they recommend resolution to the argument between Creon and Oedipus, and as they encourage Jocasta to take Oedipus inside to get him to calm down and think rationally...I think of the chorus as a group of high priests whom the King considers wise and in whom he trusts for good and truthful counsel both in personal affairs and the affairs of state."

The chorus and the plague: Kari (1998) paraphrased the opening speech begging Oedipus for help and noted its effect on her as part of an audience for the play: "In Oedipus the King, what the priest said would go something like this in plain English: 'Oedipus, king of our land, you see men of all ages bowing before you, from little boys, to old men, to holy men. In fact, our whole city is gathered in the square and at Athena's temples searching for help. Look around you, our city is dying! There is a plague on us that is destroying the cattle, crops, and even our women and children during childbirth. Our city wails and cries miserably! Even though you cannot equal the gods, you are the best of men. You fought the Sphinx with no extra skills or knowledge, but you still won us our freedom. So, we beg you now to help us again. Do you know something we don't? Have you heard something from a god or a man? We beg you Oedipus, help our city and defend your former glory! We call you a savior for what you've done in the past. Please don't let us remember you for saving our city once only to let us fall again. Please set us on our feet and be the same man today that you used to be. You know you have the power to do it! Rule a land of the living and not a wasteland!' If I had never read the play and did not know what these words meant I would have been intrigued by the priest's words and curious to know how Oedipus saved them and why the city is in such despair."

Impact of the plague threat on the audience: Tim Fraser (JSRCC, 1998) pointed out what a shock a plague would be in the era when this play was written, since antibiotics and anthrax vaccines weren't discovered or invented until the past hundred years.  Historically, there was a plague in Athens, where the play was performed, which Athenians would have remembered with a shudder.  In the context of this play, the plague actually was set upon Thebes by the gods due to their failure to hunt down the killer of Laius nearly a decade before.

"The Priest's description of the plague in lines 22-57 tells of the people of Thebes and their total helplessness in dealing with this catastrophe. The people of that time did not have any knowledge of medicine and had no way of combating the disease. Instead they turned to the gods and Oedipus himself. The townspeople believe that they have no way to ask the gods for help. Since Oedipus had 'freed them from the sphinx' before, they feel he has the power to talk to the gods and ask for their assistance.

"The people of this time believed everything good or bad was caused by the gods, which a person living in modern times and relying on science would find absurd. I think it would have been extremely terrifying to live in a situation where you had no understanding or control of a plague that was claiming the lives of your entire city. The 'stillborn children' and 'red waves of death' create a horrifying image of the plagues' effects. These people believed that the 'fiery god of fever' was punishing them and no matter what they did or said, did not relent. It is sad to think that these people had no knowledge of the true cause of the plague, because if it had struck in our time period, it would have undoubtedly had little effect."

The chorus and the plague--imagery and curiosity: In 1998, Jennifer Lanzillo thoroughly observed the richness of the imagery and forceful language of the first choral ode, as well as the pressure on Oedipus to be the savior of Thebes once again:

Posting Option #35: Note the details of the plague in the Priest's description of it (lines 22-57), which uses some powerful poetic imagery. State these lines in plain English; then, once you see what he's saying, tell your reaction to these lines. Do you feel disgusted by them, intrigued or curious, horrified, amused--what? and why?

"The Priest makes an incredible speech to Oedipus, the King Of Thebes. This speech is a strong descriptive speech, yielding many unpleasant and vivid words to convey how threatening this plague that has hit Thebes really is.

"He starts off by calling Oedipus, 'king of the land, our greatest power!' After all he is the King and a savior, as the people of Thebes would say. The Priest then moves on to tell of those who are among him in the crowd in front of Oedipus’s castle. 'Here are boys…Here are the old…a Priest of Zeus myself…and here the picked, unmarried men, the young hope of Thebes."'

"He tells Oedipus that this is his great family, basically meaning his people. These people here are kneeling at the shrine and temples of Athena. They want to be helped in this time of distress.

"The Priest then moves on to tell about the city itself. "Look around you, see with your own eyes--, he tells the King." The Priest uses many metaphors to describe this horrible plague that has set itself over Thebes. He says, "our ship pitches wildly, cannot lift her head from the depths, the red waves of death…" He is declaring that the City cannot lift her head or otherwise shake off this terrible plague. Thebes is swimming in the sea of death, drowning. 'Thebes is dying.'

"Moving on to reflect on what is going on the city he moves ahead to speak of, 'A blight on the fresh crops and the rich pastures, cattle sicken and die, and the women die in labor, children stillborn, and the plague, the fiery god of fever hurls down on the city, his lightening slashing through us—'

When he says "A blight on the fresh crops and the rich pastures,…" He is telling of a harmful influence that has taken over their farm land, causing their fresh crops to wither and decay. While their rich pastures become rich in death, killing off the green grass the cows need to graze on. So now the domestic bovines are dying, dying from sickness.

'…the women die in labor, children stillborn.' This speaks for itself. This horrible plague has taken the strength from the pregnant mother, leaving her with little energy , too weak to give birth. The unborn child dies. No nutrition and strength have been passed down into the womb from it’s afflicted mother. The unborn child cannot hold it’s own existence…

'…the fiery god of fever hurls down on the city, his lightening slashing through us—' The Priest speaks of a fever, telling of a god that has evoked itself into the city. An evil god, which in itself is really the fever. How are the people to believe such a horrible thing such as a fever can occur? They feel this is something given off by a god, something only a god could create. His lightning being the very heat we feel to the touch, and the pain inside we sense.

'…raging plague in all its vengeance, devastating the house of Cadmus! And Black Death luxuriates in the raw, wailing miseries of Thebes.' The Priest gives maybe somewhat of explanation of the plague by speaking of it as a raging vengeance. As if to say this is a punishment in retaliation for an injury or offense--which we the reader know to be the murder of Laius.

"This plague is devastating the house of Cadmus, the legendary founder of Thebes. "And Black Death luxuriates in the raw, wailing miseries of Thebes." This is an intense sentence. To speak of Black Death is powerful. Black is know as a scary, unknown, dark or feared color. To add this word in front of something so many are afraid of (death) is timorous. The Priest speaks of this 'Black Death' as something that is taking a great delight on causing the people of Thebes pain and suffering.

"The Priest says to Oedipus that, 'we pray you.' The Priest is coming to Oedipus for help. The Priest knows Oedipus does not equal the gods and the people of Thebes know that as well. But these people of Thebes rate Oedipus second in line basically. They feel Oedipus has face-to-face encounters with the gods, making him as close to the same level as them as possible. The people all feel this way because Oedipus had freed them from the Sphinx. Oedipus had come to Thebes when they all needed a savior. Oedipus saved them with great glory.

"It is now time to bow to the power in which they believe Oedipus to hold. The people of Thebes now ask earnestly for the Kings help and power of deliverance once again. The people think maybe that Oedipus has heard a voice from the gods or someone who may have the power to heal this great city. The Priest asks what the king knows.

"The Priest speaks utter praise to Oedipus, saying he is the 'best of men.' Bring this city back to life, bring it back to all its glory. The Priest restores the position Oedipus took that glorious day he freed them from the Sphinx, asking him to once again be that powerful, enthusiastic, and honorable man. Save our land now, and rule our land with all of us all in it, not a land of nothingness, left with no one to rule. Be proper and let us all live on together.

"After reading this intense speech to Oedipus by the Priest, I felt far from disgusted. The passion, anger, emotion, and vigor were all astounding to me! I was clearly captured by his address to Oedipus. The power of the words he used and the way he used them were wondrous. A speech such as this cannot make you feel disgusted or horrible. This was what happened; this was life. You want to put your feelings to use by thinking, how could one save this collapsing city? I may feel pity for those who must endure all this suffering. But why add to their distress? Instead I hide my feelings of fright and think of this once splendid city, and say to myself, 'For god’s sake Oedipus, help this city!'"

 

The situation of the priest: Another commentator (1998) provides some motivation for the priest's plea to Oedipus: "The priest states in his cry of help to Oedipus that the gods have struck the terrible plague on Thebes. Mothers die in childbirth, and their children die with them as well. He describes the plague as a red sea of death and Thebes is the helpless ship on its currents. He also describes the plague as lounging on the death and destruction of Thebes. I can sense the priest's feelings of emergency in his pleading words to Oedipus. I can equate the plague with the issues of today's plagues, like AIDS and the threat of biological warfare at our front door. The priest is a holy man and he has to deal with the spiritual needs of the community. What was it like for him, not to be able to offer comfort to his followers, and to only be able to tell them that it is their gods' wrath that was causing all the pain and suffering. Here is a man who is speaking on the behalf of many, wanting to help but is powerless."

Eyewitnesses reacting: Dawn Cantelmo (1998) noted how the chorus is reactive--to Oedipus, to events as they unfold, always worrying about the city surviving: "'Post Option: Are the chorus right about the gods speaking directly to Oedipus because he answered to riddle? Does the chorus get anything right? If they are not spokespersons for the playwright, what kind of portrayal of human beings are they?'

"The chorus are cautious of stating frankly their thoughts about the connection between Oedipus and the gods. They think of him as 'the joy of Thebes' and their 'good helmsman.' They even dare to entertain that he might be a child of the gods, 'Who was you mother? who, some bride of Apollo...Or was it Hermes...Or Dionysus?' But it is the priests who seem to think that the gods could be in direct dialogue with Oedipus. In asking him for help to rid Thebes of its plague, they rate him 'first among men' in all things including 'face-to-face encounters with the gods.' To Oedipus, they state how that in solving the Sphinx's riddle, 'A god was with you' and suggest, 'Perhaps you've heard the voice of a god...what do you know?'

"But Oedipus was not in direct contact with the gods because in three places we hear how Oedipus goes to outside avenues to find out information from the gods. First, in his own journey to Delphi the see the Oracle of Apollo, then when he sends Creon there, and finally when he sends for Tiresias who is said to see 'with the eyes of Apollo.' However, I believe that there was a strong connection between Oedipus and the gods. The gods manipulated Oedipus to meet a predestined fate, which in his arrogance, he thought he avoided. The gods planted the riddle's solution in him - no one else could answer the riddle because no one else was supposed to answer it. It was a critical point of fulfilling the prophesy.

"So who are the chorus? They are the one voice of the masses, the citizens of Thebes, for they play a subservient role: 'I never look to judge the ones in power.' I think that the chorus act as a verbal mental process for survival during the crisis. The chorus reacts to what they see and are told. They reflect a response to the scene presented to them. They guide, soothe, question, restate, examine. They verbalize the way thinking is done: guessing, thinking, reacting, reasoning, feeling through the situation to find the safest, soundest foundation for survival. They come to conclusions based on their belief in what becomes proven. They don't always get things right because they are in metamorphosis. And to them conclusions of truth are as not important as conclusions for survival."

Getting it wrong: Fargo2 (1998) pointed out this list of gaffs by the chorus: "The chorus was completely wrong about the nature of Oedipus' relationship with the Gods. They were wrong about the location of the killer, and the history of Oedipus as well. In this I think the chorus represented the voice of the masses. They accepted whatever tale was told to them by those in charge, repeating it among themselves in an attempt to make their mistaken beliefs true."

The chorus is like us: Jason VanMeijel (1999) sees the flow and ebb of the chorus as similar to what people do today when they hear the report of an ongoing crisis: "I have the play Oedipus Rex many times and I am always left feeling that the citizens are, as you say, a society of unthinking individuals. I personally feel that this is very tragic, however it plays a role in the development of the play. The citizens, in the beginning establish the setting and the chaos of Thebes. Sadly, this is all they do. After the opening scene the drift off into the background were they remain for the remainder of the play. Then when the story is completely unfolded they re-appear, and condemn Oedipus. The question I have is, has society today changed from this mindless society of Thebes. I believe that we have not. As a society we have the tendency to let a story or event unfold and sit back and absorb all that is happening. Once everything is done we then decide to vocalize our opinions, often when it is to late. In conclusion, the society of Thebes is somewhat of an accurate depiction of today's society. Which is very tragic, but teaches us a very important lesson about standing up for our rights, and taking control of what we can." [Add to this pattern the ongoing commentary provided by the chorus to reflect on each preceding scene, which parallels the endless commentary by news people and ordinary citizens, which includes a lot of value-based speculation.]

Whodunit? Joshua Pierson of Illinois pointed out (in 2000) that the chorus, in part, serves to fuel curiousity and speculation about who killed King Laius: "I agree that the functionality of the chorus is debatable to say the least, but I believe it serves another purpose. It is almost a cinematic technique, well before the age of cinema by Sophocles. I believe it gives the reader time to reflect along with a character. In a manner that some characters in a mystery will hypothesize as to whom the murderer is. It allows the reader to guess along with some characters in the story."

Reverence for the Gods: FootPrintX (2000) suggested that one main function of the chorus, besides judging Oedipus, is to embody Sophocles own homage to the gods:  "Despite the trend of modern media, not all entertainment needs to be fast paced. The role of the chorus is necessary to present the audience with society's viewpoints and the judgment of Thebes. Who, if not the chorus, is judging Oedipus. The viewpoint provided by the chorus is essential to present not only the public of Thebes thoughts of the situation, but also to appeal to the Gods, which at the time was an important aspect of any play. Without some sort of appeal to the Gods, the Gods may have very well smote them just as Zeus smote Oedipus. Sophocles incorporated the theme of respect for the God's within his text and it seems fitting that he appeal to their egos in their text so that he himself is paying his respects.

"There's a point to the chorus, you just have to think about the period of the piece, and the style of writing at the time. You can't expect Oedipus to be as appealing to a modern audience as NYPD Blue."

 

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