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The Dramatic Role of the Chorus in Sophocles

Author(s): G. M. Kirkwood
Source: Phoenix, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring, 1954), pp. 1-22
Published by: Classical Association of Canada
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1086857
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THE DRAMATIC ROLE OF THE CHORUS IN SOPHOCLES'

G. M. KIRKWOOD

THE chorusof tragedy,we are toldveryemphatically by Aristotle,


shouldbe dramatic:"The chorusshouldbe regardedas oneoftheactors
it should be a part of the whole, and should partici-
(1va 7r(0i'nroKxpvrTv);
pate in the drama (vvcaywvleoearac)not as in Euripides,but as in Sopho-
cles."2The wordingof thesentencebearswitnessto theearnestness of
the critic'sconviction.He does not reallymean,of course,that the
chorus should be quite like one of the broKpTral,with changes of part
and costume;he deliberately speaksin hyperboleto stressthepersonal
quality that he believesthechorusshouldhave.The wordavvwaywo'rvte0a
is meantto conveyas strongly as possiblethenotionof completeinte-
grationwiththe restof the play whichAristotleregardsas desirable.'
This highlypersonaland dramatically activechorushe ascribeswithout
to
qualification Sophocles.
Aristotleis earnestin thisbriefnote,butnotveryexplicit.We know
wellthathe regardstheSophocleanchorusas highlydramatic,but we
have littleguidanceconcerning thepreciseaspectsof it thathe thinks
achieve this dramaticnature.Althoughthe presentstudy was not
undertaken as a defenceofAristotle's
statementit will,in effect,
be an
attemptto renderhis judgmentmoreexplicit,so far as it concerns
Sophocles.For I proposeto examinethe choralelementin Sophocles
primarilyas a part of the structureof the plays,an instrument for
carryingforwardor even introducing thematicor emotionalelements
thatareessentialto thedramaticaction.This is nottheusual approach
in spite of Aristotle'sstatement.It is generallyassumed that the main
function of the Sophocleanchorusis a philosophical one; thatit serves
above all as thespokesmanfora certainviewoflife.The mostfamous
statement of thiscriticalattitudeis thatof A. W. Schlegel,whomain-
iThisstudyis a greatlyexpandedversionofa paperreadat a meeting oftheClassical
Associationof the AtlanticStatesin Annapolis,Maryland,on April18, 1952. I have
beenhelpedby thecriticisms ofseveralfriendsand colleagues;to JamesHuttonI owe
specialthanksforvaluablesuggestions throughout thepaper.
'Poetics1456a25ff.;cf.Horace,A4rs Poetica193-195.
'ThoughLS7 givesonly"join in theaction"foravvaywovLeT0at in thispassage,the
wordnormallymeansto ally oneselfwithanotherin a battleor contest(e.g. Thuc.
1. 143.2); and &ywvLteo0a& oftenmeansparticipation in a dramaticcontest. It seems
possible,therefore,thatAristotleintendedthewordto suggestthatthe chorusshould
take an activepartnotonlyin thedramaticactionbut also in theplaywright's contest
againsthis rivalsin the dramaticcompetition. The wordwould thenhave the same
hyperbolic qualityas ,roKptcrpv.
1

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2 THE PHOENIX

tained that the chorusis "a personifiedreflectionon the action... The


incorporationinto the representationitself of the sentimentsof the
poet. . . In a word, the ideal spectator."4Schlegel's words no doubt
describe an element that is presentin a good many choral passages of
all three dramatists. But to use the approach that this description
implies as the basis forunderstandingthe place of the chorusin Sopho-
clean drama is in my opinion altogetherwrong,forit suggeststhat we
should study the ideas of the chorus as though they constituteda re-
ligious or moral commentarythat is essentially independent of the
dramatic action on whichit comments.It is, of course,possible and for
some purposes very useful to examine the thought of choral odes in
isolation,but such isolated study has littleconnectionwith the criticism
of Sophocles' plays.5 We can only determinethe dramaticmeaning of
the choral element-its meaning for the play-by studying the con-
nection of the ideas, attitudes, and emotions of the chorus with the
diramaticaction of which it formsa part. This paper will be concerned
throughoutwith the dramatic meaningof the chorus.
The chiefmeans by whichthe choruscan be dramaticare the following:
(a) throughthe personalityof the group formingthe chorus, and the
appropriatenessof their relationshipto the action and the characters;
(b) through the iambic lines spoken by the coryphaeus; (c) through
physical participationin the action; (d) throughkommoi; (e) through
the choral songs, the parodoi and stasima. Of these five means of dra-
matic life the last is by far the most important.It is, after all, in its
songs that the chorusachieves its real nature, and it is to them that we
must look forits main dramatic contribution.(There is littledoubt that
Aristotle had the lyrics primarilyin mind in his note in the Poetics.
Following the sentence quoted above, he goes on to say: "With the
othertragicpoets,"the lyricshave no more to do withthe plot than with
a different play; in fact the choruses sing interpolatedodes, a practice
which Agathon first introduced." That he passes directly from his
descriptionof how the chorusshould be handled to a mentionof "inter-
'Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature,English translation by John Black revised
by A. J. W. Morrison (London 1904) 69-70.
'E. R. Dodds, The Greeksand theIrrational (Berkeley 1951) 49-50, quotes the second
stasimon of Antig. to exemplifythe archaic religiousoutlook, and he is certainlyjustified
in doing so. But he appears to assume that the religiousview of the chorus is also that of
Sophocles: "Sophocles, the last great exponent of the archaic world-view" (49); "So-
phocles, forwhom all men's generationsare a nothingness" (51, referringto O.T. 1186).
The assumption that the religious ideas of the playwrightand those of the chorus are
identical is not in my opinion justified. (See below, n. 36.) Recent interpre-
necessarily
tations whichseem to me to maintain unduly the approach of Schlegel will be mentioned
in the course of the paper.
*It is generally recognized that neither Aeschylus nor Euripides is included with
"the other tragicpoets"; Euripides is excluded by his mentionin the precedingsentence;
Aeschylus is left out of consideration throughoutthe Poetics.

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DRAMATIC ROLE OF THE CHORUS 3

polated odes" indicates that he is thinkingchieflyof the lyricsthrough-


out.) The odes will occupy most attentionin this study. But firstsome
notice must be taken of the othercategories.
In the plays of Sophocles we can distinguishtwo differenttypes of
personal relationshipbetween the choral group and the action and
persons around them. The choruses of Ajax, Trachiniae,Electra, and
Philocteteshave a close personal attachmentto one character,in all but
Philoctetes,to the protagonist; in Philoctetesthey are Neoptolemus'
sailors, and are unquestioninglyloyal to him. In these fourplays, the
chorus is in no sense impartialor detached; theirsympathies(in Ajax
and Philoctetes,their fortunestoo) are bound to a single person, and
they share his point of view. We have not the faintestjustificationfor
regardingthe choruses of these plays as spokesmenfor the dramatist.
They need not, of course, echo every word of theirchampion,forthey
are not merelyextensionsof his personality;theyhave theirown nature,
and some measure of independencein thought.The sailors in Ajax can
warn the hero against undue boastfulness(386), and those of Philoctetes
express their sympathyfor Philoctetes beforeNeoptolemus has begun
to feelany (169-190). But in the largerissues theystand firmwith their
favourite'sprejudices and interestsas theysee them: Ajax's men are as
mistakenlybittertoward Odysseus as Ajax is (148-150); Neoptolemus'
men are doggedlyloyal to the stratagemeven after the youth himself
has grownsick of it (836-838).
In the other three plays, the chorus is less closely tied to a major
person. In Antigoneand Oedipus Coloneusit is clear that whatevertheir
sympathiesor beliefsmay be, the chorusesare primarilyeldersof Thebes
and Colonus respectively,and their attitude to what is going on is
always shaped by the responsibilitiesand special interests of their
position. In Oedipus Tyrannusthey are devoted to Oedipus; but in the
very passage in which they most firmlystate theirdevotion (498-511),
they make it quite clear that it is above all a civic ratherthan a strictly
personalloyaltythat theyfeel (unlike the chorusof Ajax); it is Oedipus
as monarchof Thebes whom they revere; his services to Thebes hold
them to him: "For the winged maiden came upon him, a manifest
thing; and in the test he was proved wise and a blessing to the city;
thereforehe shall never be judged guiltyof evil by myjudgment" (507-
511). With this personal detachment,we should expect a more inde-
pendent cast of thought; and in these plays, especially the two earlier
ones, the ideas of the chorus are more imposingand more substantial
than in the others.But we mustnot assume that it is Sophoclesspeaking.
The chorus express theirviews as elders of Thebes.
In general,the dramatic value of the iambic lines of the chorusin the
episodes is slight: they call attentionto newlyarrivedpersonsand offer
rather conventional and unexciting comments on most of the long

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4 THE PHOENIX

speeches.Perhaps,as Professor Norwoodsuggests,thesecomments are


oftenno more than opportunities for the audience to applaud the
speecheswithoutmissingany important remarks.'Occasionally,how-
ever, thereis an appreciabledramatic value in theirsmallcomments.
In Trachiniae,by theirnormal(and in thesecases spirited)reactions
theystressthe self-effacement and graciousness of Deianeira,in their
receptionof the news of Heracles' unfaithfulness(383-384) and again
whentheyurge theirmistressto defend herselfbeforeHyllus(813-814).
In Antigone thereis a distinct,if slight,dramaticvalue in thechorus'
lukewarm reception ofCreon'sedict(211-214),and a somewhatsharper
point,becauseof Creon'sviolentreaction,to theirsuggestion that the
burialmayhavebeenaidedbythegods(278-279).Thisdoesnotexhaust
the dramaof thechorus'siambiccontributions; but on the wholeit is
meagre.
The participationof the chorus in lyrical dialogue with an actor,-
along with which we may consider its participationin the physical
action of an episode, since in Sophocles the latter is not found except
in conjunctionwith the former-is a more substantial subject, though
it will not require treatmentin detail. There are kommoi in all seven
plays, but their dramatic importance varies. In Trachiniae there is
only one shortkommos(878-895); its purpose is what may be regarded
as thebasicone of kommoi,to indicateand emphasizea heightening
of
emotions.It occurs when the Nurse rushesfromthe house with news of
Deianeira's suicide. Kommoi in Oedipus Tyrannusare more memorable
chieflybecause theyare moreextensiveand come at momentsof greater
tension: at the heightof the quarrel betweenOedipus and Creon (649-
696), making transitionfrom that scene to the one between Oedipus
and Jocasta; and at the appearance of Oedipus just afterhe has blinded
himself(1297-1366). In Antigonethereare two kommoi,and both have
great dramatic pertinence;they are the passages in which the chorus
makes its judgments on Antigone and Creon in turn (801-882 and
1261-1347). The lyrical nature of these two passages does more than
signifyemotional stress; by the fact that it makes of the two passages
a distinctpair, it emphasizes their connection; and it emphasizes also
the key part played in thisdrama by the chorusin relationto each of the
main figures.
use of the kommosis foundin Oedipus Coloneus,where
Still a different
there are fivesuch passages.s Most of these kommoi,in addition to the
usual emotional effect,contributeto the element of spectacle: in the
7Gilbert Norwood, Greek Tragedy4(London 1948) 79-80; cf. H. D. F. Kitto, Greek
Tragedy2(London 1950) 160.
8One of these passages (833-843, 876-886) is declared by Jebb, The Oedipus Coloneus3
(Cambridge 1900) 138, to be of "kommatic character" but not actually a kommos;
since its purpose and effectare exactly those of regular kommoi there is little point in
excluding it here on formalgrounds.

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DRAMATIC ROLE OF THE CHORUS 5

parodos, which is in kommatic form,Oedipus, assisted by Antigone,


slowly moves fromhis sacrilegiousplace in the groveof the Eumenides;
his pitifulstumblingand gropingadd to our impressionof the physical
helplessnessof the old man. The passages 833-843 and 876-886 (they
are a unit, strophe and antistrophe)emphasize the spirited action of
the seizingof Oedipus' daughters;that at 1447-1499 increasesthe sense
of bustle and stir when the thunder peals, summoningOedipus: the
chorus is in terror,Oedipus prepares to leave, Theseus is summonedin
haste. This play, in theme the most stationaryand purelyillustrative,
is by far the richestin physical action, and to this quality the kommoi
contributelargely.
The remainingplays use lyrical dialogue in still another way. In all
three,as we noticedabove, the connectionbetweenthe choralgroup and
a principalcharacteris very close. The kommoiof these plays enhance
that relationship. In Ajax the anxious colloquy of the sailors with
Tecmessa on the fate of theirleader (201-256), theirsharingof Ajax's
grief(348-429), and theirparticipationin the search for his body and
in the lament over it (879-960) all strengthenthe closeness and the
personal natureof the relationshipbetweenAjax and his men. In Electra
the kommoi,threein number,all bear on the intensityof Electra's grief
and her desire for revenge; the firsttwo (121-250 and 823-870) stress
the close sympathythat existsbetweentheprincessand theseMycenaean
women; the third emphasizes an emotional crisis, at the moment of
Clytemnestra'sdeath (1398-1441). In Philoctetesall threekommoi,two
between the chorus and Neoptolemus (135-218 and 827-864) and one
between the chorus and Philoctetes (1081-1217), have to do with the
winningof Philoctetes by stratagem or persuasion; thus all three are
concerned with the interestsof Neoptolemus, to whom the chorus is
devoted; and here again the personal connection between chorus and
actor is emphasized by this device.
The varietyofuses to whichthe kommoiare put is typicalofSophocles'
veryflexiblehandlingof the chorus; he allows himselfvirtuallycomplete
formalfreedom.Any of the traditionalchoral passages may be expanded
or replaced by a kommosor by some otherlyricform:forexample, the
parodos of Electra is partly a lyric lament by the protagonist,partly
kommatic; that of Oedipus Coloneusis entirelykommatic; that of Ajax,
thoughconventionallychoric (and anapaestic, in the most conservative
tradition),blends with the kommos that followsit immediately.
Before turningto our main concern,the dramatic uses of the purely
choral songs, a word should be said about the relationshipbetweenlyric
formand the chronologyof the plays. Kranz declares9that thereis no
real change in the choral style of Sophocles frombeginningto end; that,
although there are obviously differencesfromplay to play, we cannot
9Wilhelm Kranz, Stasimon (Berlin 1933) 174.

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6 THE PHOENIX

speak of trulydifferent lyricalstylesin different periods. If this opinion


is correct,as I believe it to be, thereis no need to deal withlyricalusage
in chronologicalorder. There is, however,some decline in the extent
of the contributionmade by the chorusalone in the later plays.'0 There
is no appreciable lesseningof the importanceof the lyricalelement; the
differenceis in the distributionof lyrics.In the earlierplays," down to
Oedipus Tyrannus,the purely choral lyrics are considerablymore ex-
tensivethan the kommoiand actors' songs,except in Ajax. In the three
later plays, thoughthe proportionof lyricallines to iambic is much the
same as before,the proportioncontributedby the chorus alone is strik-
inglyless. In part, the difference arises fromthe kind of drama; and it is
this that accounts for the high proportionof kommaticlyricsin Ajax.
But the difference in this respectis generalenough and great enough to
suggest a definite tendencyaway fromthe purely choral element,and
an endeavour to relate the chorus more closely and realisticallyto the
stage action. In Sophocles this did not, in my opinion, increase the
dramatic excellence of the choral role; the most brilliantlydramatic
lyricsin Sophocles' plays are to be foundin the songs sung by the chorus
alone, the conventionalstasima and parodoi, to which we now turn.
The dramatic functionof the choral songs in Sophocles is not difficult
to understandin an intuitiveway as we read the plays; it is harder to
defineand criticize.Let us begin by makingsome briefcomparisonswith
the other two tragic poets. The choruses of Aeschylus are certainly
dramatic, though not all of them in the same way. One type is most
strikinglyexemplifiedby Supplices, where the chorus is, of course, the
protagonist; the play concerns their fate. In Eumenides, though it is
perhaps an overstatementto say that the chorus of Furies is "the most
important dramatic person,"'2 their role is vitally and dramatically
important in the same sense, though not to the same degree, as in
Supplices. A different dramaticchorusis foundin Persae, and withmore
in
imposinggrandeur Agamemnon;here the episodes are, broadlyspeak-
ing, illustrationsof the theme,which findsits fullestexpression,and is
made universal,in the choral odes.'3 Euripidessometimesuses the chorus
in this second Aeschylean manner. In Troades,as Kitto observes,'4the
lyricsare the shaping and unifyingelementof the play. In Bacchae the
chorus of Asiatic Bacchants, whose songs are the very essence of the
'0The same tendency is apparent in Euripides. See the tables on pages 124-125 of
Stasimon.
"With most recent critics I take Trach., as well as Aj. and Antig., to be earlier than
0. T.
2Stasimon 169.
"3Forthe role of the chorus in Persae see the recentstudy by S. M. Adams, "Salamis
Symphony: The Persae of Aeschylus," Studies in Honour of GilbertNorwood (Toronto
1952) 46-54.
"Greek Tragedy213-214.

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DRAMATIC ROLE OF THE CHORUS 7

Dionysiac spirit,have a similarrole.'6In one play, Supplices, Euripides


virtually goes back to a choral protagonist,in the early Aeschylean
manner.
These two types of dramatic chorus-the chorus as protagonist,and
as revealer and sustainerof the theme-are more useful to our present
purpose as examples of what Sophocles does not do with the chorus
than as descriptionsof his technique.It never has been suggested,so far
as I know,that any Sophoclean chorusis the protagonist;but it has often
been supposed that his choruses convey the dramatic theme, more or
less in the mannerof Agamemnonor Bacchae. It will be argued below
that the relationshipof the Sophoclean chorus to the dramatic themeis
different.There are, however,importantlikenessesbetween the choral
technique of Sophocles and each of the others. Common to Sophocles
and Aeschylusis the close connectionthat theirchorusesmaintainwith
the action of the play. In this theyare unlike Euripides,whosechoruses
not infrequentlysing odes with only a casual relationto theirdramatic
context.A familiarand instructiveexample of this difference is provided
by the odes in praise of Athens in Oedipus Coloneus (668-719) and
Medea (824-865)." Both odes are intrinsicallyadmirable, but they are
altogether differentin their connection with the drama. In Medea,
Athenscomes into the mindof the chorusonly because in the preceding
episode Aegeus has offeredMedea a refuge there. They sing of the
beauties and splendoursof Athens; it is a charmingsong, but there is
no apparent reason why these Corinthianwomen should feel moved to
sing so beautifullyof Athens. In Oedipus Coloneus the connectionof
the ode with the action is intimate.Throughout the play, the solemn
beauty of the grove of the Eumenides, the charm of the surrounding
neighborhoodof Colonus, and the gracious and magnanimousspiritof
Athens are of primaryimportance; for within the physicallyhelpless,
irascibleold Oedipus thereis a power and nobilityof spiritthat becomes
moreevidentas the play advances; and the concordbetweenhis qualities
and those of the people and the place wherehe findsrest is a continuing
theme through much of the drama. In the episode just before this
stasimonTheseus, the veryembodimentof the idealized Athenianspirit,
has welcomed Oedipus. It is completelynatural, and very valuable for
the thoughtof the play, forthe chorus to followthis scene with a song
60Onthe choral odes of Troades and Bacchae cf. Stasimon 248; for those of Bacchae
see also R. P. Winnington-Ingram,Euripides and Dionysus (Cambridge 1948) passim.
"The comparisoninvolves only the firstsystemof the Medea ode, lines 824-845. The
second system is very different;it is a sudden outburst against Medea: how can this
fairland of which we sing receiveyou, the murderessof your children!The sudden shift
of thoughtand mood, and indeed the generaleffectof the ode, are not withouta powerful
dramatic impact. But it is of an altogetherdifferentsort fromthat of the O.C. ode; its
content and spirit are much less natural to the context and to the personalityof the
chorus.

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8 THE PHOENIX

in praise of their land. Here the chorus does not lose any part of its
personality,as that of Medea does; it is participatingin the mannerof
an actor."1
Between Sophocles and Euripides, especially in the earlier plays of
the latter, there are many similarities.They constitutewhat Kranz
terms the "classical style," and summarizesthus: "The choral odes of
this period organize and give rhythmto the action . . . theyserve as an
artistic means of amplifyingand deepening the impressioncreated by
the action on the stage; they can be a preparationforthis action, or a
supplementto it."'i Odes of thistypedo not primarilyconveythe theme,
but lyricallyamplify,interpret,and illustrateits various stages.
Withinthe broad limitsof this classical style,a good deal of variation
is possible. We have just noticed an example of one differencethat is
sometimes to be found: the closer relation of the Sophoclean odes to
the action. There are in Euripides many odes that have an equally loose
connectionwith the context; to mentionjust one more, the ode on the
evils of parenthood,also in Medea (1081-1115), shows this same detach-
ment. Kitto aptly remarksapropos of this ode that it is "a littlechilling
to ixndEuripides goingoffinto his study";19 and the fact that the chorus
sings its grave and deliberatesong in anapaests adds a good deal, as the
same criticpoints out, to the impassivejudiciousness of this little phil-
osophical poem. There is anotherrespectin which the choral technique
of the two dramatistsis consistentlydifferent; and this difference,which
we shall now observe in some detail, will reveal what I take to be the
characteristicquality of Sophoclean lyrics.
We may best begin with a group of Sophoclean lyrics in which a
unique dramatic quality has often been noticed. Three of them have
been especially admired.20 All threeare in lively dance measures,all are
joyful,with an air almost of abandon; all occur at a crucial point in the
play, when the chorus has wild and enthusiastichopes of some happy
outcome,only to have those hopes dashed by catastrophicnews immedi-
"1This is not to say that this chorus of Medea is irrelevant. G. M. A. Grube, The
Drama of Euripides (London 1941) Part I, Chapter VII, "The Chorus," well defends
the relevance of most Euripidean choruses. The differencebetween dramatists is not
in this instance or generally, a question of relevance in contrast to irrelevance,or of
the presence or absence of dramatic force,but of the manner in which dramatic effect
is achieved; Sophocles almost invariably works his odes into the fabricof the dramatic
action; Euripides frequentlydoes not.
18Stasimon207-208; in general, Kranz's "classical style" describes the odes of what
Kitto calls "Middle Tragedy."
'9GreekTragedy191-192.
20Theirdramatic force is noticed in Stasimon (213) where they are said to have a
"delaying purpose" ("Zweck kiinstlicherRetardierung"), and by T. B. L. Webster,
An Introductionto Sophocles(Oxford 1936) 105, 184, where they are called "the cheerful
choruses." Cf. the scholiast's comment at Aj. 693: ebverlopos 6s b 7orlriTs lr' rds
Troabras peXoWrodcas C re
WL TT e'vaL TLKt ro)6Uos.
TOal

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DRAMATIC ROLE OF THE CHORUS 9

ately after their song. Thus in Ajax 693-718, followingthe celebrated


speech in whichAjax seems to have decided against suicide, the chorus,
carriedaway with happiness at the apparent turnof events,sings k4pe'
gport, 6' &ve7rrd~av:"I thrillwith desire,myjoy takes wing."
As soon rep~xaps
as theirsong is over,news comes whichindicatesonly too clearly
that Ajax has gone fromhis tent to take his life. In Antigonewe finda
similar ode (1115-1154) at the moment when Creon, yieldingat last,
has rushed away to free Antigone and bury Polyneices. The chorus
invokesthe aid of Dionysus in an excitedand hopefulsong. Then at once
the messengerenterswith his storyof failureand death. Most powerful
of all is the hyporchemeof Oedipus Tyrannus(1086-1109). At the end
of the precedingepisode Oedipus is still pressingfor discovery;calling
himselfthe child of with feverishoptimism he declares his de-
terminationto discover Thbx,,
his origins,howeverlowly. Catching his spirit,
the chorus prophesiesthat he will prove to be theircompatriot,son of
mountain-rangingPan perhaps, or of the Loxian, or Cyllene's lord, or
Theban Bacchus. Immediatelyafterthe ode thereis the taut, harrowing
scene of finalrevelation.To these threeodes two slighterexamplesof the
same kind of song may be added, both in Trachiniae:one is a littlesong
of triumph(205-224) followingthe good news of Heracles' approach and
followedat once by the arrivalof Lichas and the captives,includingthe
fatefulIole.21The other is the light-heartedode (633-662) anticipating
the happy arrival of Heracles; directlyafterit Deianeira discoversthat
her use of the supposed philtre has been, in all likelihood,a terrible
mistake, and beforethe episode is over Hyllus has returnedto tell of
Heracles' agony.22
None of these "odes of suspense" contributesany thought or any
elementof storythat in a tangible,materialway advances the play; in
each case the contentof the ode is very simple. But theirpertinenceto
the structureof the play and theirdramatic forceare beyond question;
forthe way in which they continue,in ratherfrantictones, the spiritof
hope that precedes,and, even more, the contrastbetween theirhappy
excitementand the sombreevents that followhave the strongesteffect
on the rhythmof the play. They are integraland contributingparts of
the dramaticaction; and in each case the emotionspringsnaturallyfrom
the personal role of the chorusin the drama; they have a stake in what
is going on, and these odes are the natural and powerfulexpressionof
theirfeelings.Here, then,is a distinctiveSophoclean use of the chorus,
and one that is essentiallydramatic.The same relationshipbetweenode
and plot is, I believe,verycommonlypresentin Sophocles; the odes just
examined, rather than being an isolated group, are simply the most
strikingexamples of a customarySophoclean technique, in which the
3lCf. Christian Muff,Die ChorischeTechnikdes Sophokles (Halle 1877) 39.
2sCf. Kranz, Stasimon 213.

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10 THE PHOENIX

primarypurpose of the ode is to heighten (occasionally to lower) the


tension of the plot and thus to ;.ffectits rhythmin a significantway.
This technique is in keeping with the classical style as described by
Kranz; and thereare Euripidean odes of a like nature. But the technique
can be regarded as distinctivelySophoclean for two reasons: because
Sophocles' odes much more consistentlyfulfilthis functionand because,
where the same basic functioncan be discoveredin both Sophocles and
Euripides, the odes of Sophocles almost always have a much sharper
impact on the action.
Here is an example of the differencebetween the playwrightsin two
odes that mightbe said to have the same dramatic function.In Oedipus
Coloneus,just before the powerfulscenes in which Oedipus denounces
Polyneices and then makes an inspired and triumphantdeparture,the
chorussings a pessimisticode (1211-1248) on the sorrowsand the loneli-
ness of old age. The differencebetween theirdespairinggloom and the
vigour and power of spiritdisplayed by Oedipus in what followshas a
contrastvalue and hence a dramatic forceof the same sort as we have
noted. In Alcestis,just beforeHeracles brings Alcestis back from the
grave, the chorus sings an ode (962-1005) of sorrowfulresignation,
tellingAdmetus that he must bow to Necessity,that Alcestis is beyond
recall. The relation of the stasimon to what followsis formallymuch
the same here as in Oedipus Coloneus.Yet the Alcestisode does not have
anythinglike the same effecton the dramatic rhythm,because it is
detached, philosophical,even a little bookish. It begins with a reference
to literatureand study, fromwhich the chorus declare that they have
learned that there is nothingstrongerthan Necessity (962-966). This
learned approach breaks the dramatic flow;we realize that we are being
addressed, not by a group of Thessalian elders, but by Euripides.23 In
Oedipus Coloneus the ode belongs in spirit to the immediate situation
and to the ethosofthe eldersof Colonus. Instead ofbreaking,it intensifies
the dramatic atmosphere.
The differencebetween these two stasima is typical, I think,of the
differencein choral technique between the two dramatists. It is not a
surprisingdifference,for in other respects too Euripides is the more
detached and the more academic; in Sophocles everythingis personal
and immediate. It does not follow that the Euripidean ode is inferior;
only that it does not have the specificdramatic quality that the Sopho-
clean ode has. Let us look at some furtherexamples of this typical
Sophoclean style.
In the parodos of Antigone(100-154) the chorus tells of the defeat of
"Grube (The Drama of Euripides 124) argues that we should not have the impression
that it is the poet speaking, because the thoughtis commonplace and hence appropriate
to the choral group. It is the manner, however, of the opening lines rather than the
content of the ode that breaks the dramatic illusion.

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DRAMATIC ROLE OF THE CHORUS 11

the Argivearmyand the triumphof Thebes. Immediatelyafterit Creon


entersand makes his specious inauguraladdress. In Antigone,as in some
others of Sophocles' plays (Electra for example), the prologue and the
firstepisode introducetwo different elementsof the theme.The parodos
is accommodated to this structure;the Theban elders know nothingof
Antigone's anger or her determinationto flout the edict of the new
monarch,and theirsong of victoryis in completecontrastto the passion
and excitementof the prologue.Its connectionwith the followingscene
is just the reverse of this relationshipof contrast. With its dominant
strain of victoryit provides exactly the righttone forthe introduction
of the scene. As in the odes of suspense, the contentof the song is very
simple; essentially it expresses one pervasive emotion: Triumph. The
informationin it about the repulse of the invading army could just as
well have been given in a fewlines of Creon's speech. What is important
is its spirit, blending perfectlywith the proud and confidenttone of
Creon's opening address, and thus contributingto the ultimate irony
of the contrast between this lofty beginningand the tumultuous and
undignifiedincident after the guard's arrival. Both relationships,the
contrast with what precedes and the harmonywith what follows,have
a definiteand deliberate dramatic nature. The relationshipwith what
followsis clear in its purpose; that withwhat precedesis no less valuable.
For it is not merelythat the parodos is different fromthe prologue; its
differenceis one of direct contrast,and this contrast makes the spirit
of both prologue and parodos stand out more firmly.This kind of con-
trast is of the essence of drama.
The parodos of Oedipus Tyrannus(151-215) is an example of the same
principle adapted to differentcircumstances.In the prologue, Creon
returnsfromDelphi to announce that the plague will end only if the
murdererof Laius is driven fromThebes. The firstepisode begins with
Oedipus' proclamation to the people, commandingthem to reveal the
murdererif they can. There is no contrast,in spiritor content,between
the two scenes; Oedipus is a play of continuousdramatic development.
There mighttherefore seem to be no dramaticuse forthe parodos beyond
linking prologue to episode by lyrical repetitionof key ideas in the
prologue,"amplifyingand deepeningthe impressioncreated." Certainly
the parodos does performthis service, but it also does more, and its
additional role is highlydramatic and typicallySophoclean. The song
consistsof three themes: inquiryabout the meaningof the oracle (151-
158), lamentforthe ravages of the plague (168-187), and prayer,invoking
the aid of Athena, Artemis,Apollo, Zeus, and Dionysus (159-167, 188-
215). All three are continuationsof themes begun in the prologue,but
that of prayer,which is the dominant theme of the ode, has an addi-
tional force.When Oedipus comes out, at the end of the ode, to address
the people, he begins with the singleword aires, "you pray." He then

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12 THE PHOENIX

goes on to declare, in effect,that he will provide the answer to their


prayer. A close connection is thus established between parodos and
episode; but what counts for far more in the dramatic structureis the
ironyintroducedby the juxtaposition of solemn prayeraddressed to all
the gods, and the immediate answer with which Oedipus takes upon
himselfthe terribleburdenof fulfillingthat prayer.
The ode Oedipus Coloneus praise of Colonus and Athenshas been
in in
mentioned.One furtherobservationconcerningit is in place: not only
does the ode arise naturally fromthe dramatic context and fromthe
character of the chorus, but it has also some measure of the contrast
value that we have been observingin otherodes. The followingepisode
brings the arrival of Creon, and a sharp disturbanceof the graceful
tranquillitythat characterized the preceding episode and reached its
heightin the ode. In passing,we may note that the parodos of this play
(117-253) has the same effectof creatinga sharp contrastof emotions,
in this case with what precedes: the excitementand horrorof the elders
of Colonus in this firstmeetingwith Oedipus contrast markedlywith
the impressiveserenityof the prologue. In this parodos, however,we
have to do not witha chorallyricproper,but with a kommos.The effect
on the play is consequentlydifferent,forwhat a kommosdoes is heighten
the emotional level of an incident, without breaking the continuity.
Kommoi are lyrical parts of episodes; and when a kommos replaces,as
here, a distinct choral song, the result is the creation of a continuous
incident (in this case prologue,parodos, firstepisode; and then another
kommos where we might expect a stasimon,so that Oedipus Coloneus
begins with one great scene stretchingto 667, varied by its two lyrical
sections); the impact of a dramaticallyeffectivestasimon (or parodos
sung by the chorusalone) is quite different, and of a higherartisticorder;
forthereis a special forcein the formalbreakwhichis yet no interruption
to the rhythmof the drama.
The odes that we have noticedhithertoare amongthe moreprominent
of Sophoclean lyricpassages. Both theirintrinsicpoetic meritsand their
dramatic effectivenessare on the grand scale. Not all Sophocles' odes
are so imposing;yet in some of the slighterones the same techniqueand
a measureof the same dramaticforceare present.In Electra,forexample,
there are only two entirelyindependentchoral songs,24both of them
brief.The firststasimon (472-515) preparesforthe entranceof Clytem-
nestra, by its words on justice and the vengeance that will come (thus
foreshadowingthe debate between Electra and Clytemnestra)and by
its briefreview of the troublesof the house. In contentit is slightand
cursory. Its whole value lies in the effectof its place in the drama,
"El. 1384-1397 is formallya separate stasimon. But it is in every way so closely
linked to the kommos that followsit directlythat it is not in dramatic terms a separate
entity.

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DRAMATIC ROLE OF THE CHORUS 13

immediatelybeforethe appearance of Clytemnestra.The secondstasimon


comes when Electra's fortunesare at their lowest: Orestes has been
reported dead, and Chrysothemishas refusedto help. The chorus ex-
presses its griefand sympathyfor Electra (1058-1097). The dramatic
forceof the song arisesfromits contrastwiththejoyfulrecognitionscene,
which followsat once; as soon as the song ends, Orestes enters.In both
songs, then,and more tellinglyin the second, it is a dramaticpoint that
gives lifeand purpose.
The firststasimon of Ajax (596-645), with its longingfor home, its
despair forthe shatteredAjax, its imaginingof thegriefofAjax's mother,
both continuesthe spiritof the foregoingepisode and contrastswiththat
of the followingincident,Ajax's speech of deception. The basic contrast
is, of course, between the two episodes. But it is no accident that the
stasimonnot only does nothingto impairthe contrast,but by its nature
contributesto it materially.
Philocteteshas only one stasimon,676-729. It is a song of sympathy
for the troubles of Philoctetes, ending, rather surprisingly,with the
happy thought that now, however,having met with the noble Neop-
tolemus, the hero will henceforthprosper,returnedin safety to his
home. The combinationof ideas is explained by the dramaticpurposeof
the ode. The firstpart of it arises directlyin spirit fromthe episode
before; to be precise, from the spirit of sympathy which the young
Neoptolemus is beginning to feel strongly,and to display, toward
Philoctetes. But the chorus does not allow itselfto be drawn altogether
after its favourite;the part of these sailors in the drama is to remain
faithfulto Neoptolemus' purpose on Lemnos, the takingof Philoctetes,
and hence they must serve the stratagemby which he is to be taken.
Presumably,beforethe final antistrophe,in which they speak of Phil-
octetes' cominggood fortune,Neoptolemusand Philoctetesreappearfrom
the cave, which theyenteredat the close of the last episode; this would
give the deceptive words a special appropriateness,and avoid confusion
in the audience's mind at the sudden change of thought.It is not, how-
ever, essential to assume this return.The referenceto the stratagemis
the poet's reminderto the audience that thereis still a trickin operation,
in spite of Neoptolemus' behaviour at this stage. In either case, the
purpose is dramatic, to keep the stratagembeforeus. It is, admittedly,
not a peculiarlylyrical role. Philoctetesis the least lyricalof Sophocles'
plays; the chorusis relativelyinsignificant, and its role is morethat of a
minor character than of a choral group. There is only one other inde-
pendent lyrical part in the play, short songs formingstropheand anti-
strophe at 391-402 and 507-518; and these are to the same purpose.
They are without any great lyrical power; but so far as they have a
significance,it is of the same sort as the end of the stasimon,to forward
the stratagem.

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14 THE PHOENIX

The final stasimon of Oedipus Coloneus (1556-1578) is a prayer to


the nethergods that Oedipus' passing may be painless and tranquil. It
sustains the atmosphereof wonder that began in the precedingepisode
with Oedipus' thrillingdeparture. Appropriately,the prayer is offered
forthe aged Oedipus by men who are his age-fellowsand have therefore
a deep feelingfor the mysteryof what follows life. But more telling,
dramatically,is the contrast between the gloom and apprehensionand
submissionof its tone and the sublime tranquillityand triumphof the
actual passing of Oedipus as it is reportedby the messengerin the next
episode.
The chorusof Antigone,as we noticedabove, has an unusuallypromi-
nent part in the drama, and this role is accomplishednot only by the
kommoibut just as significantly by the stasima. We have already exam-
ined the parodos. The firstthreestasima are also dramaticallyvaluable,
and they have a continuityof thoughtand attitude that enhances their
significance.Hitherto we have noticed odes that have dramatic force
throughtheir effectof suspense or contrast or emotional heightening.
These threestasima are primeexamplesof odes that give rise to a special
kind of suspense which depends on the atmosphereof ambiguitythey
create.
The firststasimon (332-375) is perhaps the most famous ode in So-
phocles. No one questions the intrinsicpoetic meritof the ode, but its
dramatic point has been variouslyinterpreted.Waldock25findsit irrele-
vant, Bowra26and others regard it as an indictmentof the burial of
Polyneicesand hence,unconsciously,ofAntigone'sconduct.The problem
comes in the opening thoughtand again in the finalantistrophe.At the
beginningthe chorusdeclares that nothingis more wonderfulthan man.
What is the wonderfulthing, the bELVbY,that motivates their song?
The daring act of burial, many criticswould answer. AeLV6V can mean
"daring"; but it clearlydoes not mean it here; what the chorusgoes on
to talk about is not the boldness of man, primarily,but his wonderful
accomplishments,his skills. Others would say that the referenceis to
the burial not as a daringact but as a marvellousact, inspiringa sense of
awe. There is indeed a note of mysteryand awe in the reportof the
guard about the manner of the burial, which is strengthenedby the
chorus's answeringsuggestionthat the gods may have had a hand in the
deed (278-279). But again we must notice that the ode has no further
suggestion of awe or mystery,but rather of the orderly and clever
5A. J. A. Waldock, Sophocles the Dramatist (Cambridge 1951) 112-114. Waldock
contends that the final antistropheis "a rather hasty attempt at relevance before the
song has quite run its course." But this disregards the strikinglyformalizedrepetition
in '4'iroXWl &iroXti (370) of wravrr7ropo"s'iropos (360), which in turn is inextricable
fromthe thought and mood of the firstsystem. There could hardly be a morepatent
example of thought development emphasized by the pattern of metre and words.
28 C. M. Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy(Oxford 1944) 84-86; cf. Kitto, GreekTragedy158.

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DRAMATIC ROLE OF THE CHORUS 15

accomplishments of civilization.The same kind of problemarisesat


the end, when the song closes on ratheran ominousnote,castinga
shadowofdoubtoverthewholeproudstatement ofman'sgreatness and
sometimes
sufficiency: man's clevernessleads to good, sometimes to ill;
"whenhe [man]observesthe laws of the land, and thejustice of the
gods to whichhe has sworn,highstandshis city;no cityhas he whom
presumption leads to evilways.May thedoerofsuchdeedsneverbe by
my hearth, sharemy thoughts"(368-375).Who,in theplay,is the
or
evil-doer?Is it the burierof the body?Since the chorushas already
expresseda measureof disapprovalof Creon'sedict,and has suggested
thatthegodshad a handin theburial,it seemsimpossible thattheyare
now,onlya littlelater,condemning the act in solemnand unequivocal
tones.
I suggestthat the purposeof the ode is something quite otherthan
to pass moraljudgmenton theact of burial.Neitherthebeginning nor
theend of theode has any precisereference to the act. The ode arises
from ofthepreceding
thespirit episode.Atitsbeginning, thereisthecalm
andorderly speechofCreon,withitsapparent portent oflawandwell-
beingforThebes;itis,onthesurface, an example oftheachievement of
civilizedman.At theendoftheepisodethereis angeranddisturbance.
The impression leftby thewholeis of stability and ordersuddenly
jarredintoconfusion, doubt,anddisorder. The odereflects thischange;
itsrelevance tothecontext liespreciselyinitsrepetition oftheemotional
development oftheepisode.27 Theendoftheodeismeanttore-introduce
and to amplify thisspiritof disquietand confusion. Justwhois the
disturber oforderandright, whoitis thathasbeenled"toevilways,"-
Creonor the burierof thebody-is deliberately and withcomplete
dramatic propriety left in doubt. The most important dramatic contri-
butionoftheodeis itsintroduction ofserious andunresolved doubts.
In thenextstasimon (582-625)thesameproblem andin myopinion
thesamedramatic purpose appearagain. Of the two systems,thefirst
is a lamentforthehouseofLabdacus,arising from
verynaturally the
unhappy events of the scene before;the second is a deeplyreligious
warning againstthe false hopes and transgressions ofmankind. Again
thechorus speaks with earnestness,but it is hard to ontheobject
settle
oftheir warning.Is itAntigone whoissosternly reproached inthesecond
lyricalsystem? Nowhere does the chorus directly accuse her ofworse
faultsthanstubbornness, offenseagainst Dike (the naturalbalanceof
things),and lack of wisdom. The sins are
they inveighing againsthere
"Kitto is rightin objecting(GreekTragedy158) to Jebb'sstatementthat choral
comment"must"reflect, in order,the developmentsof thepreceding episode.Thereis
no evidenceforany such conventionin the choralodes of Sophocles.In thisinstance
thejuxtapositionof eventsin theepisodehas a markeddramaticsignificance, and its
in theode is also fora dramaticpurpose.It is not a matterof convention.
reflection

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16 THE PHOENIX

are clearlyof a moreheinouskind; surelyno one (except possiblyCreon)


would call Antigone'sconductEbrep3aaLa, challengingthe power of Zeus.
But it is just as difficult
to suppose that a directand consciousindictment
of Creon is intended,even thoughthe words are "suggestiveand omin-
ous,"28 forat this stage the chorus is still loyal to him. Again we must
conclude that the ambiguityis intended.The chorus,having heard the
quarrel between Antigone and Creon, are convinced that some one is
going against the will of heaven; but in their lyrical musing on the
problem they do not, indeed cannot, articulate their feelingsso as to
point directly at the sinner. In dialogue, such ambiguity would be
intolerable,if not impossible; but in lyrics, where referencescan be
indirectand general,the ambiguityis not only acceptable but dramat-
ically valuable. It maintainsand expands a feelingof impendingcalamity
for wrong-doing,withoutconstitutinga direct moral indictmentwhich
would weaken the dramatic tensionof the plot.
The thirdstasimon is a short ode to Eros. It has a certain effectof
shock, this little song to the god of love followinghard on the scene of
shoutingand hatredbetweenCreon and his son. It has also, like the songs
that precede it, the purpose of creatingtension.Here, not long before
the turningpoint of the play, when Creon's guiltwill be clear,the chorus
is permittedto appear more than ever to be accusing Antigone'scause
of injustice: "You [Eros] have drawn the minds of just men into in-
justice, to their ruin" (791-792). Do they mean Haemon? We may
thinkso if we wish, but they do not ever say that Haemon is guiltyof
injustice; only that his love forAntigonerivals in power "mightylaws."
Once again thereis intentionalambiguity.
The two remainingstasima of Antigoneare of a differenttype.The
fifthwe have already noticed among the suspense odes; the fourthwe
shall considerbelow. Of the firstfourodes of the play, we may say in
summary that all have a definitedramatic force; the parodos has the
kind of impact already noted in numerousodes, an effectof contrast
and irony;the threestasima, by theirmaintenanceof ambiguity,convey
an impressionof ominousdoubt, and of presentand impendingevil and
disaster, that does not merelyreflectwhat lies in the episodes; in these
cases the choral lyrics actually createdramatic tension; their dramatic
value is certainlyin close relationto the action of the episodes, but it is
additional and to some degree separate from it.29
28Jebb,Antigone3(Cambridge 1900) xii.
29Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy 84-90, maintains that in all these odes the chorus is
accusing Antigone,siding with Creon. Then, when Creon's guilt is established,it swings
over to Antigone. This is all a means, according to Bowra, by which Sophocles adds
apparent strengthto Creon's position for the sake of dramatic balance. But it is hard
to suppose that the fervourof 604-625, forexample, is just a mistaken attack on Anti-
gone, occasioned by the obtuseness of the chorus. Kitto (Greek Tragedy158) interprets
these odes as Bowra does.

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DRAMATIC ROLE OF THE CHORUS 17

The firststasimon of Oedipus Tyrannus(463-512) is similarin effect


to these threeodes of Antigone,though here the creationof doubt and
the buildingup of tensiondo not depend so muchon ambiguityas on the
bewildermentand excitementof the elders. The firstsystem develops
in mood and subject out of the foregoingscene between Oedipus and
Teiresias and tells in excited tones of the pursuit of Laius' murderer.
The second system does not have the superb lyrical brillianceof the
first,but is more pointedlydramatic, and its metrical form,in which
choriambsand Ionics predominate,has a statelinessand solemnity(in
contrast to the trochaic staccato of the firstsystem) that enhance the
thought.How, pondersthe chorus,can the terriblewordsof the prophet
be right,how can it be Oedipus that slew Laius? It cannot be; Zeus and
Apollo know all, but thereis no certaintythat any mortal can surpass
his fellowsin manticskill; I shall remainfaithfulto Oedipus, the saviour
of Thebes (483-511). The earnestness of their deliberation and the
solemn gravityof theiraffirmation of faithin Oedipus make a dramatic
contributionthat is essentiallyindependentof theepisodes; the questions
and emotionsof the Theban elders, presentedin lyrics that are deeply
impressivein tone, add greatlyto the atmosphereof doubt and fear and
search that keeps gatheringall throughthe firstpart of the play.
Many, but not all, of Sophocles' odes have this distinctlydramatic
role,affectingthedramaticflowofthe action,alteringits pace or direction
by an effectof suspense or contrast,or intensifying the dramatic pitch
by a lyricalexpressionof doubt and fear.There are a numberof songs
that are without this special actor-likequality, or in which it is not
clearly present. Such odes are not necessarilyinferior-in fact two of
them are among the best Sophoclean lyrics-but they are on the whole
less exciting.As a firstexample let us take the finalstasimon of Ajax.
The odes of Ajax are not among Sophocles' greatestlyrics,but thereis
littledoubt that the last stasimonis the finestin the play, even though
it lacks the dramatic point of the ode of suspense at 693-718. The ode
falls between Teucer's scenes with Menelaus and Agamemnonrespect-
ively, and is a lament forthe woes of the commonsoldierin the Trojan
war. In the customarySophoclean manner,the immediate situation is
uppermost;in the finalantistrophethe chorussings: "Once my bulwark
against alarms by nightand against the shaftsof the foe was Ajax, the
dauntlessof spirit.But now he is prey to a hatefulfate; whatjoy, what
joy is leftforme?" The ode is not intendedas a philosophicalpoem on
the sorrowsof war-that is what Euripides mighthave writtenin such
a place; instead of philosophy,we have here a lyrical cry of distress,
whichspringsnaturallyfromAjax's sailorsand intensifies the atmosphere
of sorrowand of desperateresistancethat belongsto both the preceding
and the followingepisodes. Its contributionis not to the intellectual
content,but to the spiritof this part of the play. The ode is a relatively

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18 THE PHOENIX

inconspicuousbut highlysuccessfulexampleof theclassical style,without


any special additional contributionto the drama.
Most of the odes of Trachiniae are of this more subdued type. Two
of them,the short hyporcheme205-224 and the second stasimon,have
been noticed brieflyabove as belongingto the suspense category; the
other four are examples of the classical style. None of them is of any
great distinction.The parodos (94-140) is an attractivesong, and builds
on the mood of the prologue;its referencesto the toils and wanderingof
Heracles, to Deianeira's loving anxiety for him, and to Heracles' con-
nection with Zeus ("Who has ever seen Zeus resourcelessfor his chil-
dren?" 139-140) are all in intimate and valuable contact with themes
of the prologuethat recurprominently.The firststasimon,497-530, also
treats a theme that is importantthroughout,the power of love and the
sorrowit bringsto women. The most passionate ode of the play is the
finalstasimon,947-970. Aftera short firstsystemdesigned to link the
death of Deianeira, just reported,with the agony of Heracles that is to
follow,the maidensuttera rathertimorouscryof distressforthe antici-
pated spectacle of the sufferingHeracles.
Two more odes of this class remain to be mentioned.They are both
songs of great power and beauty, and they occur in plays where the
choral odes in generalare most dramatic in spirit,Antigoneand Oedipus
Tyrannus.aoIn both cases the absence of definite,constructivedramatic
forcearises in all probabilityfromthe positionof the odes in the drama.
Both come just after climactic points, where there is no room, at the
moment,for a furtherdramatic shiftand where the tension is already
at its zenith; where,consequently,the lyricscan do no morethan provide
an emotional"curtain" forthe scene just ended. One of these,the great
lament of the chorusin Oedipus forthe fate of mankind (1186-1222), is
universallyadmired and needs little comment. In a lyrical review of
Oedipus' career,the chorus gives voice to the emotional stress that has
been built up almost beyond endurance in the terribleincident that
precedes,and by givingvoice to it theybringa measureof relief.Gloomy
and despairingthoughtheircry is, it yet calms and bringsa lull in the
action; thereis a relaxingof tension,beforethe excitementof the report
of the exangelos. Structurally,then, the functionof the ode is modest,
but its fineemotionalconsummationof the catastrophemakes it at once
lyricallygreat and dramaticallyappropriate.
There is a correspondingode in Antigone.Just after Antigone has
been led offto be imprisoned,the chorussingsan ode (944-987) in which
it tells of three imprisonments,of Danae, Lycurgus, and Cleopatra. It
"0Kitto links these two odes and notices their reliefvalue (GreekTragedy165). In one
way, they forma separate category: through their reliefvalue they affectthe rhythm
of the play and thus have an affinitywith the odes of suspense and other odes studied
above.

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DRAMATIC ROLE OF THE CHORUS 19

is a strikingpoem; but as dramaticmaterial,with relevanceto the play,


it has oftenseemed to be utterlyintransigent,because criticshave tried
to extract fromit a kind of relevance that it does not have. Each im-
prisonmentsuggestsa different moralpoint: Danae's broughtherglorious
motherhood;Lycurgus'was a dismal punishmentforimpiety;Cleopatra's
is a story of pitifuland undeservedsuffering. Which are we to liken to
Antigone's case? It is difficultto believe, with Bowra, that the three
stories are offeredas differentways of interpretingwhat happens to
Antigone." This is too complex and distracting.Here, as generally,the
contributionof the ode is very simple: instead of moral pronouncement,
we have a poetic elaboration,verymovingand vivid, of the singletheme
of imprisonment,forminga kind of lyricalfinaleto the foregoingscene.
It is the emotionof the chorus,and the imaginativereach of its song,not
its intellectualprowess,that count here."2Afterthe stirringkommosand
the departureof Antigonethereis no place forfurtherdramaticdevelop-
ment of this theme.The ode is a transformation of the pathos of events
into lyrical terms that fulfiland give respite from the tragic action.
Then the plot is renewedwith the Teiresias scene.
The second stasimon of Oedipus Tyrannus (863-910) is still to be
considered. It has been reserved for special study both because it is
superbly dramatic, embodyingmany of the typical qualities of Sopho-
clean style, and because at the same time it has traditionallypresented
a seriousinterpretativeproblem.It is a reflectiveode of greatsolemnity.
Of its two lyricalsystems,the firstcontainsa prayerforpiety and rever-
ence, and a condemnationof hybris;the second expressesthe hope that
evil practices may be punished, and ends with the ferventwish that
Apollo's oracles may be fulfilled,and the fear that religionis vanishing
fromthe earth.The devoutlyreligioustone of the ode has led to different
extremesof interpretation.To one recentcritic,D. W. Lucas, this is one
ofjust two passages "wherewe feelcertainthat Sophocles is preaching."'3
To anothercritic,Cedric Whitman,the ode proves that the Sophoclean
chorus"representsthe somewhatconfusedmoralityof the bourgeoisie."34
"Sophoclean Tragedy 105; criticized cogently and wittily by Waldock, Sophocles the
Dramatist 117-119.
8*When Waldock says of this chorus (page 117) that its relevance is "a loose for-
mality," he underestimates the importance of lyrical, as distinct from intellectual,
relevance.
33D. W. Lucas, The Greek Tragic Poets (London 1950) 150. (The other "sermon" is
Antigone's speech on the UnwrittenLaws.) Max Pohlenz's account of the ode (Grie-
chischeTragdidie[Berlin 1930] 226) is far more extreme: "We are listeninghere not to
the elders of Thebes, but to the poet Sophocles, who expostulates with his people and
with deity itself, and makes his own poetic confessionof faith." It was, Pohlenz con-
tinues, the moral consequences of the plague of 430-428 B.c. that roused Sophocles to
this earnestness. By way of contrast, Kitto's briefremarks on this ode (Greek Tragedy
158, 165, 178) in some respects anticipate the view expressed in this paper.
84CedricWhitman, Sophocles (Cambridge, Mass. 1951) 135.

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20 THE PHOENIX

Both opinionsspringfromthe assumptionthat the main purpose of the


ode is to expressa religiousview; to Lucas thisis also Sophocles' religion;
to Whitman it is in direct contrast to the profoundtruthwhich is re-
vealed throughthe protagonistalone.35Both opinions riskilyimpute a
Euripidean detachmentto the ode, and miss preciselythe Sophoclean
quality of immediacy.Withoutdenyingthat the religiousthoughtshere
expressedby the chorusare of some significance,36 I would insistthat the
directand specificpurposeof the ode and the explanationof the profound
solemnityof its tone rest in its place in the structureof the play, in the
relevanceof its spiritto the elders themselvesand to the episodesbefore
and after.
The ode follows the tense and disquieting scene in which Jocasta,
aiming to calm Oedipus' fears,sets out to show the follyof believingin
oracles. At firstshe fails. She refersto the old oracle accordingto which
Laius must die at the hands of his son, and her "proof" of its errorleads
to Oedipus' strongsuspicion that it was he who killed Laius. But she
persists,and at the end of the episode she has finallywon a half-hearted
agreement from Oedipus. The feeling of the scene is one of doubt,
questioning,ambiguity;it leaves one witha profoundsense ofuneasiness.
3Whitman believes that the chorus "cannot see the real implicationsof the scene or
understand the genuine intelligencethat is guiding the king and queen" (135). This
contrast between the attitude of the hero and the moralityof the chorus, and in fact
of all otherpersonsin the play, is fundamentalin Whitman's interpretationof Sophocles;
and to Whitman it is the hero alone who possesses true sophrosyne.Thus Ajax is a
"hymn of moral triumph" (72) and it is entirelyAjax who embodies the moral triumph
(76).
"This is not the place for a detailed examination of the religious and moral thought
of Sophoclean odes; yet if I were to dismiss the matter in silence I should be dodging
an importantissue that my commentson this ode implicitlyraise. Not only fromthis
ode, but frommany in Sophocles-the second stasimon of Antig.,especially its second
system,is anotherclassic example-the question arises: to what extentdo these thoughts
representthe poet's own beliefs? Carried away by the fervourof the poetry,criticsoften
assume, as Lucas and Pohlenz assume in the case of the present ode, that the choral
song mustbe an importantmessage fromSophocles. But the religiousand moral content
is actually of a thoroughlycommonplace nature, and apart fromthe poetic beauty of
its expression thereis nothing here that is unfittingforthe Theban elders, and nothing
to suggest that the subtle mind of the playwrightis revealing its secrets. Commenting
on the same kind of interpretationof Euripides, Grube (The Drama of Euripides 124)
aptly describes the wisdom of these choral reflectionsas "that communal wisdomwhich
is both commonplace and profound." In the presentode I think we may safely believe
that Sophocles would agree with his chorus's zeal for moral purity and the avoidance of
hybris-so should we all. But it does not thereforefollowthat we can ascribe to Sophocles
the belief in oracles evinced by the elders in the second system of the ode. In short,
we can regard as "Sophoclean"-in a personal sense-only those ideas in a choral ode
that we can substantiate from the general tenor of his plays, and this is, naturally,of
a rather vague and general nature. We have no more right to regard the entire ode
as Sophocles' own message than we have to take Jocasta's speech on TVX77,forexample,
as Sophocles' message. In both cases, the thoughtas a whole belongs to the speaker.

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DRAMATIC ROLE OF THE CHORUS 21

At thispointthe ode is sung.Immediately afterit, Jocastaentersand


praysto Apollo.As she prays,theCorinthian messenger appears,to tell
of Polybus' death-news that is cheeringat firstbut soon leads to
calamitousrevelations.It is easy to see how the ode, withits lyrical
expression ofuneasinessandfear,itsdesireforthesecurity ofsomestable
refuge,continuesand amplifies the spiritof thepreceding episode.But
its relevanceto whatfollowsis evencloser,and morepeculiarly Sopho-
clean.As thestasimonendswiththewords"NowheredoesApolloretain
his honours;religionis passingaway,"Jocasta,whosedoubtswerethe
sourceofthechorus'sdisquietude, appearson thescene.She is intenton
sacrificingat all the shrinesof the gods; and it is Apolloto whomshe
praysespecially:"To thee,Lycaean Apollo,I come as suppliant,for
thouartnearest."Apollois indeednearest;nearestin thethought ofthe
chorus,and nearestto Jocasta,thoughnot in the way she hopes.The
ironythuspowerfully set up by the choruscontinuesthroughout the
episode. As ifin answer to herprayer,the man from Corinth arrives,to
bringmomentary relieffrom her but
worries; by the end of the scene
thewholeterrible truthis clearto Jocasta.
What thenare thedramaticqualitiesof theode? First,it is relevant
to the context-notjust becauseit discussestopicsthat have a place
also in theepisodesbeforeand after,but also, and mainly,becausethe
mannerin whichthe chorusmakesits reflections is fittingbothto the
personality of the elders and to the dramatic in
atmosphere whichthe
ode is set.Secondly,insteadofinterrupting thecourseofthedramawith
a sermonby Sophocles,settlingmoraland religious problems, thewords
of this chorussimplyexpress,in languageof vigourand beauty,the
doubtsand anxietyof the elders.They settlenothing."3 But as in the
Antigoneodes, the very ambiguityand inconclusiveness of the song
increasedramatictension,wherea sermonwouldbreakit. Finally,there
is a very effectiveand distinctively Sophocleantouch in the irony
establishedby the connection of theode withJocasta'sprayerand the
appearanceof the Corinthian.
Our reviewhas at least touchedon nearlyall theodes. We have not
foundany one formulaforSophocleanlyrics,but we have noticeda
numberof featuresthat are typicalif not universal.It is typicalof
Sophocleanodes to have a clearand pertinent relationto theactionin
whichtheyare set,and forboththecontentand thespiritoftheodes to
arisenaturallyfromthepersonality of thechoralgroupand its relation
to the plot. We have found,too, that the choralsongsoftenactually
contribute to the structure or rhythm of the dramaby introducing an
effect ofcontrastor suspense,or by significantly affecting theemotional
"'As Kitto points out (Greek Tragedy 165), the moral comments in this ode quite
clearly do not referprecisely to Oedipus and Jocasta, even though they are motivated
by them.

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22 THE PHOENIX

quality of the play throughsome ironyor ambiguity,or simplythrough


their emotional fervour.Often, as in the short odes of suspense, this
eminentlydramatic,structuralrole is virtuallythe only functionof the
song; and even when the thoughtof the ode has an independentintrinsic
value (as in iroXX.r7 8~wcior the second stasimonof Oedipus Tyrannus)
the emotional force,and the settingof the ode in the drama, demand
primary attention if we are to understand fully Sophocles' choral
technique.

EIGHTH ANNUAL MEETING


PRELIMINARY
NOTICE

The eighth annual meeting of the Classical Association of Canada


will be held in the Universityof Manitoba at Winnipeg,on Saturday,
29 May 1954.
Details of the programmewill be announcedlater.
Meanwhile please note and reservethe date.

8EME CONGRES ANNUEL


Avis PRELIMINAIRE

Le huitibmecongres annuel de L'Association des t tudes Classiques


au Canada aura lieu l'Universit6de Manitoba A Winnipeg,le samedi
29 mai 1954.
Les d6tails du programmeserontcommuniquesulterieurement.
Veuillez cependant noteret r6sbrvercette date.

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