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THE CHORUS IN ANTIGONE
There is something of the effect of Grand Opera in Greek tragedy, chiefly due to the rich musical experience that the proper use of the Chorus could create. Through the intricate choreography employed, the Chorus also created spectacular effects in the grand sweep and dignified pattern of its on-stage movements. In fact, much of the dramatic force of a play like Antigone springs from the sharp contrasts provided by the musical choral passages and the high rhetoric of the purely dramatic parts.
The Chorus in Antigone consists of a group of ordinary Theban citizens, people loyal to their state and their gods, to the law and the common human values of family and society. Through the Chorus, Sophocles is able to represent public reaction to the crises of unfolding events in his play. He demonstrates the response of the common people to the various actions of the high and mighty in their state and how it impinges upon them.
The Chorus is chiefly concerned with public welfare and the security of Thebes. The members of the Chorus serve as well- informed commentators on the events and characters around them, and they often express their somewhat conventional views on social, political, moral and religious issues that tend to affect their lives. They also lay the foundations for the occurrence of the unfolding incidents of the play by outlining the background to the present actions. Therefore, the Chorus’ initial role is to present the exposition of the play.
In Antigone, Sophocles uses the Chorus mainly to examine in fuller detail, all the ramifications of the central dramatic conflict. To a large extent, the tragedy is seen and presented to the audience through the observant eyes of the Chorus. This entity observes the turn of events from close quarters and hence has much authority to review or comment on them. The Chorus provides a kind of emotional and mental foil (contrast) to the central figures.
The Chorus assumes different roles at different times. This is necessary for the progress of the tragic action of the play. It was considered undesirable in Greek tragedy to present scenes of war and violence on stage. Hence, at first, the Chorus gives one a graphic picture of the battle of the seven against Thebes, which culminates in the dual deaths of Polynices and Eteocles. Here, their function is purely narrative as they provide the expository details.
A skilled dramatist like Sophocles would try to involve his audience more fully in the tragic events unfolding on the stage. This becomes possible if the audience can identify closely with the Chorus. Sophocles gives the Chorus many traits common to an audience: concern for public safety, fickle-mindedness, and conventional attitudes to most public matters regarding family, society and the state. At times, the Chorus empathizes with Antigone, but at others, it realizes that support for Antigone’s cause could mean a continuity of the recent instability in Thebes.
The Chorus also assumes the role of courtiers in Creon’s court. The members of the Chorus listen respectfully to Creon’s every word and pay heed to his commands. Disobeying Creon’s edicts could spell disaster for them, as they well know.
Also, the Chorus sometimes takes on the role of elder citizens of the state, providing Creon with some wise counsel. The elders try to influence his behavior by guiding him on the basis of their wide experience of common life. They suspect something untoward may happen after Haemon’s confrontation with Creon, saying: “How angrily he went, my lord,/ The young, when they are hurt, grow desperate.”
As representatives of the people of Thebes, the Chorus is unable to make up its mind as to who is right and who is wrong. The Chorus is sincerely concerned for Antigone in her doom, but it is caught in the vice-like grip of fear that Creon spreads through his powers as ruler. The members of the Chorus are truly shaken by the disturbing events: first by the civil war and dual deaths of Polynices and Eteocles, then by the discovery that Antigone has defied the edict preventing Polynices’ burial, and then by the king’s cruel decision to kill her: “It is determined then that she must die.” They strongly believe that fate has a hand in the ensuing tragedy. They believe Tiresias’ predictions and warn Creon not to go against the will of the gods.
As Antigone leaves for her execution, the Chorus comforts her and reassures her that her act will bring her great honor. Yet it also reminds Antigone that “a self-willed passion” was the reason for her “overthrow.”