Wednesday, November 25, 2009


The Function of  the Chorus in the Electra Plays by Sophocles and Euripides.

In this paper I am going to compare and contrast Electra by both Sophocles and Euripides, focusing essentially on the functional Sophocles and Euripides, focusing essentially on the functional for and against which I will later argue.
            "The chorus", says Aristotle, "should be thought of as one of the actors, it should be a part of the whole and contribute its share to success in competitive effort in the manner of Sophocles, not Euripides."1 We know that Greek tragedy arose out of choral performances; "that the first actor only very gradually detached himself from the choral body. A second, then a third followed... There was also a definite, if slow, change of emphasis from chorus to actors."2 By some process of symbiosis or grafting it evolved out of these choral rites.
            The traditional view holds that the number of the chorus was originally fifty, but that, reduced to twelve possibly due to the pecuniary burden in Aeschylus' period, was raised to fifteen by sophocles. It is also generally accepted that
the probable size of the chorus was fifteen in all the
            extant plays of Sophocles and Euripides. The chorus
            serves several functions in Greek drama. First, it
            gives advice part in the drama. Second, it establishes
            the ethical and social framework of events and
            frequently serves as an ideal spectator, reacting to
            the events and characters as the dramatist might hope
            the audience would. Fourth, it helps set the overall
            mood of the play and of individual scenes and to
            heighten the dramatic effects. Fifth, It adds
            movement, spectacle, song and dance and thus
            contributes much to theatrical effectiveness. Sixth, it
            serves an important rhythmical function, creating
            pauses, retardations, during which the audience may
            reflect upon what has happend and what is to come.3

            The deviation in Sophocles' Electra (E1) from The Libation Bearers (LB) is marked out by clipping and inclusion of some dramatis personae. We have the pivotal characters in both: Electra, Orestes, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. However, Pylades, who verbally goads Orestes to perpetrate matricide in LB, is reticent in E1; Aegisthus' servant and follower seems to have vanished; and instead of the nurse, Cilissa, in the former Paedagogus is introduced in the latter.
            The orientation of Chyrsothemis as a foil to Electra is another crucial treatment of the subject matter by Sophocles. As for Electra by Euripides, the chorus (C) of women of Mycenae have been replaced by that of Argive peasant women. "Old man" is the Euripidean version of the nurse in E1. The Mycenaean farmer who has been married to Electra and "has not touched her... and never shamed the girl in bed, she is still virgin", thought he sinks into oblivion later and his wife is granted to Pylades at the end, is another significant innovation by Euripides, who has bartered him for Chrysothemis.
            There is also a shift in the number of the lines allocated to the dramatis personae, while one-line dialogues appear more frequently in E2 than in E3: e.g., in E1 Electra articulates 522 lines; C, 254; Orestes, 179; and Paedagogus, 173 out of 1077. In E2, however, Electra utters 496 lines; C, 274; and Orestes, 224 out of 1349, the rest of the lines being shared by the farmer, old man, Dioscuri and messenger.
            That Aristotle regards the Sophoclean C more highly than the Euripidean setms from the fact that thi former serves cardinally as a commentator on the action, while the latter is enhances the dramatic effect through ıyrical elements as does the C in Equus. Nonetheless, the C LB, the prototype of both, is more dramatic than E1 and E2, "drama" being derived from the Greek "dran" (to do/to act).
            The C in E1 first appears when Electra, unaware of her brother hiding, is begging gods to "send my brother to my aid./For alone to bear the troubles I am no longer strong enough." The reaction of the C is immediately that of sympathy towards her. Obviously aware of the past events, they take up the cudgels for Electra's cause verbally:
            Electra, child of the wretched of the mothers,
            Why with ceaseless lament do you waste away
            May evil be the end of him that contrived the deed
            If I may lawfully say it; (emphasis mine)

            The very fact that it is women that constitute the C is a direct support for Electra. With "him" referring to Aegisthus, they directly indict the man, although, according to Electra "my mother and the man who shared her bed" murdered Agamemnon. They are yearning to console her and to quench the erupting volcano of hatred and reinforcing in her the hope that Orestes' coming is imminent:
... and that one whose manhood grows in secret,
            sorrowing, a prince
            whom one day this famed land of noble Mycenea
            shall come back, if God will bless his coming.

            Electra bemoans herself more than his father in her speeches replete with I-, my-, and me-oriented pathetic touches. The C are a public memory in E1 that have not forgatten that "Craft was the contriver, passion killer" with "brazen ax" alluding to Clytemmenstra and Aegisthus, and they speak to her with compassion and empathy like "some loyal mother." (emph.mine) The shift from the first person singular to the first person plural evidences them to be the public opinion united:
            My child, with both our interests at heart
            I came, both your and mine. If what I say
            is wrong, have your own way. We will obey you.

            Being orthodox awing gods, they also urge her to see "her father's wrongs", "though in such a state one cannot be moderate or restrained nor pious either."
            The C also leaks information to the audience through involving in interrogative dialogues as well as eruditely commenting on others' plight, here on Orestes':
            Tell me: what of your brother? Is he really coming
            or hesitating?
            A man often hesitates who does a big thing.
            Death is the common lot of all death-born.
            In such concerns forethought is an ally,
            To the one that gives, and her that gets advice.

            The C are very alert, informing their interlocutors of the approaching persons' existence, while at the same time ushering them unto the stage, and guiding them:
            Say no more now I see your sister,
            blood of your, of the father and mother,
            Chrysothemis, in her hands burial offerings,
            the usual sacrifice to the gods below.

            The are a deft intercessor mediating between the sisters, one lamb-like, the outrageous,more for the former than the latter:
            No anger, I entreat you. In the words of both
            there is value for both, if you, Electra, can
            follow her advice and she take yours.

            However, they are fickle in their thoughts and behaviors. After the ironical exchange of words between sisters, Electra weighs heavier in their eyes and is justified by them now:
            The girl sepaks well, and you, my dear,
            If you are wise, will follow her advice.
            If I am not a distracted prophet
            and lacking in skill of judgement,
            Justice foreshowing the event.
            shall come, in her a just victory.

            The C is an informant and/or of the past as well as a herald of the future, sometimes at the expense of digressing as seen. They are not lackadaisical to matricide. On the contrary, they justify it. The public opinion approves of "success de scandale", has a tit-for-tat concept of justice:
            the courses are being fulfilled;
            those under the earth are alive;
            Men long dead draw from their killers
            blood to answer blood.

They are the alert accomplice keeping vigil on the premises:
            Stop! I can see Aegisthus clearly
            coming this way...
            Back to the vestibule, as quickly as you can
            You have done one part well. Here is the other."

            We know that the C stood, as a rule, some distance away, but hardly anything could prevent them from coming into contact with the actors.4 They can indeed do nothing; they sympathize, give information, advise, threaten, call for succor, but not act in a manner that can bring them in violent clash with the characters. In this sense they are outside the action. They conclude they play with hermeneutical excellence, making the murderers a cynocure of sympathy:
            O race of Atreus, how many sufferings,
            were yours before you came at last so badly
            to freedom perfected by this day's deed.

            As for E2, Electra, since she was married to a farmer, bewails herself more than in E1. The C, however, honor her, "princes; daughter of Agamemnon" and inform her, anyhow, that
            Mycenaean mountaineer
            who gave me a word that on the third
            day the Argives herald abroad
            a holy feast, when all the girls
            Will pass in procession up to the temple

            They even offer to lend a dress to Electra, "my child", who has "filthy locks" and "robe all torn into slavish rags", readily sympathizing with her. They are loyal both to gods and Electra, and being well-versed in the past, they inform/remind the audience of the cause of the curse on the family:
            Like Helen, your mother's Helen changed and
            found guilty of massive pain to Greece and all your/

            Generally speaking, the Sophoclean characters are like those of Ben Johnson, though very unlike those of Aeschylus; and the Euripidean ones are like those of Shakespeare, who considers human beings like a jumble of "walking contradictions", and more realistic. Thus, Electra, who is the underlying force in LB, and to a lesser degree in E1, dragging the others behind, is virtually appalled to see Orestes and resorts to Apollo for help. The same shift is true of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus who are portrayed more bening and even likeable in E2, do we not take into account the reciprocation of sly and ambivalent remarks between Electra and her mother. This levelling or flattening of characters sieves Euripides out as more down-to-earth than the former two: he is against a black-and-white marilty.
            In E2, too, the whole drama is focused on that princess' character, her bemoaning arising from the fact that she was married to a farmer, not that she is "husbandless" or "past child-bearing". A supporting C of women is naturally and ultimately relevant to the purpose of the ploywright. They are well aware of the demands of the patriarchal society: "a nice woman should never stand in gossip with young men", and warn her that her husband is coming. They have the functions of flashback and interplay between the other persons. Immersed in the past events, while summarizing the past in their own way, they link it to the present and the future:
            Still this prince of ours and men
            you killed by the lust of sex and sin
            of mind, Tydarid Helen.
For this the sons of heaven will send
among the dead; some far
day I shall still see your blood fall
led from your neck on the iron sword.

            Orestes' coming is very much like Agamemnon's arrival after the victory of Troy. Alluding to this, and thus, Agamemnon's murder they also foreshadow that Orestes will suffer after his triumph in the offing:
            You have come, you have come, our slow, bright day,
                        You shone, you have a beacon."

            Like his father, Orestes does not like to be fawned upon or buttered up although he finds "sweet pleasure in the embrace and welcome". The less heroic and procrastinating Orestes is spurred on more by his pedagogue than by his sister now. If "God wills", Orestes will perpetrate matricide; otherwise, Electra "will be the one to plan mey mother's death."
            The ever-sensitive and alert C, though they hear "a shout, deep-rolling like the thunder of Zeus", cannot anyhow tell whether the impending footsteps are of enemy or of friend since "the note of clamoring is slurred". Precautious enough, however, they urge Electra to "hold back until you learn the outcome clearly".
            In E1 Clytemnestra is slain first, but in E2, as in LB, the first victim is Orestes, who, interestingly enough, is a charitable person. The words of the C, after the messenger told them of Orestes' "victory", are as ironical, sarcastic and pretentious in their glorification as Electra's when they meet Clytemnestra:
            Hail! Hail!
Queen and mistress of Argos, hail'
            Tyndareus' child,
            sister in blood to the lordly sons
of Zeus...
...may I not, Mother, hold your most distinguished hand?

            After they sermonize to Clytemnestra that "...justice can be ugly...", they prepare the audience for her death inside hous, and draws a picture before it that they masochistically leer at:
            I also am hurt to hear you in your children's hands.
            Justice is given by gods soon or late:
            You suffer terribly now, you acted terribly then
            against gods and love.
            You paid for their father's death as the asks.

            Together with the contrition and repentance oppressing Orestes and Electra, there is a vicissitude in the attitude of the C. Now, they even commence to accuse them of their piety, are fickle:
            Circling, circling your willful mind
            veers in the blowing wind and turns
            You thingk piously now, but then
            thoughtless you were wrought on impious things.

"Their sympathy reverts to Clytemnestra:
            Unhappy woman-how could your eyes
            bear to watch to watch her blood as she fought
            for her breath and died there?"

            Clearly, they are anxious and afraid of gods' punishment. After they learn that tehy are "clean of this blood" and are thus acquitted, there is another crux of mien in them. They demand that "gods and brothers of the dead woman turn her furies from our halls". The philosophy that something done cannot be undone leads Dioscuri to have mercy on their nephew and niece and the C concludes the play as usual.
            As opposed to what Aristotle contends, the Eurupidesian C are acting actually. Granted, they do not involve in actions physically, their inactivity does not imply detachement like that of the narrator in The Great Gatsby, Nick. That they identify themselves with a character, and that hey join his/her sorrow, triumph, lamentation and the like do have some kind of effect, if not direct, on the audience as well as on the characters. That they are constantly on the stage itself may affect the development of the action. They, at least, guide our sympathy, and forge new ways to look at the same action through their visissitudes of mien.
            Similarly, to view the C as an "ideal spectator" introduces other problems. Audience normally does not have any effect on the actors (though they may boo and throw things at them), but the C certainly exert their influence on them, often less directly and they are not impinged by the denoument. They are usually emotional catalysts in E2. I want to conclude as follows:

                        ...Aeschlean drama seems to take place almost entirely
                        on the plane of amstract ideas. The guiding principles,
                        the moral laws are essential relatives and the human
                        actors derive their dramatic stature largely from
                        them... with sophocles the center of gravity shifts to
                        human characters, and the choral odes of more
                        meditative type tend to detach themselves from the
                        action itself, so that, ...they attain the same general
                        relevance found in Euripides..But Euripides’characters are so fully individulaized that the divorce between action and reflection threatens to become complete.  With him the moral laws, the fundamental principles, and sometimes gods are seen to acquire reality only in sofar as they reflect the passions and the beliefs and the human heart.  The essential conflict is now on the human plane; between individuals and even within one individual.5

            1.  Gerard F. Else, trans., Aristotle Poetics (Michigan: U of Michigan P, 1986) 51.
            2.  G. M. Grube, The Drama of Euripides ( London: Mehuven and Co., 1945) 99.
            3.  Oscar G. Brockett, History of the Theatre (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1977) 27.
            4.  Grube 107.
            5.  Grube 121. 


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