Old Argives, Enslaved Ingénues, and Grotesque Goddesses: The Chorus in The Oresteia

January 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

The Greek chorus is a group of individuals who form a single entity that expresses the ideas, thoughts, and histories of a larger group. Often, it represents the consensus of the audience or of society as a whole, for example the chorus of Agamemnon. Aeschylus utilizes this common form of the chorus in his plays, but the true distinctness of his style comes from his other unconventional uses for the chorus. In the Oresteia, Aeschylus also uses the chorus not only as a tool to explain background information and express the opinions of a larger group, but also to develop and accentuate themes as well as advancing the plot. Aeschylus consistently uses the chorus in traditional and unique ways but as the story progresses from Agamemnon to The Libation Bearers to The Eumenides, the chorus takes an increasingly more active role in the story, and this change as well as Aeschylus’ superb use of the chorus has profound effects on the style and themes of the three plays in The Oresteia. In the first play of The Oresteia, Agamemnon, the chorus is standard and conventional. It is comprised of the old men of Argos, who were not fit for war when the Argives left to fight the Trojans in the Trojan War. In the text, they serve as consultants to Queen Clytemnestra while Agamemnon is gone. As a literary device, the chorus fulfils the vital duty of providing background information and context of the story for the reader. They tell the story of the Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia in order to obtain a favorable wind so his ships could reach the shores of Troy: “He endured then to sacrifice his daughter to stay the strength of war waged for a woman, first offering for the ships’ sake” (223ff), a relevant story because this offering of his child is a cause for his eventual demise. The chorus in Agamemnon also speaks of the dangers of pride, “but Pride aging is made in men’s dark actions…and birth is given to the spirit none may fight nor beat down” (765ff). This becomes a pertinent issue when Clytomnestra convinces Agamemnon to walk upon the robes: “Let there spring up into the house he never hoped to see, where Justice leads him in, a crimson path” (910), a blatant act of superciliousness that often provokes the gods to strike one down. Through these longwinded stories, the chorus provides historical insight and interesting context for the story, but it also gives vital information essential to plot and theme development. Agamemnon is an action-packed play when compared to The Eumenides and to some extent The Libation Bearers. From the stories of the Trojan War and the sacrifice of Iphigenia, to the return of Agamemnon and the symbolism of his walk upon the colored robes, to Clytomnestra’s eventual act of mariticide, there is much activity with little time for excessive debate and dialogue that would be present if the chorus played a larger part. Most if the time that the chorus is speaking, the group is simply providing a canvas on which the real action of the play occurs. The old Argives discuss the morals of society such as pride and responsibility, as well as historical and related events, but their lack of actual interaction with characters is a prime difference between it and the following two plays. The chorus of the second play, The Libation Bearers, consists of enslaved women. This chorus differs from the first in that this time, it performs more concrete actions that have more direct significance in theme and plot. Instead of simply watching and discussing the events that occur and producing supplementary information, like the chorus of Agamemnon would do, the chorus if Libation Bearers actively engages in the story in several instances, usually by persuasion of characters. From their beginning encounter with Elektra, who herself has seemed to be enslaved by her mother Clytomnestra, the chorus of enslaved women encourages Elektra to significantly alter her normal prayer at her father’s tombstone, where she was sent by her mother. The chorus says, “Invoke the coming of some man, or more than man…one to kill them, for the life they took…may you not hurt your enemy when he struck first” (119ff), encouraging her to pray for an instrument or man to avenge her father’s death. From this incident on, the chorus consistently convinces others to do what they command, and this is crucially influential to the development of the story and, eventually, the resolution of the conflict. The other key instance in which the chorus was necessary was its manipulation of the nurse Cilissa. They convince her to modify the message sent to Aigisthos to one that insists that he travel without his bodyguards. The chorus says, “handmaidens of this house, who help our cause…now the time breaks for Persuasion in stealth to go down to the pit, with Hermes of death” (720ff) and to Cilissa it says, “Now if you hate our master do not tell him that [she [Clytomnestra] said to bring men-at-arms], but simply bid him to come as quickly as he can and cheerfully” (720ff). This persuasion by the chorus leads to the eventual murder of Aigisthos, and without their involvement, Orestes may not have succeeded with his plan. Another important function of the chorus in Libation Bearers is to form a connection between the hesitant and ineffectual men who form the chorus in Agamemnon and the authoritative and formidable chorus of the Furies so powerful in The Eumenides. The women of Libation Bearers are significantly more involved in the happenings of the story than the old Argives who form the chorus of Agamemnon, but, as we will see, they are not nearly as integrated into the story as the chorus is in The Eumenides. This middle ground allows the reader or audience to transition and adjust to the significant change in literary style and also helps develop the themes of man versus woman and gender confusion. In The Eumenides, the chorus is comprised of The Furies, the feminine, primitive, grotesque, and ancient goddesses who live below all and ensure that blood always be paid with blood. The Furies say, “We [the Furies] drive from home those who have shed the blood of men…[to] a place where happiness is nevermore allowed” (421ff). By this third and final play, Aeschylus decides to make the chorus an integral and chief character in the story; in fact, he names the play after the group that forms the chorus. The Eumenides is the kinder name that Athene gives to The Furies at the end of this play when they relinquish their judgment powers to the courts of Athens and become citizens of her country. Athene says, “do good, receive good, and be honored as the good are honored. Share our country, the beloved of god” (868). These Furies have their own personality and laws that they themselves justify. They are brutish and savage and their law is that no murder goes unpunished, and this ancient law is the central force that propels the plot line. In this, the end of Aeschylus tragedy, the chorus is a vital character and a main player in the conflict between old versus new and dark versus light. Generally speaking, the chorus never performs anything active. Usually, they are thinking and speaking entities that often inhibit action because of their long-windedness and inaction. Because of this, Eumenides is a play based mostly on dialogue with relatively little action, especially when compared to Agamemnon. There are discussions about justice in temples and courts; the main conflict in this play is a debate between the Furies and Apollo. Compared to Agamemnon where the chorus plays a much less active role, The Eumenides is a much more dialogue-based play, and this distinction could be partly attributed to the increased role of the chorus in the story. This is just another one of the many ways in which Aeschylus uses the chorus to emphasize certain aspects of his stories. The chorus allows the author to create both a character that represents a much larger group and a channel through which supplemental knowledge can be delivered. Aeschylus further develops the chorus and broadens its literary use by utilizing the chorus in all aspects of the story, especially theme development. For example, he uses the chorus to argue the themes of man versus woman through the comparison of the chorus of Agamemnon and the chorus of The Eumenides, and he argues the theme of old versus new as well as black versus white in The Eumenides by pitting the dark, old Furies against the white, young Olympians. These critical themes and the story as a whole could not be as well emphasized or developed without Aeschylus’ exquisite use of the chorus in his trilogy The Oresteia.

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