The Use of Chorus in The Plays by Aeschylus

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In most Greek tragedies, the writer uses the chorus as a tool to comment on action in the play. The chorus does not play an active role in the story, such that if they were removed from the work, the plot would not be affected. However, in Oresteia, Aeschylus does not keep to this traditional pattern. Aeschylus utilizes a different form of chorus to put emphasis on certain themes and develop the plot more effectively. Throughout the work, the choruses do comment on the action of main characters, but as the trilogy progresses, the chorus goes through a metamorphosis from the traditional chorus of Agamemnon into a chief character in The Eumenides.

Though the chorus in Agamemnon is traditional, it serves a purpose not to be overlooked. To begin with, because the chorus is composed of Argive elders it can provide significant background information. For example, the chorus informs the audience of the sacrifice of Iphegenia, “Her supplications and her cries of father were nothing, nor the child’s lamentation to kings passioned for battle…Pouring then to the ground her saffron mantle she struck the sacrificers with the eyes’ arrows of pity” (ll. 227-241). This passage depicts Agamemnon as cold-hearted toward his daughter, paving the way for Clytaemestra’s arguments later. Also, while awaiting news of Agamemnon’s return, the chorus hints that there is trouble at home and gives the audience an uneasy feeling when they speak of “the pitiless pondering of sorrow that eats [their] heart” (ll. 102-103). What the chorus fails to do, however, is just as important. Though they recognize that “Ruin is near, and swift” (l. 1124) while listening to Cassandra’s prophecies, the elders do nothing. Furthermore, after Agamemnon has been murdered, the elders are indecisive and inhibit themselves (ll. 1348-1371). Although they don’t contribute to Agamemnon’s demise, they stand by without attempting to save him.

On the whole, this chorus represents the sentiment of Greek society. When Agamemnon returns, the chorus says to him “But I: when you marshalled this armament …in ugly style you were written in my heart for steering aslant the mind’s course to bring home by blood sacrifice and dead men that wild spirit” (ll. 799-804). This shows that the people felt some contempt for Agamemnon’s actions. However, in the following lines, the chorus displays loyalty, an important societal value: “But now, love drawn up from the deep heart, not skimmed at the edge we hail you” (ll. 805-806). In the case of Agamemnon’s murder, the chorus merely analyzes the situation in an attempt to pass judgment because they cannot act directly. Even this fails, because the societal morals are conflicting with each other – though Clytaemestra murdered her husband, the chorus questions whether it was justified: “Between them who shall judge lightly? … [Agamemnon] killed, he has paid” (ll. 1560-1562).

In The Libation Bearers, the chorus, a group of foreign serving-women, influences the plot more than the chorus does in Agamemnon. Mainly, the chorus provides guidance to Electra and Orestes. Being sent by her mother to pour libations, Electra consults the chorus saying, “Attendant women, who order our house…be also my advisers in this rite” (ll. 84-86). Being older and wiser, the chorus “advises” Electra to pray for “one to kill [Clytaemestra and Aegisthus], for the life they took” (l. 121). Orestes, after being urged by the chorus, takes action against his father’s murderers. After the libations have been poured, the chorus says, “The rest is action. Since your heart is set that way, now you must strike and prove your destiny” (ll. 512-513). Furthermore, the chorus suggests a way of carrying out the deed, referring to the part that Orestes “must not play” (l. 553), meaning that he must disguise his identity upon entering the house. After the murders of Aegisthus and Clytaemestra, the chorus advises Orestes again, telling him, “There is one way to make you clean: let Loxias touch you, and set you free from these disturbances” (ll. 1059-1060). Here the chorus offers him the one chance he has to be absolved of his sin. As well as providing guidance, the chorus also plays a key role in the murder of Aegisthus. Intercepting Cilissa, the chorus instructs her to “not tell [Aegisthus to bring his followers], but simply bid him come as quickly as he can and cheerfully” (ll. 770-772). This leaves Aegisthus unable to defend himself when Orestes attacks him.

Again, in this play, the chorus does more than just development of plot – it also demonstrates important themes. The theme of justice continues for one. When praying to Zeus the chorus says, “Let the old murder in the house breed no more” (ll. 805-806). As serving-women in the house, loyal to Agamemnon, the chorus believes that Orestes’ actions are justified by Agamemnon’s death, meaning that his vengeance is the rightful end to the line of deaths. Also, the chorus displays the theme of women’s vulnerability and dependence. Unlike Clytaemestra, the chorus cannot take charge. Instead, along with Electra, they must pray that the gods “Let one come, in strength of spear, some man at arms who will set free the house” (ll. 159-160). Without Orestes, Electra and the chorus are helpless.

Unlike the helpless choruses of the other plays, the chorus of The Eumenides takes on a very active role. Throughout the play, the Furies’ actions are motivated by the ancient laws. Justice, according to these laws, is accomplished only by vengeance; a murdered man must be avenged by his blood relatives. In the case of killing one’s family, the Furies constitute the only source of justice. Because of this, the chorus hunts Orestes – to fulfill their duty. Though Clytaemestra was killed to avenge Agamemnon, the chorus believes that nothing can justify the murder of one’s own blood relative (l. 427). When the Furies are defeated in trial, they again turn to vengeance, threatening “vindictive poison…[that] shall breed cancer, the leafless, the barren to strike” (ll. 782-786) to punish the Athenians. This shows the extent of their dependence on vengeance for settling conflicts.

On a broader perspective, the Furies’ struggle in The Eumenides reflect the change in societal views of justice – from the older idea of revenge to the new method of trial. Early in the play, the chorus says to Apollo “A young god, you have ridden down powers gray with age” (l. 150). This introduces the theme of new versus old. When Athene tries Orestes for the murder of Clytaemestra, though it seems that the furies act as prosecutor, they are actually defending themselves and the old ways of justice. They argue “if…his crime be sustained…every man will find a way to act at his own caprice” (ll. 491-495). Without the threat of the Furies, there is nothing to keep men from killing their families. After the trial, the chorus says, “I, the mind of the past, to be driven under the ground out cast, like dirt!” (ll. 838-839). With the verdict in favor of Orestes, it seems to the chorus that the new gods have no respect for the old ways. However, when Athene persuades the Furies to give up their rage by offering a share in the worship of the Athenians (ll. 848-900), a peaceful marriage is formed between the old ways and the new.

In Agamemnon, Aeschylus funnels the morals of society through the comments of the Argive elders, focusing them on the house of Atreus and, more importantly, the conflicts that are tearing it apart. The chorus in The Libation Bearers, more active than the elders, is able to aid Orestes in resolving Agamemnon’s death, but their inactivity helps to demonstrate an important theme. Once the metamorphosis is complete in The Eumenides, the furies act as a chief character, making them a force to be reckoned with. This shows that, similar to the conditions of Greek society at the time, the past cannot be disregarded – a reconciliation is needed between the ancient laws and the new system. By giving the chorus an active role, Aeschylus widens the perspective of his work, applying its themes to the outside world.

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