Topic 5 - 2009
Discuss the role of the Chorus in Euripides' play Medea. In your answer you should focus especially on the Chorus' attitude to (a) Medea and (b) Jason.
The play, Medea written by Euripides, tells of a woman who is seeking revenge for the angst caused by an unfaithful lover. An important element in this play is the Chorus composed of fifteen Corinthian women. In this play, the Chorus follows the journey Medea makes, and not only narrates, but commentates on what is happening. They fulfil the usual role of commenting on developments and of expanding their views on certain topics, for example, the horrors of being an exile or stateless or the pains that children bring. Euripides uses the Chorus as a literary device to raise certain issues and to influence where the sympathies of the audience lie. He does this by presenting to the audience a moral voice in the Chorus.
The audience can relate to them, because the Chorus is in a neutral position in the play. Their role is not so much to influence the actual plot of the play, but more to echo what has happened in the plot and the thoughts of the protagonists, and to suggest moral solutions the audience. The Chorus serve as a sort of sounding board for Medea, a testing ground for her attitudes and her projects, as without her conversations with the Chorus, her plans would not develop as there would be no one to agree with her ideas or go along with her plans. The Chorus uses language which almost makes it seem that they are speaking from the perspective of the audience, and in doing this they are guiding the audience responses to what Euripides wants it to be.
The most important thing about the Chorus in Medea is that they were women. This enabled them, in a way that a male chorus could not do, to play the role of confidante to Medea, to sympathise with her plight and to support her efforts to get revenge. It also facilitates their other strong role in the play which is to pose the whole anthesis between the male and female world which they do in their Choral Odes. The Choral Odes performed some of the same functions as the curtain does in the modern theatre. They could signify the end of a scene, give an opportunity for the actors to change and sometimes indicate a passage of time. Some Choral Odes offer direct comment on the action of the play or fill in the background to events. The playwright could also use his Chorus as an interpreter for the audience as seen in Euripides' Medea. The Chorus are sympathetic initially to Medea and so are we; later when they recoil from her crimes and their condemnation of Medea causes us to question our own feelings.
The Chorus of Corinthian women has various roles in Medea. The Corinthian women sympathise with Medea throughout the play and repeat their sorrows for her. In the early part of the play, the Chorus is used by Euripides to set the scene, to prepare us for the entry of Medea and to give us some idea of her character. In their first speech they remind us of Medea's foreign status while also showing compassion towards her. "...I heard that unhappy woman from Colchis, still crying not calm yet...As I stood by the door I heard her crying inside the palace and my own heart suffers too". They also rebuke her, telling her that many husbands are unfaithful and that it is not an unusual thing. "If your husband is won to a new love - The thing is common; why let it anger you?" They reassure her that everything will work out as Zeus will plead her cause. They state that they are a friend to Medea, and the word describes their attitude throughout the play. "As a friend I am anxious to do whatever I can. Go, nurse, persuade her to come out to us. Tell her we are all on her side". The Chorus of women agree to be silent about her revenge plans "To punish Jason will be just". Again, when Creon leaves, the Chorus expresses their pity for Medea, abandoned as she is, a wanderer who cannot return to her native land and is now to be driven out of her new home.
After the women of the Chorus hear Medea's plan to murder Glauce, King Creon and Jason they are horrified, they say all nature is in chaos "steams of sacred rivers flow uphill". Then the Chorus mediates on the plight of women, who have always suffered the slander from men about their unfaithfulness. The Chorus of women know that unfaithfulness is a characteristic of men saying "Tradition, order, all things are reversed; Deceit is men's device now, Men's oaths are god's dishonour". Finally, they sympathise with Medea's abandonment saying "you are driven beyond boarders". We find it improbable, not that they should sympathise with Medea, but that they should stand by silently while she strikes down innocent victims such as King Creon and his daughter.
After the first agon between Medea and Jason, the Chorus try to act as a peacemaker. It condemns passion and the destruction it causes. "The fiercest anger of all, the most incurable is that which rages in the place of dearest love".
The third stasimon or choral song praises Athens, Medea's refuge, as a place of culture and piety. "The people of Athens, sons of Erechtheus, have enjoyed their prosperity since ancient times...How will Athens welcome you, the child-killer?" The Chorus women kneel and beg Medea not to commit murder onto her children, their role is to plead for compassion in the face of Medea's evil. "To be your friend and to uphold the laws of human life, I tell you, you must not do this!" Another somewhat awkward feature is their attitude to the murder of the children. They express horror, beg her not to do it, yet take no steps to stop her, saying "Shall we go in? I am sure we out to save the children's lives"
The choral interlude, astonishingly, praises childlessness. Here the Chorus questions the value of children. "Childless people have no means of knowing whether children are a blessing or a burden; but being without them they live exempt from many troubles". This speech could be a daring attempt to justify Medea's voluntary childlessness and get us to sympathise with her.
They are always loyal to Jason's house but agree that he had wronged Medea and that he deserves whatever justice the gods have chosen for him. "Zeus will plead your cause". They see his behaviour as common among men but rebuke him nonetheless. "O wretched Jason! So sure of destiny, and so ignorant!" Throughout the play the Chorus shows that their alliance lies with Medea, giving them their word to keep quiet on her plans for revenge while also showing compassion towards her. However, when Jason comes looking his children to take them away and keep them safe from the Corinthians as he is sure they would be killed for delivering the coronet that killed the princess and ultimately the King, they cannot withhold their sympathy for him when they tell him that Medea has already killed his two boys. "Jason you have yet to learn how great your trouble is; or you would not have spoken so...Your sons are dead".
The ending to the play by the chorus is puzzling. It offers no comfort; there is no peace, only violence and hatred. This ending is uncharacteristic of the Corinthinian women, who have previously sympathised with Medea and befriended her.