The Purpose of the Choric Odes
The Chorus used to be an important ingredient in a Greek tragedy. Its utterances were closely related to the development of the plot. The Chorus was not just a spectator but a commentator. It took stock of the changing situations and developments, and expressed its reactions to them mostly in the form of songs which took the shape of odes. The Chorus represented the citizens and as such, could not be treated as an extraneous element in the play. The songs of the Chorus took the form sometimes of an invocation, sometimes a prayer, sometimes a wish, sometimes a lament, sometimes an expression of joy or grief. Thus the Choric odes covered a wide range of subjects and emotions.
The Theme of the First Song
In this play the first Choric ode is sung just when Oedipus has declared his resolve to trace the murderer of Laius, and when the Priest, feeling satisfied, disperses his followers who had come to submit a petition to the King. The Chorus, having learnt the message that has come from the Delphic oracle, here expresses its state of fear. Invoking three deities, Athena, Artemis, and Phoebus, the Chorus seeks the three-fold power to save the city of Thebes from the fire and pain of the plague which is raging there. The Chorus then goes on to describe the conditions prevailing in the city. People are suffering sorrows which defy description. Sickness has taken the form of an epidemic and no remedy is available. The soil has become unproductive and women are giving birth to dead babies. Large numbers of dead people lie in the streets. Dead babies lie on the ground, un-pitied and unburied, infecting the air with pollution. Young wives and aged mothers approach the altars and cry aloud in prayer. Although there is no war being fought, yet the terrible cry of the fierce god of war rings in the ears of the people. The Chorus appeals to the all-powerful Zeus to hurl his thunderbolt upon the god of war in order to subdue him”. The Chorus also appeals to Apollo, Artemis, and Bacchus to fight against the power of the savage god of war, and to drive him away from Thebes.
This opening song of the Chorus has two themes, the message from Delphi and the plague raging in the city. Although both these themes have already been dealt with in the prologue, the Choral song does not produce any feeling of repetition. Both these themes which were presented vividly through the dialogue in the prologue, now become something much more immediate when presented through a song. A noteworthy point is that the two themes appear in the song in the reverse order, first the message and then the plague. The reverse order will make the transition from the prologue to the first episode more smooth. It is also to be noted that, while the prologue ended on a note of hope, the first Choric ode ends on a note of apprehension and prayer.
The Theme of the Second Song
The Chorus sing its second song just after the departure of Teiresias who has had a quarrel with Oedipus. Teiresias has spoken to Oedipus most bitterly, accusing him of the murder of Laius and making many other offensive and insulting allegations. The Chorus asks the identity of the man who did the horrible deeds mentioned by the prophet. Let that man flee from the city of Thebes with the maximum possible speed because the son of Zeus, armed with his fires and his lightnings, is coming to destroy that man. A command has come from the god to avenge the murder of Laius. Where is the murderer? asks the Chorus. The prophet has spoken terrible things denouncing Oedipus. Out of its respect for Teiresias, the Chorus cannot disbelieve him but out of their high respect for Oedipus the Chorus cannot believe him to be guilty of any evil. The Chorus is, therefore faced with a dilemma and cannot come to a conclusion. Why such allegations against Oedipus? All secrets of earth are known to Zeus and Apollo. But no mortal, not even Teiresias, can claim to know everything. The Chorus will, therefore, not believe the allegations against Oedipus till these are proved. Oedipus had conquered the Sphinx and won fame. The Chorus cannot consent to think him other than good.
This ode is highly dramatic and thoroughly relevant to the situation. There are two parts of this ode. In the first the Chorus speaks of the guilty man as a homeless outcast shrinking from men’s eyes. The Chorus utters a warning to this “shedder of blood”, this doer of horrible deeds, to flee from Thebes if he wishes to escape the wrath of Zeus. This part of the ode obviously contributes to the atmosphere of awe and terror in the play by visualising the fate which the murderer of Laius will meet. In the second part of the ode the feeling of uncertainty experienced by the Chorus is expressed. The Chorus cannot disbelieve the words of Teiresias whom they know to be a true prophet; at the same time they cannot believe Teiresias who has accused their idol, Oedipus, of the murder of Laius. Thus this second part reveals the conflict of loyalties of the Chorus. Towards the end of the ode it is the Chorus’s loyalty to Oedipus which wins. The Chorus recalls Oedipus’s heroic action in conquering the Sphinx and refuses to entertain any doubts about the goodness and nobility of Oedipus who has been denounced by Teiresias. The conflict in the mind of the Chorus is a reflection or echo of the conflict that must at this point be taking place in the minds of the audience which is seeing or reading the play for the first time without previously knowing the story. To this extent the second ode correctly represents the reaction of the spectators.
The Theme of the Third Ode
The third song begins with an expression of the reverence which the Chorus feels for the laws framed by the gods. These laws have a divine origin, and mortal men had no part in framing them. Nor can these laws ever become invalid because the gods neither die nor grow old. The Chorus then speaks of pride which is a hateful characteristic of a tyrant. A tyrant is proud of his power and his wealth; a tyrant’s wisdom collapses before his pride. This pride leads the tyrant to destruction from which nothing can save him. The Chorus next utters a prayer that a man, who is proud in word or deed and who has the fear of justice, should be overtaken by utter ruin. Those, who seek dishonourable advantages and lay violent hands on holy things, can never be secure from the wrath of the gods. Finally, the Chorus expresses its dismay at the decline in religious faith and religious piety. If the oracles of the gods are not fulfilled, people will lose their faith in the gods. People are tending to deny Apollo’s power; Apollo’s glory is no longer recognised to the same extent. Let the gods become vigilant!
This ode is indicative of the importance which religion held in those days and the reverence which was, in general, paid to the oracles. The Chorus makes it clear that the divine laws, which had the sanction of the gods, must be obeyed by the people. The Chorus condemns pride and arrogance, and wants men guilty of such offences to perish. The Chorus also deplores people’s dwindling religious faith and declining piety. In other words, the Chorus stands for religious sanctity and piety. The Chorus also shows its zeal for the observance of virtues like humility and self-restraint. In short, this ode has a moral and didactic quality. But that is not all. This ode has its relevance to both Oedipus and Jocasta. The song begins with a prayer for purity and reverence, and this is clearly an answer to Oedipus’s and Jocasta’s doubt about the oracles. It ends with an even more emphatic expression of fear of what will happen if people begin to refuse to believe the oracles. The middle portion of the song describes the man who is born of hubris or pride, such pride as displayed by Oedipus and Jocasta. This description follows to a large extent the conventional picture of the tyrant. The Chorus fears that he, who behaves with pride and with an insolent self-confidence, will turn tyrannical and impious. If Zeus does not punish people’s disbelief in oracles, all religion will become meaningless.
The Theme of the Fourth Ode
The Chorus sings its fourth song just after Jocasta, feeling shocked by the discovery of Oedipus’s identity, has left and Oedipus has called himself the child of Fortune. This song shows that the Chorus has, up to this point, not discovered the true identity of Oedipus: The Chorus speculates upon Oedipus’s parentage and visualises a love-affair between a god and a mountain-nymph. Instead of imagining any evil connected with the birth or parentage of Oedipus, the Chorus celebrates Mt. Cithaeron as the foster-nurse and birth-place of Oedipus and expresses the view that Oedipus was begotten as result of the union of a mountain-nymph with some god. This god could be Pan, or Apollo, or Hermes, or Dionysus.
This song is intended by the Chorus as a tribute to Oedipus. The loyalty of the Chorus to Oedipus remains undimmed so far, because the Chorus does not suspect any evil in Oedipus. The Chorus, indeed, exalts and deifies Oedipus. We have here a striking example of tragic irony. Neither Oedipus nor the Chorus knows the real truth but the audience has by now enough knowledge of the facts to perceive the great disparity between what Oedipus really is and what the Chorus thinks him to be. This ode, celebrating the possible divine birth of Oedipus, comes, ironically again, moments before the discovery of the truth through the questioning of the Theban shepherd.
The Theme of the Final Ode
The last song of the Chorus expresses the idea that human happiness is short-lived, the fate of Oedipus being a clear illustration of this idea. Nobody ever won greater prosperity and power than Oedipus did. His triumph over the Sphinx not only snowed his great wisdom but enabled him to save the people of Thebes. Thebes honoured him by making him its King. All the people of Thebes were proud of the majesty of his name. But now who is more wretched and more afflicted with misery than Oedipus? His life now has been reduced to dust and ashes. He has proved to be the husband of the woman who had given him birth. How could such a monstrous thing be endured so long and remain unknown so long? Time has disclosed the truth and punished Oedipus for his unnatural marriage. The Chorus ends this song with a wish that it had never seen or known Oedipus. He who was the source of life for the Chorus has now proved to be a source of death to it.