Discuss the role of the chorus in Medea.

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The Chorus in Euripides's Medea serves many of the same functions as the chorus in other Greek tragedies of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. The chorus acted as a collective narrator, providing background information for the audience and comments on the action of the play. It also provides...

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The Chorus in Euripides's Medea serves many of the same functions as the chorus in other Greek tragedies of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. The chorus acted as a collective narrator, providing background information for the audience and comments on the action of the play. It also provides counsel and guidance as the voice of reason and serves as a dispassionate sounding board for the major characters in the play.

By the time Euripides was writing his tragedies, Sophocles had added the innovation of a third actor to his plays, thereby increasing the potential for dramatic interaction between and among characters. Sophocles also reduced the size and importance of the chorus.

In Medea, Euripides reverts to an earlier time in Greek drama, when there were only two actors and the chorus had a much greater role in the plays.

All of the major scenes in Medea involve Medea speaking with only one other character, with the Chorus representing the women of Corinth. In essence, the Chorus takes on its own role in the action of the play, which was a significant departure from the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and other Greek playwrights of the period.

Another departure from traditional Greek tragic plays is that the chorus is no longer the distant or dispassionate counselor serving as the unbiased voice of reason. The Chorus in Medea interacts with Medea and reacts emotionally to Medea and the action of the play. To facilitate and enhance this interaction, the Leader of the Chorus (the coryphaios) steps out from the Chorus to speak directly with Medea and other characters in the play.

The Chorus in Medea also serves as Medea's silent accomplice. Medea confides in the Chorus so that the Chorus is fully aware of Medea's motivations and intentions.

Early in the play, Medea persuades the Chorus that she's fully justified in effecting her revenge on Jason, and she asks the Chorus to be silently complicit, no matter what she does.

MEDEA. Therefore of thee
I ask one thing. If chance yet ope to me
Some path, if even now my hand can win
Strength to requite this Jason for his sin,
Betray me not! Oh, in all things but this,
I know how full of fears a woman is,
And faint at need, and shrinking from the light
Of battle: but once spoil her of her right
In man's love, and there moves, I warn thee well,
No bloodier spirit between heaven and hell.

LEADER. I will betray thee not. It is but just,
Thou smite him.

The Chorus knows that Medea intends to kill Jason's new wife, Glauce, and her own two children, but the Chorus does nothing to dissuade or prevent Medea from performing these murderous acts.

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The role of the Chorus in Medea is to act as the audience's guide, to give us a way into the action as it unfolds on stage. In that sense, the Chorus is initially sympathetic to Medea's plight while, at the same time, foreshadowing the horrific acts which she will commit in due course.

Medea is a wronged woman, cruelly dumped by her lover Jason and turned into a stateless refugee as a result. Medea demands justice, and the Chorus represents a fair-minded cross-section of society that supports Medea in her initially reasonable demands. However, when Medea hatches her wicked plan to murder her children as a way of getting back at Jason, the Chorus cannot go along with her. It begins to express grave misgivings over Medea's revenge plot, not least because it doesn't appear to be divinely sanctioned. To be sure, the Chorus still wants to be friends with Medea, but as a good friend, it also makes clear that it doesn't want her to go ahead with this evil scheme.

Later on, the Chorus will act as a kind of go-between on Medea's behalf. It is the Chorus that will inform Jason that Medea has murdered their children. Having done so, and in its capacity as the community's moral conscience, it then goes on to pronounce that there's no crime so hideous as "the bloody-handed fiend of vengeance."

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Euripides does not endow the Chorus in Medea with much in way of transformative power.  The role of the Chorus is to communicate the destructive levels of human action between Jason and Medea. In many respects, the Chorus is similar to the reader.  Like the reader, the Chorus is appalled at Jason's treatment of Medea.  Euripides develops the Chorus as being persuaded at the mistreatment that Medea endures:

Back to their fountains
the sacred rivers are falling;
The cosmos and all morality
turning to chaos.
The mind of a man is nothing but a fraud,

One day the story will change:
then shall the glory
or women resound,
And reverence will come to the race of woman,
Reversing at last the sad reputation of ladies.

In this capacity, the Chorus's role is designed to offer sympathy to Medea for what she has endured at Jason's hand.  In this regard, the Chorus's function is similar to that of the reader who cannot accept such a brazen display at disrespect given all that she had done for her husband.

Once it becomes clear that Medea's revenge crosses a particular path of no return, the Chorus's function is to express outrage at what she is planning to do.  The Chorus articulates how limits must be in place, something that Medea has eviscerated with her plan.  When it becomes clear that the Chorus cannot embrace what Medea is about to do, Euripides designs the Chorus as the voice of reason where none seems to exist:

How will you keep the tears from your eyes when you look at them, how will you keep your resolve to kill them?  You won't be able, when your sons fall down and plead, to soak your hand in their blood with your daring heart.

The Chorus operates in the role of advisor to Medea as they say, "I want to help you and aid the laws of humanity; please don't do this."  The Chorus operates as a voice of restraint when it becomes evident that Medea is focused on revenge in the most heinous of ways.  When it is clear that Jason has little idea of what is planned, the Chorus offers a sad note of support in lines such as "I groan with your pains."  Like the reader, the Chorus is knowingly helpless, incapable of doing anything else other than to voice emotion about that which lies ahead.  

When blood has been shed at the end of the drama, the Chorus's role is to speak towards the power of the divine.  Euripides constructs the role of the Chorus as one that affirms the power of the divine as the only way to make sense of the complications that human beings develop.  The Chorus repeatedly speaks to "god's will" and how the only solution for "heart oppressing wrath" is complete submission towards the ways of the divine:

Zeus dispenses many things from Olympus, and the gods bring to pass much that is unexpected.  What was believed is not borne out, while God finds a way for the unforeseen.  So it was in what has just passed.

In affirming that the role of the divine is the only constant in a world besieged by human insecurity, pain, and doubt, there is a clear affirmation of the Chorus's role. They end up becoming no different than us and our own experiences in the epic struggle to simply be human.

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