In Romeo and Juliet, what is the purpose of the Chorus?

The purpose of the Chorus is to introduce the theme of fate and the role that it will play in the lives of Romeo and Juliet.

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As the previous educators have noted, one of the primary purposes of the Chorus is to establish important details about the play. We could also argue that another purpose is to introduce the role of fate, which is one of the play’s central themes.

The idea of fate is enforced through the famous phrase “star-crossed lovers.” On the one hand, this phrase means that Romeo and Juliet were destined to meet and fall in love but, on the other hand, that their love for one another can never lead to happiness because of forces beyond their control.

Further on, the Chorus mentions their “death-marked love,” which, again, reinforces this idea of fate. If you are marked for death, this means that death is unavoidable and inevitable. There is nothing that you can do to stop it because it is beyond your control.

The Chorus, therefore, creates tension for the audience by foreshadowing the outcome. Because of these key phrases, the audience knows that Romeo and Juliet will fall in love and will both lose their lives, no matter how they behave or act. In doing this, the Chorus firmly establishes the play as a tragedy and not a happy romance story.

Ultimately, the Chorus is sending the message that fate is both stronger than love and that it is unavoidable.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on May 13, 2020
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In the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, the chorus sets the scene. It provides useful background information concerning the long-running feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. Not only that, it also tells us that Romeo and Juliet, the star-cross'd lovers, will tragically die. It may seem strange to tell us everything that's going to happen in a play, or at least the most important action, at any rate. After all, doesn't revealing the tragic fate of Romeo and Juliet undercut the dramatic tension somewhat?

But there's actually a good reason for the Chorus's revelation of what happens. Romeo and Juliet are fated to die; just as their love is written in the stars, so is their tragic demise. The Chorus acts as the voice of fate, an authoritative voice which makes the audience sit up and take notice, anxious to see how the ensuing action will pan out.

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In ancient Greek drama, the Chorus served a number of purposes. It would comment on events taking place in the action, offer insight, provide background information on characters and situations, provide clues to characters' real thoughts and feelings, or even offer clues as to play's themes and meaning. By including a Chorus in this play, Shakespeare seems to raise the significance of Romeo and Juliet's story to that of myth, to that of classical theater. By employing a Chorus, he seems to rank their tragedy with the likes of Oedipus Rex, Dido and Aeneas, or Medea, for example.

In addition, Greek audiences would have already known the story of, say, Oedipus, before they came to see the play. The skill of the author was not determined by his ability to tell a good and original story, but to tell a well-known story well. The creation of dramatic irony was paramount to his endeavors, building tension for the audience as they wait for the characters to finally learn the truth that the audience, themselves, already knows. Then, once the truth is out, the audience experiences the relief of catharsis, a sort of emotional purging of the tension that's been sustained throughout. By having the Chorus spoil the end of the play before it even starts—Romeo and Juliet die, and only then do their families end the feud—Shakespeare sets up similar possibilities for the development of irony, tension, and catharsis here. This could also be interpreted as an attempt to elevate the story of this couple to be on a level with classical tragedy.

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As was the case in ancient Greek theater, the Chorus provides commentary on the play, and its purpose in the Prologue seems to be to tell the audience exactly what is going on and will happen in the play. The Prologue is essentially a plot summary, and what it gives away in suspense by giving away the ending, it makes up for by creating dramatic irony that can be heartbreaking. We know throughout the play that Romeo and Juliet are "star-cross'd," doomed to take their own lives. This makes their tender expressions of love for one another all the more poignant and their attempts to overcome fate all the more tragic. The second appearance of the Chorus, in act 2, is less clear. It reinforces the idea that the two lovers are struggling against the forces of fate and their family ties. It also emphasizes the power of love to "meet tempering extremities with extreme sweet." In many ways, the Chorus, along with simply relating the key plot elements, reinforces some of the key themes in the play.

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