The Role of the Chorus in Ancient Greek Tragedies

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The chorus’s perspective of justice works differently in Euripides’ Medea and Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers. In both The Libation Bearers and Medea, the driving force of vengeance links the chorus to each of the play’s protagonists. For both plays, the choruses begin with a strong support of their heroes with a belief that the course of action that those characters are pursuing for the sake of avenging the wrongs done to them or their families is just and right. The chorus of Medea, however, moves away from that original conviction in the moral justification of revenge. Over the course of The Libation Bearers, the chorus also begins to express doubt in the validity of the true value in the cycle of deaths that the system of revenge necessitates. Both plays offer proof of a gradual rejection of the law of retribution in favor of balanced justice.

Retribution drives the plot of both plays. The chorus cites Jason’s “disregarding [of] right and loyalty” (Medea 47) as the reason that Medea needs to take revenge on Jason, and also as a reasonable justification for her original grief. Here, the women of Corinth who make up the chorus of Medea find a point of sympathy, the victimization of a wife or any other woman, which allows them to understand Medea’s anger towards Jason. The women of the chorus see her as “that unhappy woman from Colchis” (21), and their “own heart suffers” (21) for her pain at her husband’s betrayal. They “do not wonder that [she] take[s] such wrongs to heart” (25), and they also say that “to punish Jason will be just” (25). In Medea, the chorus’s identity as women gives them a predetermined inclination towards a belief in Medea’s idea of justice for Jason. The chorus of The Libation Bearers also cons...

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...f the need to “pay the enemy back in kind” (183), and avenge what they term “the outrage” (197) of Agamemnon’s death. Working in the opposite way as Medea, Orestes retains the goodwill of the chorus, even after committing a terrible crime. Unlike Medea, he is unable to escape his curse, and the Furies pursue him into a sort of madness.

The choruses in both plays indirectly express the sentiment that there is something fundamentally wrong with a society that requires the deaths of more people to atone for an earlier death. The Libation Bearers, which is followed by The Eumenides, moves closer to a resolution to that issue, with justice being served by an objective trial. Medea ends with a lament for Jason’s children, showing the extent of the injustice of a system where a mother will kill her own children. Both plays clearly present flawed views of justice.

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