Oedipus Rex

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The Chorus Character Analysis

In this play, the chorus represents the elder citizens of Thebes, reacting to the events of the play. The chorus speaks as one voice, or sometimes through the voice of its leader. It praises, damns, cowers in fear, asks or offers advice, and generally helps the audience interpret the play.

The Chorus Quotes in Oedipus Rex

The Oedipus Rex quotes below are all either spoken by The Chorus or refer to The Chorus. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Oedipus Rex published in 1982.
Lines 1-340 Quotes
If ever, once in the past, you stopped some ruin
launched against our walls
you hurled the flame of pain
far, far from Thebes—you gods,
come now, come down once more!
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 186-189
Explanation and Analysis:

The chorus enters suddenly into the play’s action. They beg the Gods to come to aid the city as they have before.

A chorus’s role is essential in every Greek tragedy: they function as an analog for the audience within the play—a general public that watches the events unfolding and helps articulate their significance to the actual audience. Here, the chorus has a specific identity: members of the city of Thebes who specifically wish for their city to be saved. As a result, they are not entirely omniscient—they haven't yet heard Creon’s news from the oracle, in this case—but will gain information as it is explained to the public of Thebes.

Even as the priests ask Oedipus, a mortal man, for help, the chorus members turn their pleas to higher powers, directly imploring the gods to “come now, come down” to their aid. This language showcases the Greek belief that the gods intervened directly in human affairs and could take on corporeal bodies to do so. Intriguingly, the chorus’s plea makes references to past interventions with the lines “if ever, once in the past” and “once more!” These references imply that the gods have directly changed the fate of Thebes before—and that those past events signify that they have a continued obligation to do so. Thus the chorus’s speech points to the intimate relationship between divine and mortal realms, which in turn means an intimate relationship between fate (the will of the gods) and free will (the will of humans).

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Thebes, city of death, one long cortege
and the suffering rises
wails for mercy rise
and the wild hymn for the Healer blazes out
clashing with our sobs our cries of mourning—
O golden daughter of god, send rescue
radiant as the kindness in your eyes!
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 211-217
Explanation and Analysis:

The chorus continues to lament the current decrepit state of Thebes. They narrow their earlier general call for help from the gods to one toward a specific deity (seemingly Artemis, a daughter of Zeus, although she is only one of a litany of gods and goddesses called upon by the Chorus).

Sophocles’ language here is highly lyrical: that Thebes is deemed “city of death” shows how horrifically it has been affected by the plague, and the phrase “one long cortege” presents it as a single funeral procession for its demise. The next two lines put into parallel “suffering rises” and “wails for mercy rise,” playing on the term “rise” to mean both increasing and lifting through the air toward the gods. The chorus then describes their own laments and the role they play in the cacophony of Thebes: a mix of ”wails for mercy,” “wild hymn,” and “cries of mourning.” Thus we have the combination of horror and entreaties for aid, being described by the very public performing the acts themselves. Before, the chorus’s request for help was addressed to a general divine realm, but they ask here specifically for “the Healer.” This speaks to the greek belief that specific gods played particular roles on earth and in heaven—and that each was bestowed with a set of properties to be called upon when needed. The references to “kindness in your eyes” also bears noticing considering the importance of vision throughout the play. Indeed, the salvation of Thebes will come through “eyes”—yet its radiance will be the cruelty that gouges out Oedipus’s eyes in order to absolve the city of its crime.

Lines 341-708 Quotes
But whether a mere man can know the truth,
whether a seer can fathom more than I—
there is no test, no certain proof
though matching skill for skill
a man can outstrip a rival. No, not till I see
these charges proved will I side with his accusers....
Never will I convict my king, never in my heart.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 563-572
Explanation and Analysis:

After Tiresias and Oedipus have finished fighting, the chorus expresses their sympathy for the king. They acknowledge the power of oracles, but also refuse to accept Tiresias's judgement until it has been proved certain.

The chorus challenges Tiresias, as Oedipus did before, on whether he does indeed profess prophetic powers above those of humans. They wonder “whether a seer can fathom more than I,” thus expressing a deep-seated skepticism with oracles. Like Oedipus, they want the proof of “matching skill for skill”—an even playing field, such as when Oedipus proved his strength and intelligence against the Sphinx. Perhaps the chorus, composed as it is by residents of Thebes, has been influenced by Oedipus’s more secular and humanist sensibilities, which prioritize human agency over the will of the gods. Indeed, they seem willing to defend Oedipus to great lengths when they say “Never will I convict my king, never in my heart.” That is to say, the chorus is willing to deny explicit evidence against Oedipus due to their strong attachment to him as a ruler.

This passage also marks the chorus as distinctly ignorant rather than omniscient. They play the role of an audience that is not already intimately aware of the story of Oedipus—and thus they allow viewers to compare their own knowledge against what a more ignorant viewer might assume. This strategy is part of what allows Sophocles to re-stage an old tale and maintain dramatic tension, for he can maintain the semblance of unfamiliarity in the perspective of the chorus.

Lines 709-997 Quotes
You who set our beloved land—storm-tossed, shattered—
straight on course. Now again, good helmsman,
steer us through the storm!
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 765-767
Explanation and Analysis:

In the wake of Oedipus’s fight with Creon, the chorus continues to defend their ruler. They repeatedly call upon him to save them from the current plague.

Sophocles underlines, once more, how fully the populace of Thebes has aligned themselves with Oedipus. Though they do diverge from his viewpoints at times—for instance urging a merciful treatment of Creon—their general view is entirely sympathetic to him. Here, the chorus again brings up the way Oedipus had previously saved their “beloved land,” this time making use of a sailing metaphor, in which the plague is a “storm” and their ruler a “good helmsman.” The image presents composure and good judgment as the necessary qualities to save Thebes—both of which Oedipus is, of course, lacking at this point. Yet the chorus seems unaware of this discrepancy. That they simply continue to implore Oedipus speaks to their own sort of blindness—for they, like their ruler, cannot tell that he acts unjustly and will thus bring tragedy upon himself.

Great laws tower above us, reared on high
born for the brilliant vault of heaven—
Olympian Sky their only father,
nothing mortal, no man gave them birth,
their memory deathless, never lost in sleep:
within them lives a mighty god, the god does not
grow old.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 957-962
Explanation and Analysis:

Jocasta and Oedipus have just finished discussing the significance of the prophecies that each has received. When they depart, the chorus offers a chilling and complex speech about the state of the gods in Thebes.

Their first move is to aggrandize the gods and stress their omnipresence in human affairs. That “Great laws tower above us” indicates that a different and more powerful set of rules exist in the divine realm—ones that would supersede the relatively minute human regulations. Indeed, “no man gave them birth,” thus directly contrasting the power of Oedipus as a human king with the divine rulers who exist entirely independently of him. After a series of somewhat heretical exchanges between Jocasta and Oedipus, this passage firmly reinstates the importance of the gods for the chorus, and thus for Thebes society.

A particular emphasis is placed on how these rules and their creators are eternal and immune to decay. The chorus fixates on how they are “nothing mortal,” “deathless,” and “the god does not grow old”—which contrasts with the ephemeral nature of humans and their laws. Part of their entitlement thus comes from the way they are immune to the current state of Thebes and the eventual fate of Oedipus.

Lines 998-1310 Quotes
They are dying, the old oracles sent to Laius,
now our masters strike them off the rolls.
Nowhere Apollo's golden glory now—
the gods, the gods go down.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 994-997
Explanation and Analysis:

After first contending that the gods are everlasting and all-powerful, the chorus rapidly shifts positions here. They claim that given the current state of Thebes, the relative power of Oedipus, and the potential falseness of the prophecies, the gods may in fact be in decline.

To substantiate this point, the chorus directly inverts their earlier descriptions: if before, the gods were deathless and immortal, here we learn the oracles “are dying.” This formulation is both literal and metaphoric, for it refers to their increasing lack of importance in Thebes society, due to the perspective of “our masters.” Indeed, this lack of adherence to old prophecies extends to more than just prophets such as Tiresias—for it even applies to “Apollo’s golden glory.” The gods themselves are deemed to be in decline: they “go down” in public interest and in perceived relevance.

The chorus implies that a massive societal shift has taken place in the way of Oedipus’s rise to power: a movement away from the providence of religion and instead toward a more secular orientation. By repeatedly praising human intelligence and disparaging prophecy, Oedipus has already shown this to be his personal belief system—and the chorus has affirmed the actions and ideas of their ruler. Thus Thebes seem to have arrived at a complex and pivotal decision: if the prophecies about Oedipus prove untrue, it would cause them to see the gods as “down,” and gravitate toward an increasingly secular society.

Lines 1311-1680 Quotes
"...is there a man more agonized?
More wed to pain and frenzy? Not a man on earth,
the joy of your life ground down to nothing
O Oedipus, name for the ages—"
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 1331-1334
Explanation and Analysis:

Having now learned of Oedipus’s history and fate, the chorus renounces their earlier adoration of him. They reflect on the way Oedipus has shown himself to be predestined to a doomed and painful life.

This passage is a striking turn in the perception of the chorus, which had previously refused to accept claims or prophecies that told of their king’s fate. Here, they adopt the language of other accusers: he is “agonized” and “wed to pain and frenzy”—thus permanently associated with these horrific qualities. As before, he is singular and famous—but this is no longer due to heroism, and instead because of his tragic fate. That the chorus says, “O Oedipus, name for the ages” demonstrates that this fate will be recorded and maintained for eons to come: thus they already predict the writing of Sophocles’ play and the other ways that this story will enter Greek cultural history (and Western culture in general). Even at this point, however, the chorus still displays a level of sympathy for their ruler. Instead of calling Oedipus “man of agony” in the disparaging tone of Jocasta, they choose “man more agonized,” which forefronts the pain he must be enduring. They also make mention of the previous “joy of your life,” and even maintain the use of his name, “Oedipus.” This continued sympathy reiterates how the chorus functions as an analog to the audience—for it reacts with a similar emotional and caring mindset that an observer of the tragedy might have.

Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 1683-1684
Explanation and Analysis:

After Creon has dealt with Oedipus’s fate, they both depart the stage to leave only the chorus. The chorus ends the play with these lines that reaffirm the power of the gods to dictate each action of man.

Once more, the chorus functions as a way to explain the morals and meanings of the tragedy to the audience. Their perspective has changed radically over the course of play—from full-heartedly supporting Oedipus, to questioning his position, and finally to condemning him to his fate. Here, they extrapolate from the specific example of Oedipus to offer a more broad-reaching comment on humanity. They take their king as proof that none can escape the control of the gods, and that their earlier skepticisms of divine control were unwise.

As a result, men can only “keep our watch and wait the final day,” implying that observation and submissiveness are the only possible responses to destiny. Oedipus’s proud attempts to escape or challenge his fate are deemed foolhardy, and thus any active attempt to shift one’s life will ultimately fail. The chorus’s next line is far darker, however, for it says that no one will be “free of pain” until death. This seems to imply that being bound by destiny is by definition a type of pain—and that watching and waiting will similarly bring pains that can never be fully eluded. Sophocles’s final lesson extracted from Oedipus is thus a cautionary and dark one: none can escape the providence of the gods, and therefore one must accept a life of pained predestination.

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The Chorus Character Timeline in Oedipus Rex

The timeline below shows where the character The Chorus appears in Oedipus Rex. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lines 1-340
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
The chorus, which has not heard the news from the oracle, enters and marches around an altar,... (full context)
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
...were his own father. Oedipus curses anyone who defies his orders. The leader of the chorus suggests that Oedipus send for Tiresias, the blind seer. Oedipus announces that he has already... (full context)
Lines 341-708
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
...He mocks Tiresias's blindness and calls the man a false prophet. The leader of the chorus tries to calm the two men down. Tiresias warns Oedipus that Oedipus is the blind... (full context)
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
The chorus enters, chanting about the murderer of Laius, pursued now by the gods and the words... (full context)
Lines 709-997
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
...Oedipus wants to have Creon banished or killed, Jocasta begs Oedipus to believe Creon. The chorus echoes her plea. Oedipus thinks that this means the Chorus also wants to see him... (full context)
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
Moved by the chorus's expression of loyalty, Oedipus allows Creon to go free, though he says that he still... (full context)
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
The chorus tells Oedipus to remain hopeful until he questions the witness he has sent for. Oedipus... (full context)
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
The chorus, alone on stage, chants about the gods who rule the world from Olympus, striking down... (full context)
Lines 998-1310
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Jocasta reacts sharply to this last piece of news. Meanwhile, the chorus tells Oedipus that this other shepherd, Laius's old servant, is the same man as the... (full context)
Lines 1311-1680
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
The chorus, left alone on stage, chants first of Oedipus's greatness among men, and then about how... (full context)
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
The chorus and the messenger are struck with grief and pity. Oedipus enters, but they can't bear... (full context)
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
...was his own hand that blinded himself, he claims, not the hand of fate. The chorus asks why he blinded himself instead of killing himself. Oedipus says he could not bear... (full context)
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
All exit except the Chorus, which laments that even the most powerful and skillful of men can be ruined by... (full context)