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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


†Charles Segal
Department of Classics
Harvard University

Chorus as Actor in Euripides' Medea

In section 18 of the Poetics Aristotle criticizes Euripides for not allowing "the chorus to be one of the actors and to be a part of the whole and to share in the dramatic action, . . . as in Sophocles." Aristotle may be thinking of the embolima of Euripides' later plays (satirized also by Aristophanes), but he is certainly wrong about the Medea. Its choral odes are not only all intimately related to the action but are also essential for the meaning of the play, particularly because here, as elsewhere (e.g. Hecuba), Euripides forces us reevaluate his main protagonist in midstream and uses the chorus (in part) to indicate that change.

In her first speech Medea wins over the chorus by a plea to solidarity in the face of women's victimization by a male-dominated society, and this response by the chorus is an essential step in the poet's paradoxical task of winning sympathy and understanding for a mother who kills her children. But as that first speech itself indicates, Medea both is and is not a typical (Greek) woman: she is a foreigner, unprotected by male relatives; she has a dangerous reputation for cleverness; and she has a barbarian past in which she murdered a brother. As Bernard Knox and others have shown, she also is a woman whose behavior and motivation are cast in a male rather than a female mode and follow the male heroic code of honor and revenge. Medea thus comes to embody the problem of defining the nature of woman; and the female chorus is left just as puzzled as the everyone else.

The fourth stasimon, sung after Medea has persuaded Jason to let their children bring gifts to conciliate his new bride, shows the chorus's initial sympathy for Medea changing to sympathy for her victims, the doomed children. They even have a word of sympathy for Jason, whom they here call kakonumphos, ill-wedded (990) as they did in the parode (207), but now in compassion rather than in accusation. Medea continues to address the chorus as philai, my friends, as she exits with the irrevocable decision to kill her children (1236-37); but she uses this philia to define absolute loyalty to her plot that involves the destruction of philoi: compare her use of philos in her outrageous request to the Messenger for an unhurried telling so that she may relish the deed all the more (1127-33).

In the fifth stasimon Euripides interrupts the chorus's song by the children's offstage cry at the moment of their murder, and also intertwines the chorus's singing with their cries at the moment of their death. By establishing the bond of oppressed womanhood with the chorus in her first speech, Medea had detached it from a possible protective role toward the children; but the fifth stasimon forces the chorus into a shockingly direct contact with the crime that it had reluctantly abetted (see 811-18). The dialogue between chorus and children in this last ode takes place across the barrier between the invisible interior of the house and the stage, but it brings the chorus as close to the death struggle as the conventions of the fifth-century theater permit (cf. 1275-81). Euripides may be consciously echoing Clytaemnestra's murder of her husband in Aeschylus's Agamemnon, but there is greater pathos here because the victims are innocent children whom the murderess loves, not a guilty husband whom she has come to hate; and they are heard not in the death throes itself but in a hopeless attempt to escape. The unique metrical design of this final ode contributes both to the dramatic power of the scene and to the chorus's tragic relation to the motif of children in the play.

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