In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Tragic Chorus

  • Introduction
  • Choral Identity
  • Political and Ritual Dimensions
  • Performance, Competition, and the Dramatic Festivals
  • Collections of Essays
  • The Tragic Chorus in Ancient Literary and Philosophical Theory
  • Music
  • Dance
  • Style
  • Editions

Classics The Tragic Chorus
Luigi Battezzato, Marco Catrambone
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0225


The chorus was a standard feature of Greek tragedy (see Choral Interactions and the Structure of Tragedy). Aristotle argued that tragedy originated from Dithyramb (see the Tragic Chorus in Ancient Literary and Philosophical Theory, and Dithyramb), and this may explain its pervasive presence, but tragic authors make the chorus allude to and perform in several other lyric genres (see Relation to Lyric Genres). Recent research on the tragic chorus has focused on performance (see Music, and Dance) and on the social interpretation both of choruses within the play (see Choral Identity) and of the chorus in social life (see Political and Ritual Dimensions, and Performance, Competition, and the Dramatic Festivals). Most of the choral sections were sung (“lyric sections”); they were written in meters that were sharply different from those of recited speech, and much more complex (see Lyric Meters). The language of sung sections was also distinctive (see Style). Choral sections are especially long and complex in Aeschylus (see especially Agamemnon), but their role is equally crucial for the interpretation of the plays of Sophocles and Euripides (see e.g., Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone; Euripides’ Medea, Trojan Women, and Bacchae). The chorus virtually disappeared from 4th-century tragedy, except for short interludes, but in the only extant 4th-century tragedy, the Rhesus attributed to Euripides (see Pseudo-Euripides, Rhesus), the chorus still has a crucial part in the plot.

Choral Identity

The tragic chorus is a complex cultural and literary phenomenon, one that has been investigated from different, and at times conflicting, perspectives. Battezzato 2005 offers a general survey of the various forms of choral interactions and of ancient and modern interpretations. Each of the major critical approaches pursued in the study of the tragic chorus has given a fundamental, although diverse, contribution to its broader understanding. A necessary starting point is the consideration that choral groups assume different intra-dramatic identities according to the specific plots in which they partake. A similar attention to the choral intra-dramatic identity has provided a strong corrective against those interpreters who make too straightforward identifications between the tragic chorus and the civic collectivity. Arguing against such “politicizing” views of the tragic chorus (see Political and Ritual Dimensions), Gould 1996 convincingly maintains that tragic choruses quite often embody social groups that were perceived as marginal within Athenian 5th-century society. In the course of very fine and well-balanced discussions, Mastronarde 1998 and Mastronarde 1999 demonstrate that choruses suffer from various and important limitations in knowledge and authority. Mastronarde 1998, Mastronarde 1999, and Foley 2003 provide invaluable statistics and classifications concerning the wide range of choral identities deployed by the three tragedians in their extant (and lost) works, successfully showing that the choice of an appropriate identity for the chorus in a given play can significantly contribute to its dramatic effectiveness, and would also have contributed to its success in the tragic competition. Building on these conceptualizations of choral identity, Dhuga 2011 discusses the choruses of elders in the extant tragedies, questioning Gould’s view that old age automatically implies political marginality. Rosenmeyer 1993 warns against excessive emphasis on choral personality and consistency, as well as against viewing choruses as the playwright’s mouthpiece.

  • Battezzato, Luigi. 2005. Lyric. In A companion to Greek tragedy. Edited by Justina Gregory, 149–166. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470996676.ch10

    General overview of theories on the chorus. Includes a concise discussion of formal characteristics of choral sections and genre interaction in Greek tragedy.

  • Dhuga, Umit Singh. 2011. Choral identity and the chorus of elders in Greek tragedy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Detailed and convincing discussion of the choruses of elders, seen as authoritative voices, against the view of Gould 1996. Includes standalone chapters on Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Euripides’ Heracles, Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, and Euripides’ Children of Heracles.

  • Foley, Helene P. 2003. Choral identity in Greek tragedy. Classical Philology 98.1: 1–30.

    DOI: 10.1086/378725

    Influential study on many aspects related to the social identity of the choruses in the extant tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Includes (1) a survey about the relation of the choral identity to the conditions of production and performance at Athenian festivals, and (2) a thorough discussion and classification of the different typologies of choral identities employed in the extant tragedies, with considerations on how specific groups can contribute to the successful construction of the plots.

  • Gould, John. 1996. Tragedy and collective experience. In Tragedy and the tragic. Edited by Michael Stephen Silk, 217–243. Oxford, New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Argues that the choral voice should be interpreted as strictly internal to the dramatic fiction, and that choruses, far from voicing the stance of the city, tend to represent marginality and “otherness.”

  • Mastronarde, Donald J. 1998. Il coro euripideo: Autorità e integrazione. Quaderni urbinati di cultura classica 60:55–80.

    DOI: 10.2307/20546555

    Influentially discusses those factors that contribute to the strengthening and/or the weakening of choral authority, with useful statistics on the range of different choral identities employed in the extant and lost tragedies. For an expanded version see Mastronarde 2010 (cited under Euripides), pp. 88–152.

  • Mastronarde, Donald J. 1999. Knowledge and authority in the choral voice of Euripidean tragedy. Syllecta Classica 10:87–104.

    DOI: 10.1353/syl.1999.0004

    Discusses (in English) some of the issues touched on in Mastronarde 1998, with further examples from Euripides’ Orestes and Andromache. For an expanded version, see Mastronarde 2010 (cited under Euripides), pp. 88–152.

  • Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. 1993. Elusory voices: Thoughts about the Sophoclean chorus. In Nomodeiktes: Greek Studies in Honor of Martin Ostwald. Edited by Ralph M. Rosen and Joseph A. Farrell, 557–571. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    Discusses some methodological pitfalls in (1) conceiving the tragic chorus as a fully drawn and consistent personality embedded in the action, and (2) seeing choral odes as direct manifestations of the playwright’s voice. Usefully surveys secondary literature on the tragic chorus and ancient views of it up until the mid-1990s. Includes a discussion of the second stasimon of the Oedipus Rex.

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