The Strength of Minor Characters: The Function of Chorus in the Play Agamemnon

The character of ‘the Chorus’ in the play Agamemnon play a very huge role.  The Chorus in the context of the play is a group of elder citizens of Argos who play significant multifaceted roles like advisors, commentators, narrators, etc.

The chorus give us the context and the necessary information as seen in the earlier parts of the play – the background story of the Trojan War, the abduction of Helen and the ten years of war between Greece and Troy (“Ten years the great contestants of Priam’s right / Menelaus and Agamemnon, my lord / … / put forth from this shore / the strength and the armies.”) It also give us either detailed or lengthy descriptions of the important events that didn’t happen within the context of the play, like how Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia in vivid details (“Her supplications and her cries of father / were nothing, nor child’s lamentation / to kings passioned for battle.”) how Menelaus and other Greeks were lost in the sea (“Ship against ship the Thracian storm shattered us / and gored and split, our vessels, swept in violence / of storm and whirlwind, beaten by the breaking rain…”) as well as the lengthy descriptions of the destructive and powerful presence of the beautiful Helen of Troy “so fatally in every way” or “the bride of spears and blood”.  The chorus act like omniscient characters who know everything that is significant for the audience to know and the job is to convey it to the spectators.  Definitely the chorus work like a narrator, but only differs in the fact that they don’t have limited appearances or they don’t serve as mere introductions to jumpstart the actions or the movements of the play.

Another significant role that the chorus play is the fact that they are capable of giving us commentaries about a certain event or a character.  The chorus can also ask the main characters what are their motivations for their actions.  They judge the behaviors of the characters geared in an objective point of view, but nevertheless supplying us with its own biased opinions sometimes.  The chorus tells us first of Clytemnestra (“But you lady / … / What is there to be done? What new thing have you heard? / what report do you order such sacrifice?”) as the chorus demand to know why the queen has ordered sacrifices to all the gods and celebrations throughout the city for the coming of his husband Agamemnon when in fact he sacrificed their own daughter.  Such inquiry to the main character gives the Chorus the respected dominant stance in the play.  Even the chorus have already biased the audience about the title character Agamemnon who only appeared briefly on the play by their own descriptions about him: his tragic flaw in the form of excessive pride ‘hubris’ (“the sinful Daring”) and the lengthy and gruesome information about Iphigenia’s sacrifice.  The chorus are capable of analyzing characters through words as seen in the eyes of others, and this is probably the earliest extant technique of limited or peripheral point of view that is common in some stories or other forms of narratives.

Other functions of the chorus – they give us the sense of foreboding especially when the chorus converse with another character Cassandra and the sense of premonition when the chorus say that Orestes will return from exile to avenge his father’s death.  The chorus are capable of debate, and the chorus can deliberate among themselves what is the best thing to do, as seen in the scene when Aegisthus and Clytemnestra finally triumph to kill Agamemnon.

I feel that in this play the chorus is seen initially as minor character but when I read the text it feels like they play an important role as much as Clytemnestra or Agamemnon did.  The chorus embodies a whole, a oneness in character of the elders of Argos, and stand as a very powerful character for they act like an all-knowing people.  They can debate, discuss, comment, advise, and converse among other characters and most of all, they are the carrier of the narrative string of the play.

How Are Women Represented in The Iliad?

 

“[Achilles] will kill me, unprotected as I am /

my gear laid, defenseless as a woman.”  Hector to Andromache

 

Different types of women are represented in the epic poem The Iliad: strong-willed andBriseis, portrayed by the actress Rose Byrne shrewd women, damsel-in-distress types, wicked and vengeful women, or even women who cause the downfall of the protagonist male hero.  Moreover, there are also women depicted as possessions (war prizes) or women who have little or no control over her destiny.  The epic poem, generally regarded as “a male-dominated world” focuses centrally on the rage between men but it also happen that most of the time this rage is affected, initiated, and inspired by a woman.

Take for example the case of women characters such as Chryseis and Briseis, considered in the epic poem as “war prizes” – captured maidens and spoils of war, with little control over their destinies.  But in Book 1, the major conflict was fueled due to some concerns about these two women – since Chryseis (Agamemnon’s war prize) needs to be returned to his father to stop the plague sent by Apollo, Agamemnon demands in exchange Achilles’ war prize Briseis which angered the warrior Achilles.  Thus Achilles after the incident withdraws the battle, leaving the Achaean army futile against the Trojans’ assaults.

There are also women who are the stereotyped mothers, like Thetis (Achilles’ mother) and Queen Hecuba, who in the course of the epic poem are seen to be either weeping or troubled with the affairs of their sons.

Some women in the epic poem serve as the “partner” of the male hero, like Helen of Troy to Paris and Andromache to Hector.  Although they don’t have the power to dominate over their lovers, these characters are sometimes used by Homer to portray a more human side to the male characters – Paris is vulnerable with Helen, Hector is both a sympathetic husband to Andromache and a heroic father to their son.  These women does not wholly affect the male characters (even Andromache fails to convince Hector not to fight Achilles) but with their presence, the male character assumes a multidimensional persona (Paris, a coward who indulges on pleasures than fighting in the war).

Another set of women characters in the poem are the women gods – the wicked, shrewd, vengeful, or the women who has too much control over the mortals and over other gods.  Hera in the epic is seen as a strong, dominant character and at some point she even tricked Zeus through her forceful and cunning attitude.  Athena is endowed with wisdom and skill, capable of inspiring Achaean warriors.  Aphrodite rescues Paris and sends Helen to his arms in Book III, sending the conflict to a higher notch.  These women are considered to be the powerful forces of the book – their decisions and their control over mortal affairs sometimes change a course of plot, conflict and action.

Helen of Troy, portrayed by the actress Diane KrugerBut the most celebrated woman figure in the poem is probably Helen of Troy – her illicit love affair with Paris is one of the most distinct events of the poem unforgettable.  People around her sees her as the cause of the war (Antenor suggested that Helen should be returned to Menelaus to end the war) with exception of King Priam who welcomes her like his own daughter.  But even Helen knows that she is the reason for the downfall for the male heroes, and considered herself as a wanton (“that man is Agamemnon…brother to the husband of a wanton.”).

Whether it is a dominant, powerful kind of woman in the form of gods, or submissive, damsel-in-distress types in the mortal world, the concept of a woman is explored very much in the epic.  There is a clear-cut definition between the two sexes but at times there are certain ambiguities that cloud over these distinctions.  Even though the deeds of men dominate in the work and mortal women are protected from the wickedness of the world by these heroic men, women in the Iliad serve a much greater role in humanizing the male characters, advancing the course of plot, and sometimes they play pivotal roles in inciting men into action, without them knowing it.