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Anatomy of Tragedy #3: Hero and Chorus

written by the Judge


The development of a tragedy often centres on a single act done by the hero. Sometimes the act was committed before the events in the tragedy even begin, as in the case of Oedipus Rex, in which the sin is represented by Oedipus’ murder of his father and his wedding to his mother: the play opens in the Theban city wracked by the plague, which was sent by the gods as a punishment for what Oedipus did several years before.

(I intend from this point onwards to refer to the hero by means of the masculine pronouns, ‘he / his’. This is not a reflection on the dramatic tradition at all, as there are very many tragic heroines, from Seneca’s Medea to Racine’s Athalie. It is simply an attempt to make this article easier to read, as there are many pronouns coming up, and it doesn’t help the flow of an already complicated essay when every sentence is punctuated by s/he, his/her and hero/ine).

As the first act opens and unfolds, we usually see the hero defending the legitimacy of his act, or simply his own honour (if he is unaware of what he did). The hero’s refusal to cave in to the pressures of the surrounding characters and / or the chorus is what identifies him as a representative of the I. The hero stands tall, refuses to bend: he will not compromise his first-person ‘I’ into the multiplicity of the chorus, he will be one (1) and whole with his ethical integrity.

But as the tragedy develops and the hero becomes aware of the consequences of his act, his speeches become increasingly dominated by O signifiers. A hero’s death speech is usually overwhelmingly lyrical precisely to the extent that it is powerfully dominated by the O. The Elizabethan stage makes this quite literal. Marlowe’s Dr Faustus says ‘O’ eight times in his famous last speech, and so does Romeo. Shakespeare’s other heroes die with speeches such as these:

HAMLET: O, I die, Horatio.
The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit.
I cannot live to hear the news from England.
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.
So tell him, with th’ occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.
O, O, O, O.

LEAR: And my poor fool is hanged.—No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Oh, thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.—
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips.
Look there, look there. O, O, O, O.

OTHELLO: Now, how dost thou look now? O ill-starred wench,
Pale as thy smock! When we shall meet at compt
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven
And fiends will snatch at it. Cold, cold, my girl,
Even like thy chastity. O cursed, cursed slave!
Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight!
Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulfur,
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!—
O Desdemon! Dead Desdemon! Dead! O! O!

A couple of notes. Firstly, Othello’s words are not technically his last, as he does exchange a few more lines with the other characters before dying; but it’s close enough to a final speech that I feel justified in quoting it along with the others.

Secondly, though I have chosen extracts in which the importance of the O as the ‘destination’ of the tragic hero is made explicit, it is important to understand that it is not the literal letter ‘O’ that matters, but its meaning, and the way this is implied. Several of the signifiers in the above speeches belong to the O: these include Hamlet’s ‘silence’ and Lear’s repetitious ‘No’ and ‘Never’. When Shakespeare’s Cleopatra dies, her final three lines open with ‘As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle’, which is a barrage of O signifiers (just before she cries out ‘O Antony!’). These terms all mean the same thing as the final O, which on these grounds might even be termed redundant (some editions of the plays in fact omit them). But the choice of linguistic technique does not matter that much for the purposes of this study. The point is always that in tragedy, the hero who started out by declaiming his I, ends up crying out an O – whether literally or by means of other signifiers.


The hero’s linguistic transition from I to O is a parable which most critics would recognise as the hero’s classic downfall. It is also the same process that takes place in lyric poetry. These things are acknowledged, in one form or another, in most of the critical tradition behind tragedy.

Now what is far less commonly recognised is the role that the chorus plays in all of this – and one of the reasons, by necessity, is the fact that the chorus appears to have vanished from tragedy since the twilight of the Classical ages. In reality, though, the chorus never died: it was simply reabsorbed. The Greeks used a collective ensemble of actors, speaking by turns, to represent social and established law. Later traditions simply delegated this role to a number of supporting characters, who had a slightly more dynamic role in the play, but who also fulfilled the same function. Like the chorus, they stood back after the hero committed his action or crime and declared “Alas, alas, how horrible!” When they did act, it was in compliance with or in defence of the same social law that is represented by the Hellenic chorus. Witness the difference between Hamlet (hero) and Laertes (chorus) when they duel. Hamlet is informed by an individual, internal agency that is impermeable to the concerns of the surrounding characters. Laertes is seeking revenge for his family: his motives are not only laced in the framework of a social construction (family), they are broadly acknowledged and understood by all of the surrounding characters (to the point that the king can use them to his advantage, by poisoning Laertes’ sword). Moreover, Laertes’ rancour, inasmuch as it is motivated by a legitimate desire to champion his family, represents a wider law that would be understandable in practically any human culture. Laertes may himself be a real character inasmuch as he is an orphaned son, but he is also forcing Hamlet to confront judgment by law. Hamlet has to pay for his murders through Laertes. What the Greeks would have dramatized by having the gods coming in and punishing the protagonist for his sin (by plagues, madness, or the furies), Shakespeare resolved by having a character who embodies the sentence of the law in his own personal drama. Laertes is a son, but on a parallel plane he is also tribunal, judge and (aspiring) executioner.

Of course, it is difficult to recognise such a thing as a ‘chorus’ when it is fragmented into many different characters as we see it in the Elizabethan stage. And yet the chorus, whether its form be organic or composite, deploys a linguistic trajectory that is just as definite as that of the hero. As much as the hero’s parable goes from the I to the O, performing the lyric, the chorus goes from the O of its initial passivity to the I on which it usually closes the play, effectively drawing an epic arch.

If the initial statements of the chorus refer us back to signifiers of the O, often even literally saying ‘O!’ (or its semi-alternatives, like ‘Alas!’), their closing statements point us to the I and to its values of individualism, energy, decision and affirmation of life. This can be performed in a number of ways, for instance by using imagery that suggests verticality and open Apollonian qualities…

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight
And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough,
(Dr Faustus)

…or by closing speeches on a proper name, i.e. a mark of individualism and specification:

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

But in the more memorable cases we get more than just a great number of signifiers of the I. In the final speeches, as in the tragedy as a whole, the chorus specifically shows a transition from the O to the I – just like in epic poetry. Here are Antony’s closing words on Caesar in Julius Caesar, with the signifiers for the O in italics and those for the I in bold:

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’

Notice the pattern; O-O-I-I-O-I. The last line executes synthetically what was done by the previous two, as much as the three lines together execute synthetically Antony’s whole trajectory over the course of the play. Compare the above active, affirmative statement with the passive, submissive (and only) lines he speaks over the course of his entire first scene, which he spends mostly standing in the background:

Caesar, my lord? […] I shall remember:
When Caesar says ‘do this,’ it is perform’d.

Antony has travelled on the exact opposite orbit as that of the tragic hero (a path which will later become his own in Antony and Cleopatra). A chorus, or a character standing in for it, will come to the end of the play in a condition that is active, one that demonstrates a will beyond mere social law. As Edgar says in the final lines of King Lear, his generation must ‘[s]peak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’ This is a statement that contradicts everything the chorus initially stands for, and that would sound more proper in the mouth of a hero. Linguistically speaking, they have taken up the mantle of the hero (just like the hero has joined the original circle of the chorus).

This, and not some philosophical or existential statement inherent in the genre, is what makes tragedies so ultimately uplifting even as they are so dark and terrible. The downfall of the tragic hero comes hand in hand with the rise of the chorus. Our ability to identify simultaneously with both the hero (who is a first-person ‘I’ just like the individual viewer) and the chorus (who are a multiplicity just like the entire audience) means that we experience the epic and the lyric simultaneously, and the unique effect in which they are synthesised – an effect which is simultaneously beautiful and fearsome, glorious and intimate, hopeful and pitiful, luminous and dark – is exactly what we call the tragic.

That sounded final, didn’t it? Not so! The series continues next Wednesday. See you for Part 4…

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