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Write a note on the role of Chorus in the play Phaedra"

In Greek drama, Chorus was a group of people who sang and danced, commenting on the action of the play. The Chorus had its origin in an ancient Greek religious event and was later used in Greek tragedies and Roman plays. Plays by the ancient Greek dramatists Sophocles and Aeschylus typically contain Chorus with an active role. The chorus, as coneeived by the Roman dramatist Seneca in his plays, speaks highly of his poetic and dramatic skill. Seneca's plays, "Phaedra" employs the Chorus not so much for action as for comment, information or lyrical effect. In Phaedra the Chorus is allotted almost a fixed place at the end of each Act, except Act V. However, sometimes it appears at the beginning of an Act. We meet it for the first time at the end of Act I. It tells the audience about the powerful effect of love on man, deities and animals. Then it sings of the power of Cupid from whose arrows none can escape. All nature is his prey-love drives animals like the bull and the stag, the tiger and the lion. At Cupid's command old angers die, enmity collapses and even a stepmother's cruelty disappears. Thus the Chorus elaboration on love is a commentary on the great difficulty faced by Phaedra to extricate herself from the entanglement of her unnatural passion. In the second Act, the Chorus is found in diverse roles. This Act opens with a question asked by the Chorus to the Nurse: 

"Nurse, have you news? How is it with the queen Does she yet find relief from her great torment?

Then the Nurse informed the Chorus that there could be no relief from a suffering such as hers. Nothing pleased for long her drifting mind and her strength seemed to have been ended. Soon the Chorus could see Phaedra talking to herself. She was expressing her grief and dissatisfaction. Consequently the Chorus advised her not to grieve because grief would not help the afflicted. It also suggested Phaedra to appeal to Hecate for help.  At the end of the second Act, the Chorus appears on the stage to report that the youth has gone away swifter than a gale and quicker than the flames of fire that stream from a star. It also describes the beauty of Hippolytus and comments: 

"O beauty, but a dubious boon Art thou to man, brief gift of little stay Lent for a while, and all too soon Passing away". 
The Chorus also praises Hippolytus for his physical strength and amplitude of the body. At last, it hints that the future of Hippolytus will not be bright because Rare is the man look in the roll of time-

To whom great beauty has not been great cost."

Act II ends with the prayer offered to gods by the Chorus. It  wishes that gods may restrain from hurting Hippolytus .The Chonus now appears at the beginning of the third act. It reveals to the audience how a heinous crime has been planned and covered by every art. In the form of a question it lays bare that there is no end to the audacity of an impetuous woman crazed with passion. It also makes the audience that Phaedra's accusations against Hippolytus is nothing but lies. Then at the end of Act III, the Chorus delivers a long speech. As the speech is in rhymed verse, it is meant to be delivered by the Chorus along with song and dance. This speech is replete with wisdom and shows Seneca's keen insight into the evil days into which Rome had fallen during Nero's reign. It is a wonderful study of the region of Nature where, discipline and order generally prevail and the region of man where virtue languishes and vice thrives. It also presents an excellent picture of reality that makes a man a mere toy at the hand of fate. n Act IV, the Chorus facilitates the unfolding of a story through the question,"Why does a messenger come hurrying hithe With tears of sorrow watering his cheeks?" This question gives the messenger a scope to describe in detail hippolytus's tragic death by accident (Actually, Neptune takes step to kill him to fulfil Theseus' prayer). At the end of the same Act, the chorus sings in the form of a triad. In the strophe it observes how an accident can bring terrible changes in the lives of men. In the antistrophe, the Chorus says that the highest mountain-tops face the onslaught of wind coming from every direction but the green valleys that lie below seldom feel the stroke of thunder. Again Jupiter strikes caucasian and Phrygian forests with lightning and thunder whereas no great harm can come to common folk who dwell in modest homes. In the epode, the Chorus with the help of a few examples speaks about the whimsical nature of fate from which even the monarchs are not immune. In the fifth Act, the Chorus initiates the action. It announces the coming of Phaedra in an upset mental condition and asks the reason: A voice crying from the high palace! What! Phaedra comes, sword in hand, distraught Ah, wey?"

The result of this enquiry follows in the enactment of the most dramatic part of the play The result of this enquiry follows in the enactment of the most dramatic part of the play where Phaedra shows her abhorrence to Theseus, weeps bitterly for the death of her step-son declares his innocence, offers her veil and lock to the dead youth as tokens of love and then commits suicide. When Theseus beigins to lament the death of his son (Hippolytus), the Chorus advises him to do his due rites to preserve the honour of his son. It also says, Let us put away this vilely ravaged and dismembred body. The Chorus again intervenes when Theseus cannot arrange his son's ravaged body properly. It instructs  the sorrow-laden king what he will have to do. Finally the Chorus regrets, "Alas, how much of him is lost, and lies Far from our weeping! In fact, in the last Act of "Phaedra" the Chorus performs three functions. Firstly, it reveals a universal truth by telling that no time is enough to express one's sorrow exactly by lamentation alone. Secondly, it reminds one about one's duty and pays proper homage to rites due to a man after his death. Finally, it shows adequate  sympathy to the loser (Theseus) through sorrow and lamentation. In a Greek drama, the Chorus serves a two-fold funetion- it recorus the reactions of the audience to the stage and also the reactions of the stage to the audience. In Seneca's "Phaedra" the chorus does not exactly perform the same function. Moreover, in his  use of the Chorus, Seneca suffers from verbosity. Still the philosophical nature of some of the saying of the Chorus is undeniable. Above all, it should be said that if the Chorus had not made Theseus aware of his duties other than sheer lamentation for his dead son, the play would not have ended with the highly moving tragic tone.
chorus in the play phaedra


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