In Greek, the term comes from the word “choros” or a company of dancers or singers who perform in unison. Traditionally, these groups were only composed of men. They participated in festivals, appeared on stage during plays, and held different vital roles for the audience of a performance. Their words might serve as a summary of events as they’ve so far transpired, or they might provide commentary (of varying degrees) on the story that’s playing out.
In some traditional sources, the chorus was more important to the overall work than others. For example, in the work of Greek writer Euripides, the chorus was only lyrical. While in other authors’ works, such as later on in the Elizabethan area (the period during which Shakespeare was writing) the chorus was composed of a single actor who recited parts of the text (usually, the prologue and/or the epilogue). Some of the best examples come from William Shakespeare’s plays.
Explore Chorus in Literature
Chorus in Literature Definition
In literature, the chorus, or Greek chorus, was a group of performers who summarized, provided commentary, or participated in the action of a play.
They might weigh in on actions between acts or only speak at the poem’s beginning and/or end. The term “chorus” refers to this group of performers and the section of the verse that they sang/read/chanted.
Choral poetry is a genre of lyric poetry that was invented in Greece. These poems were accompanied by music and performed by the chorus. Choral poetry often explored everyday topics, like marriage, praise for specific people, or celebration of other events. Some choral songs include hymns, processionals, laments, and dancing songs.
Examples of Chorus in Literature
Henry V by William Shakespeare
Henry V by William Shakespeare is a great example of a play that includes the Chorus as a character within the action. Within the play, the Chorus praises King Henry for his actions, provides commentary for the rest of the play, and sets the scene at the beginning of each act for what’s to come. Here are a few of the Chorus’ lines in Act V:
Vouchsafe to those that have not read the story
That I may prompt them; and of such as have,
I humbly pray them to admit th’ excuse
Of time, of numbers, and due course of things,
Which cannot in their huge and proper life
Be here presented. Now we bear the King
Toward Calais. Grant him there. […]
Shakespeare’s Chorus in Henry V is an interesting example because the author chose to make the Chorus more of a character than in the past. He begins each speech with an apology for his poor oratory and inability to do justice to the events about to take place on stage. There are also several moments within the play in which the Chorus tells the audience that the theatre is less than ideal. For example, these lines:
Can this cockpit hold
the vastly fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
Here, the Chorus asks the audience if it’s possible for the theatre to adequately depict the true Battle of Agincourt and pack entire armies on stage. The answer is, of course, no.
The prologue of Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known examples of a choral sonnet in any of Shakespeare’s works. The Chorus enters the stage before the play’s main characters and recites fourteen lines that set the scene and provide the audience with important information about what’s about to happen. This includes foreshadowing as well as specific details. The lines begin:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The chorus informs readers/the audience that the “families” mentioned in the opening lines each have a child who will be involved in a terrible “misadventure.” The audience will soon meet a “pair of star-cross’d lovers” who “take their life.” Here the Chorus reveals what’s going to happen at the play’s climax taking away from the suspense but ensuring that they keep the reader’s/audience’s attention.
The chorus in a play can take the form of any poem. Famously, William Shakespeare often chose to use sonnets, such as those seen in Romeo and Juliet. Traditional choral poems from Ancient Greece are generally considered lyric poems that can touch on various topics.
It depends on the poem. There is no set length poems have to conform to in order to be a chorus. A chorus might be a refrain within an individual poem consisting of only a few lines. In a longer play, a chorus might take multiple lines, stretching to the length of a sonnet or even longer.
In poetry, the chorus is sometimes known as a refrain. That is the repetition of a short phrase or multiple lines more than once within a poem. This may be used to reiterate the important themes, summarize something integral to the poem’s narrative, or reveal something about the narrator’s character.
Related Literary Terms
- Lyric Poem: a musically inclined, short verse that speaks on poignant and powerful emotions.
- Ode: a formal lyric poem that is written in celebration or dedication. They are generally directed with specific intent.
- Alazon: one of the three traditional characters in Greek comedy. They have an inflated sense of worth and often boast.
- Muse: a source of inspiration for the writer. This could be someone they know or directly reference the traditional Greek muses.
- Pindaric Ode: refers to the body of work, and style, of the Greek poet Pindar. It is used to refer, specifically, to his odes and those written in his traditional style.
- Read: Henry V by William Shakespeare
- Read: Romeo and Juliet Act II Prologue by William Shakespeare
- Watch: Modern Interpretations of Greek Chorus