The Chorus reacts to events as they happen, generally in a predictable, though not consistent, way. It generally expresses a longing for calm and stability. For example, in Oedipus the King, it asks Oedipus not to banish Creon (725–733); fearing a curse, it attempts to send Oedipus out of Colonus in Oedipus at Colonus (242–251); and it questions the wisdom of Antigone’s actions in Antigone (909–962). In moments like these, the Chorus seeks to maintain the status quo, which is generally seen to be the wrong thing. The Chorus is not cowardly so much as nervous and complacent—above all, it hopes to prevent upheaval.
The Chorus is given the last word in each of the three Theban plays, and perhaps the best way of understanding the different ways in which the Chorus can work is to look at each of these three speeches briefly. At the end of Oedipus the King, the Chorus conflates the people of “Thebes” with the audience in the theater. The message of the play, delivered directly to that audience, is one of complete despair: “count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last” (1684). Because the Chorus, and not one of the individual characters, delivers this message, the play ends by giving the audience a false sense of closure. That is, the Chorus makes it sound like Oedipus is dead, and their final line suggests there might be some relief. But the audience must immediately realize, of course, that Oedipus is not dead. He wanders, blind and miserable, somewhere outside of Thebes. The audience, like Oedipus, does not know what the future holds in store. The play’s ability to universalize, to make the audience feel implicated in the emotions of the Chorus as well as those of the protagonist, is what makes it a particularly harrowing tragedy, an archetypal story in Western culture.
The Chorus at the end of Oedipus at Colonus seems genuinely to express the thought that there is nothing left to say, because everything rests in the hands of the gods. As with Oedipus’s death, the Chorus expresses no great struggle here, only a willing resignation that makes the play seem hopeful—if ambivalently so—rather than despairing. Oedipus’s wandering has, it seems, done some good. The final chorus of Antigone, on the other hand, seems on the surface much more hopeful than either of the other two but is actually much more ominous and ambivalent. Antigone ends with a hope for knowledge—specifically the knowledge that comes out of suffering. This ending is quite different from the endings of the other two plays, from a mere truism about death or the fact that fate lies outside human control. The audience can agree with and believe in a statement like “Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy,” and perhaps feel that Creon has learned from his suffering, like Antigone seemingly did at the beginning of the play.
While the Chorus may believe that people learn through suffering, Sophocles may have felt differently. Antigone represents the last events in a series begun by Oedipus the King, but it was written before either of the other two Oedipus plays. And in the two subsequent plays, we see very little evidence in Antigone that suffering teaches anyone anything except how to perpetuate it.