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Shakespeare's Use of the Chorus

From Henry the Fifth. Ed. George C. D. Odell.

Shakespeare's use of the Chorus is quite unlike that of the Greek dramatists. The Greek drama arose from the songs sung at certain seasons, in honour of the god Dionysus, by bands of youths; to these was afterwards added a chief spokesman, who might, eventually, narrate some simple dramatic story, interrupted by the words of the Chorus. Two speakers were used, later, and then three, in the works of the great Attic tragedians. The Athenian audience looked on the Chorus as a very essential part of the play; its constant presence on the scene necessitated, practically, unity of time, place, and action, in the development of the story. It consoled, advised, and restrained the chief characters in the crises of their lives; it commented on the action, and sang of death and fate; furthermore, the lyric chants and the stately dances or evolutions in which it participated added beauty to an institution that the Greeks regarded with veneration.

Shakespeare, on the contrary, uses the Chorus in this play [Henry V], as he frankly admits, to eke out the inadequacy of the stage equipment of his time. The romantic drama of his day adhered to no laws of unity, and moved the scene about at will, both in time and place. To explain the hurried changes of situation, the dramatist made use, frequently, of the Chorus, who (in the person of a single speaker) explained before each act what had happened since the events portrayed in the last act, or prepared the minds of the auditors for what was to come.

The device at best is awkward and primitive, in the extreme; and the Elizabethan drama, descended, as it was, from the crude religious plays of the ages preceding, had to overcome many deficiencies of like nature before it was ready to flower into the remarkable art form it eventually became. It may be said that in recent stage productions of Henry V, the Chorus, represented by an actress of good elocutionary power, and surrounded by all the accessories of modern stage-craft, has come near to making the greatest "hit" with the audience. Furthermore, Shakespeare has conceived the speeches in poetry of a forcible, not over-subtle quality, that would be sure of immediate effect; they have something of the martial clang he wished to bring on the scene of action.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Henry the Fifth. Ed. George Clinton Densmore Odell. Shakespeare Online. 18 Sept. 2013. < >.


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