The role of the chorus

Appearances of the Chorus

If we include two speeches to the audience by Wagner, the Chorus makes five appearances in the play (references, as always, are to the New Mermaid text):

  • Chorus 1: the opening of the play
  • Chorus 2: between Scenes 7 and 8 and spoken by Wagner (the same actor may have played both parts)
  • Chorus 3: between Scenes 9 and 10
  • Scene 12: the first eight lines, again spoken by Wagner and not marked as Chorus in the New Mermaid edition
  • Scene 13: the last eight lines of the play, forming a kind of Epilogue

It can be seen that these appearances are not placed at regular intervals in the text. The Chorus is absent for a long time between Scenes 1 and 8, but appears more regularly in the last three or four scenes, as the action speeds up.

The functions of the Chorus

The Chorus in Greek drama

The use of the Chorus in Elizabethan plays derives ultimately from its use in Ancient Greek drama, where it consisted of a group of actors who spoke in unison or were sometimes divided into two groups to speak alternately, in a kind of conversation or debate.

The Chorus represented a voice that stood apart from - and commented on - the main action:

  • It might be heard as a community voice, interpreting the action in terms of the moral and cultural practices of the time
  • It might comment favourably or unfavourably on the behaviour of the characters
  • It might discuss the role of the gods in supporting or opposing one or more of the characters
  • It might simply fill in parts of the action not seen on stage
  • At the end of the play, it might provide a moral and religious comment, pointing the lessons to be learned from the action just witnessed and offering warnings or advice.

The Chorus in Doctor Faustus

Not all Elizabethan dramas include a Chorus; where it does appear, it has been reduced to a single voice. Its inclusion depends very largely on the kind of play that is being presented and whether a Chorus is necessary or appropriate.

In Shakespeare's King Henry V (1599), for instance, a play which includes military sieges and battle scenes, the Chorus is used to ask the audience to exercise their imaginations to conceive of such vast doings taking place in so small a theatre.

Doctor Faustus employs the Chorus in a number of functions:

  • To explain the kind of play the audience is about to witness (Chorus 1)
  • Tell ‘the story so far' and fill in details of Faustus' birth and early career (Chorus 1)
  • To anticipate the first part of the action, as Faustus turns towards forbidden knowledge (Chorus 1)
  • To fill in episodes not represented on the stage and to introduce a new location (Chorus 2). This is spoken by Wagner, but in a manner very similar to that of Choruses 1 and 3
  • To inform the audience of Faustus' increased reputation as a learned man, and his summons to the court of the Emperor (Chorus 3)
  • To offer a more intimate view of the change in Faustus' behaviour as the end of the play approaches. In scene 12, the Chorus identifies himself as Wagner and speaks in a language register similar to that he uses elsewhere in the play
  • In the final lines of the play, as a moral guide for the audience. He asks them to: ‘exhort the wise / Only to wonder at unlawful things' and to think carefully about what they have just seen, so as to avoid being tempted ‘To practise more than heavenly power permits'.
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