Prometheus Bound: A Study Guide
By Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.)
A Study Guide
Type of Work and Year of Staging
.......Prometheus Bound is a tragedy centering primarily on the reaction of a proud god to a terrible punishment imposed on him by Zeus. The date of its writing and staging is uncertain, but the play probably debuted about 450 B.C., six years before the death of Aeschylus. It was the first part of a trilogy. The other two playsPrometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringerdo not survive except for fragments of the latter play.
.......The action takes place on a single day at a time just after human beings begin to use fire as a tool of advancement. The place is a gorge in the Caucasus (Greek: Kaukasos, from Kaz-Kaz, a Hittite word identifying people living on the shore of the Black Sea), a mountain range running southeast from
the Black Sea (called the Euxine Sea in ancient times) to the Caspian Sea. To the north of the Caucasus is present-day Russia; to the south is present-day Georgia. The highest peak in the system, Mount Elbrus, rises to a height of more than 18,000 feet. The lands adjacent to the mountain range are known as Caucasia.
Prometheus: Titan whose name means forethought. After he defied the will of Zeus by becoming the benefactor of mankind, Zeus turned against him, ordering him bound to a rock in a desolate gorge of the Causasus Mountains. There, Prometheus remains proudly defiant, exhibiting no remorse or regret for his actions. Instead, he taunts Zeus,
predicting his downfall at the hands of a child he shall beget.
.......Looking back from the mid-Fifth Century B.C., the author retells a mythological tale transmitted over the centuries to him and other ancient Greeks. He presents the story from the perspective of an enlightened Greek attempting to underscore the importance of intelligence, creativity, and resistance to tyranny. Depicting Zeus as a strongarm bully was daring and controversial.
.......Aeschylus based the plot of Prometheus Bound on parts of mythological tales well known to Greeks of his time. Modern readers and theatergoers need to become familiar with these tales to understand the play. Following is a summation of the tales:
The cruel wrong that racks my frame,
The grinding anguish that shall waste my strength,
Till time's ten thousand years have measured out their length! .......Sea nymphs called Oceanids enter the scene in a winged chariot, hovering near the rock. They are the daughters of another Titan, Oceanus. Acting as a chorus that speaks as a single person, they commiserate with Prometheus:Prometheus, I am gazing on thee now!
With the cold breath of fear upon my brow,
Not without mist of dimming tears . . . ........Prometheus tells them he wishes Zeus had cast him into the underworld, called Tartarus, where never mocking laughter could upbraid me. However, Prometheus possesses information that could gain his release. Gifted with foresightindeed, his very name means foresighthe knows of a plot to overthrow Zeus but says he will not reveal the details of it unless Zeus frees him. The Oceanids observe that the terrible punishment meted out against Prometheus has done nothing to diminish the power of his will or to stay the boldness of his tongue. Although they doubt that Zeus will ever free him, Prometheus thinks the Olympian kings implacable wrath can be overcome. The Oceanids then ask him to tell the tale of how he incurred Zeuss wrath.
.......When Zeus acceded to his throne, Prometheus says, he parceled out his empire among fellow gods. But he ignored men, lowly earth creatures who lacked the wisdom and technology to sustain themselves. Zeus despised these beings, who were not of his creation, and withheld fire from them to prevent their survival. Prometheus intervened to save the helpless humans. First, he instilled hope in their hearts. Then he stole fire from heaven and gave it to men to enable them to develop civilization. For these deeds, Zeus torments me with extremity of woe, Prometheus says. He acknowledges that he violated the will of Zeus but says he did not expect to receive a sentence so dread, / High of this precipice to droop and pine / Having no neighbor but the desolate crags.
.......After the Oceanids land their winged chariot, their father, Oceanus, arrives riding a dragon. He advises Prometheus to contain his anger against Zeus, for a bold tongue may only bring upon him an even harsher sentence. But he pledges to do what he can to improve the lot of Prometheus. (The sincerity of Oceanus is in question here; his offer to help seems half-hearted, a mere gesture to pacify Prometheus while remaining in good standing with Zeus.) When Prometheus warns him that in so doing he himself may provoke Zeus, Oceanus responds, My oath upon it, Zeus will grant my prayer / And free thee from these pangs. But Prometheus renews his admonition, saying Oceanus must see to his own safety while Prometheus abides his suffering until the wrathfulness of Zeus abate. In other words, Prometheus is telling his brother god to get lost; his policy of appeasement is not welcome. Oceanus rides off on his dragon.
.......When the Oceanids commiserate further with Prometheus, he tells them human have also suffered. Lacking the knowledge to construct dwellings, they lived in burrows of their unsunned caves. Moreover, they were ignorant of the signs heralding winter, spring, and summer. To help them, Prometheus gave them arithmetic and writing, and he yoked beasts to do their heavy work and showed them how to use horses to pull wheeled carts. He also introduced them to ships with sails and taught them to make potions and mixtures to cure disease. And many other gifts he bestowed on them, so that all manner of arts from Prometheus [they] learned.
.......Io, a young woman who once served as a priestess to Zeuss wife, Hera, queen of the gods, comes upon the scene in the form of a white heifer. When she asks Prometheus who bound him to the rock, Prometheus says Hephaestus did it at the command of Zeus. When she asks what wrong he committed, he tells her he has said enough. Io then asks Prometheus how long she must wander as a heifer before her suffering ends. However, the Oceanids asks her to tell her tale of woe first.
.......It began, she says, with dreams in which a voice said Zeus was sick with love for her and that she was to go to a meadow near Lernas marsh so that Zeus could there look upon her. When she told her father, the river god Inachus, of the dreams, he sent envoys to the oracles at Pytho (Delphi) and Dodona to learn the will of the gods. The envoys returned with perplexing messages. But Inachus realized the gist of them: He was to send forth Io to wander the earth. If he did not, Zeus would obliterate his race with a mighty thunderbolt. And so, with sorrow in his heart, Io says, her father sent her out and bolted his door against her. Zeus then changed Io into a heifer, horned / even as ye see me now, to hide her from jealous Hera. A gadfly sent by Hera came and stung her into a frenzy. Bounding off, she did not stop until she arrived at Lerna. There, a giant with one hundred eyes kept a vigil over her. But Hermes, Zeuss messenger god, killed him. Io ran off, doomed to roam from land to land. Following her everywhere was the ghost of the giant, as well as the relentless gadfly.
.......Ios tale horrifies the the Oceanids, but Prometheus tells them that after all of her travels through lands with perils at every turn a stormy sea of wrong and ruining still awaits her. Io, wishing she were dead, asks whether Zeus will one day fall. Prometheus tells her a woman will one day bear him a child more excellent than his progenitor. The only one who can save Zeus from the threat posed by the child is Prometheusif someone frees him. Io asks who this someone is. Prometheus says she must choose between knowing his name or knowing her own fate. The Oceanids ask him to disclose to Io her fate and next to tell them the name of his liberator. Prometheus then decides to disclose all.
.......In Asia, Io must pass through Kisthene, where live three old maids shaped like swans who have but a single tooth and a single eye among them. Nearby dwell the Gorgons, three sisters with snakes for hair. One who looks upon them is turned to stone. He tells of other perils that she must negotiate before arriving in Egypt, where she and the children she bears must remain for a long time.
.......At a city called Canobus, Zeus shall restore her to her original form by laying on his hands. From that encounter, she shall conceive and bear a child, Epaphus, who will prosper. In the fifth generation springing from him, fifty women will flee to Argos to escape the shame of having to marry their cousins. But their cousins will pursue and marry them. However, all the brides except one will kill their husbands at night. The one who spares her husband out of love shall bear a child who will become a great archer (an allusion to Herakles, known in the literature of the Romans as Hercules). It is he who will free prometheus. This was the vision Prometheuss mother, Titan Themis, gave him. The gadfly stings Io and she bounds off.
.......Zeus, meanwhile, is preparing to bed the woman whose child will bring him down, Prometheus says. The chorus asks him whether he is afraid to speak of Zeus's downfall, for Zeus could cause him even greater pain. Let him, Prometheus says. The chorus may be diplomatic if it wishes, but not Prometheus.
.......The messenger god Hermes arrives and, speaking on behalf of Zeus, demands to know details of the future plot to bring him down. Be specific, Hermes tells him, or he will suffer the wrath of Zeus. Prometheus sneers at the threat, saying, Seem I to thee
To shrink and quail before these new-made Gods?
Far, very far from that am I. .......It was such defiance that caused Zeus to punish Prometheus, Hermes says. Prometheus says, There is no torture nor device by which
Zeus can impel me to disclose these things
Before these bonds that outrage me be loosed. .......The Oceanids encourage Prometheus to heed the words of Hermes: For he bids thee quit
Thy self-willed pride and seek for counsel good.
Hearken thou to him. To the wise of soul
It is foul shame to sin persistently. .......Hermes warns Prometheus that if he continues to defy Zeus the great god will cast him into underworld. But Prometheus remains uncooperative. Suddenly, lightning flashes and thunder rumbles. Prometheus says, O Mother venerable!
O Æther! rolling round
The common light of all,
Seest thou what wrongs I bear?
Prometheus as an Archetype and Symbol
They are the ground, the books, the academes
From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire.
Defying the Established Order
.......After Zeus deliberately neglects humans, Prometheus becomes their benefactor, giving them hope, fire, and other gifts. In so doing, he flouts the will of Zeus. After Zeus orders Prometheus bound to a rock in a gorge of the remote Caucasus Mountains, Prometheus continues to defy Zeus, using his tonguethe only weapon available to himto launch verbal fléchettes at the king of the gods.
Kowtowing to Authority
.......Prometheus reproaches Hermes, and other characters for becoming subservient to the will of Zeus. According to Prometheus, they should imitate his defiance. They may risk terrible punishment, but they will retain their integrity.
Right vs Might
.......Prometheus represents reason, compassion, righteousness. Zeus represents strong-arm despotism. Although Zeus physically subdues Prometheus, he fails to break his spirit. In one sense, then, the defeated Prometheus wins a victory over Zeus.
.......The play centers in part on suffering. Prometheus suffers pain, humiliation, isolation, and loneliness because of his benefactions to mankind. In this respect, he may be compared to Christ, who suffered an ignominious death to redeem humankind. Io also suffers greatly even though she did no wrong. In this respect, she may be compared to human beings who suffer undeservedly as victims of disease, crime, bigotry, deprivation, and so on.
.......Prometheus Bound pits two gigantic egosthose of Prometheus and Zeusagainst each other. The pride of Prometheus causes him to glory in his defiance to such an extent that he veers to the brink of madness. Such excess of passion was considered a weakness by the ancient Greeks, who strove to live by this saying: "All things in moderation; nothing in excess."
.......Seeing the goodness of men and their potential for worthy endeavors, Prometheus gives them the gift of hope to inspire their development. He also gives Io hope when he foretells her settlement in Egypt and restoration to human form.
.......Prometheus is superior to Zeus in terms of compassion. His benefactions toward mankind contrast sharply with the coldly vengeful actions of Zeus.
.......Heras fierce jealousy of any woman who comes between her and her husband, Zeus, results in the metamorphosis of Io into a heifer destined to wander many lands while a gadfly conjured by Hera stings Io repeatedly.
.......Although Prometheus is bound to the wall of a rockunable to walk, lie down, or use his handshis mind remains free. Zeus cannot enslave his spirit. Oceanus, Hermes, and others are physically free, but their minds are captives to the will of Zeus. The paradox and irony of liberty in captivity foreshadow similar themes later in literature. For example, in "To Althea, From Prison," poet Richard Lovelace asserts that "Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage" because "in my soul [I] am free."
.......The climax occurs when lightning flashes and thunder booms after Prometheus refuses to cooperate with Hermes, the messenger of Zeus. The thunderbolts indicate that Prometheus has again incurred the wrath of Zeus and is about to suffer further punishment.
The Role of the Chorus
.......Prometheus has prophetic powers. His recitation of events that await Io demonstrates this power. However, if he can see the future, why does he press Zeus to release him (in exchange for details about a plot to overthrow Zeus) when he already knows that his release will come at a later time at the hands of a
descendant of Io? The answer may be that Prometheus wishes to manipulate, taunt, and deceive Zeus as a way of getting even. His opposition to authority at times becomes highly impassioned and perhaps excessively stubborn and severe.
One may interpret the following as symbols. Whether Aeschylus intended them as such is unknown.
Does Prometheus Gain Freedom?
A copy of Prometheus Bound at Project Bartleby contains extensive notes and comments on the text. The citation information for this text is as follows:Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. E. H. Plumptre, trans. Vol. VIII, Part 4. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 190914. Bartleby.com. 2001. [Date of Access] <http://www.bartleby.com/8/4/>. Author Information
.......Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) was the first of ancient Greece's great tragedians. Because of the standards of excellence he established and because of innovations he made in the staging of Greek drama, he is often referred to as the "father of Greek tragedy." Before Aeschylus wrote and staged his plays, Greek drama consisted primarily of choral songs, recitations, and dances, as well as dialogue expressed by a single actor who generally played more than one part. (The actor wore a mask that signified which character he was playing at a given time. When he switched characters, he changed masks.) Aeschylus added a second actor, enabling the first actor to engage in dialogue with the second actor and providing greater latitude for plot development. He also increased the dialogue portions of plays, reduced the lyrical portions of the chorus, and designed stage sets and costumes.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Write an essay comparing and contrasting two defiant figures in ancient Greek literature: Prometheus and Antigone. Click here for information about Antigone.
Definition and Background.....The Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage, and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dionysia, the Greeks danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories. One day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue, to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging them in a theater.
....."A contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the tyrant' whom the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals, and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate them.
Major Sections of the Theater.....(1) A tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron faced the east to allow the audience to view playsusually staged later in the daywithout squinting.
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors.
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
Other Theater Sections
.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery.
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.
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