. . 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 plays–Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer–do
not survive except for fragments of the latter play.
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.
Characters . Protagonist: Prometheus
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.
Hephaestus: The master
blacksmith of Mount Olympus and one of the major Olympian gods. Although
he sympathizes with Prometheus, he carries out the will of Zeus by making
the unbreakable chains that bind Prometheus to the rock in the Caucasus
gorge. In Roman mythology, Hephaestus is known as Vulcan.
Kratos and Bia: Henchmen
of Zeus who convey Prometheus to the Caucasus. Kratos symbolizes strength
and Bia symbolizes force.
of the Titan Oceanus. They act as the chorus in the play. Although they
sympathize with Prometheus, they do not sanction his taunting of Zeus.
Oceanus: Father of
the Oceanids. He is a Titan who remained in Zeus's favor after other Titans
had been cast out of heaven.
Io: Young woman with
whom Zeus fell in love but turned into a heifer to disguise her from his
jealous wife, Hera. Her presence in the play helps to illuminate ancient
attitudes toward fate and the humanlike pettiness and jealousies of the
Olympian gods. In addition, her dialogue with Prometheus helps to reveal
his intellectual gifts, his defiance, and his other character traits.
of Zeus and one of the major Olympian gods. His dialogue with Prometheus
helps to reveal the latter's fierce defiance of Zeus, defiance so passionate
that it becomes a kind of madness. In Roman mythology, Hermes is known
Main Offstage Characters .
Zeus: King of the
universe, who rules from Mount Olympus. He exhibits human traits such as
pride, lust, deceit, and vengefulness. Although he has no speaking part
in the play, his presence as an antagonist of Prometheus is felt throughout
the drama. In Roman mythology, Zeus is known as Jupiter.
Hera: Queen of the
universe and wife of Zeus. Her jealousy of Io causes Zeus to turn the young
woman into a heifer. But Hera apparently sees through the scheme to hide
Io and sends a gadfly to bedevil her. In Roman mythology, Hera is known
Argus Panoptes: A
one-hundred-eyed giant assigned by Hera to observe Io.
Inachus: Father of
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.
Behold what I, a
God, from Gods endure!
Look down upon my shame,
The cruel wrong that racks
The grinding anguish that
shall waste my strength,
Till time's ten thousand
years have measured out their length!
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 . . . .
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 foresight–indeed,
his very name means foresight–he 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 king’s “implacable wrath" can be overcome. The Oceanids then
ask him to tell the tale of how he incurred Zeus’s 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 Zeus’s 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 Lerna’s 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, Zeus’s 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. .......Io’s
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 Prometheus–if 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 Prometheus’s 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
Seem I to thee
To shrink and quail before
these new-made Gods?
Far, very far from that
was such defiance that caused Zeus to punish Prometheus, Hermes says. Prometheus
There is no torture
nor device by which
Zeus can impel me to disclose
Before these bonds that
outrage me be loosed.
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
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
as an Archetype and Symbol .
has become a famous archetype and symbol
in world literature, music, and art for his defiance of established authority
and for the suffering he endured. Through the ages, writers and composers
have referred or alluded to the Titan to draw attention to a fictional
or real person's suffering or his rebellion against a government, a way
of life, a tradition, or an accepted practice or principle.
of such references are the titles of Carl Spittler's 1924 poem, "Prometheus
the Long Suffering"; Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, Frankenstein:
or, the Modern Prometheus; Salvatore Viganò's 1801 ballet,
of Prometheus, with music composed by Ludwig van Beethoven; Nicolas-Sébastien
Adam's 1762 sculpture, Prométhée enchaîné;
Bysshe Shelley's long 1820 poem, Prometheus Unbound; French symbolist
painter Gustave Moreau's 1868 work, Prometheus; Carl Orff's 1966
music drama, Prometheus; Alexander Scriabin's 1910 symphonic work,
the Poem of Fire; and André Maurois's 1965 biography,
the Life of Balzac.
the mid-twentieth century, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz captured the Titan
in stone in his work
Prometheus Strangling the Vulture II. In 1969,
Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslav political writer who criticized communism, wrote
in The Unperfect Society, "Though man may endure his ordeal like
Sisyphus, the time must come for him to revolt like Prometheus before his
powers are exhausted by the ordeal." Writers use the adjective
often in their works to suggest qualities associated with Prometheus. For
example, in Act 4, Scene 3, of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost,
the character Biron (also known as Berowne) says,
From women's eyes
this doctrine I derive;
They are the ground, the
books, the academes
From whence doth spring
the true Promethean fire.
Defying the Established
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
tongue–the only weapon available to him–to launch verbal fléchettes
at the king of the gods.
Kowtowing to Authority
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
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
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.
Bound pits two gigantic egos–those of Prometheus and Zeus–against 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."
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
is superior to Zeus in terms of compassion. His benefactions toward mankind
contrast sharply with the coldly vengeful actions of Zeus.
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.
and Paradox: Freedom in Captivity
Prometheus is bound to the wall of a rock–unable to walk, lie down, or
use his hands–his 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
Climax . .......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.
Role of the Chorus .
Greek plays, the chorus generally observed the action while explaining
or interpreting it in relation to the law of the Olympian gods and, in
plays set after the development of human society, in relation to the law
of the state. Sometimes the chorus participated in the action rather than
merely observing it. It was customary for the chorus to sing its lines
as poems while dancing to the left, dancing to the right, or standing still.
In some plays, the chorus foreshadowed the future. The views it presented
were usually those of the general public or the author.
Question, Possible Answer
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
One may interpret the following
as symbols. Whether Aeschylus intended them as such is unknown.
inspiration; the beginning of human advancement.
The Oceanids: Prudence,
caution; friendship and sympathy.
Oceanus and Hermes:
The struggle of humans to find their way in a hostile world.
The Gadfly: The sting
of unjust punishment.
Lightning and Thunder:
The wrath of a vengeful authority.
Prometheus Gain Freedom? .
wrote two sequels two Prometheus Bound, neither of which survives
intact. However, fragments of one of the plays, Prometheus Unbound,
suggest that Herakles (Roman name: Hercules) freed Prometheus. It is believed
that Prometheus and Zeus ultimately reconciled in the third play, Prometheus
and Comments on the Text
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:
Bound. E. H. Plumptre, trans. Vol. VIII, Part 4. The Harvard Classics.
New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14. Bartleby.com. 2001. [Date
of Access] <http://www.bartleby.com/8/4/>.
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
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.
2. What is Prometheus’s
greatest strength? What is his greatest weakness?
3. Prometheus gave fire
to humankind. Write an essay explaining how authors use fire as a primordial
4. Identify five persons
in world history who exhibited Promethean defiance.
5. Write an essay that interprets
famous paintings and sculptures depicting Prometheus.
6. Hephaestus (Roman name:
Vulcan) and Hermes (Roman name: Mercury) were major Olympian gods. What
were their duties? Identify literary works in which authors depicted them
in a positive light.
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
tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron
faced the east to allow the audience to view plays–usually staged later
in the day–without squinting. .....(2)
stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the
midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors. .....(3)
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