Prometheus Bound is the first and only surviving play of a Prometheus trilogy by Aeschylus. (The second play would have seen him released from his chains.)
- With whom do you identify in this play? Why?
- What makes Prometheus admirable in contrast to Might, Hephaestos, or Hermes?
- Do you agree with Prometheus’ interpretation of the reign of Zeus?
- Obviously there’s not much “dramatic” that happens in this drama, so why is it nevertheless exciting?
It begins with the lackeys, Might and Violence, escorting Prometheus to the edge of wasteland desolation where Hephaestos will shackle him to a rock. Might’s interpretation of the event is that Prometheus will “be taught to accept the tyranny / Of Zeus, and check his charity to man” (1). When Hephaestos hesitates about the whole nasty affair, Might chastises him; after all, all the new Olympian gods despise this Titan, and shouldn’t obeying the word of Zeus, “The Father’s word” (2), be more revered than any kinship with this prisoner? Eventually Hephaestos acknowledges that he must carry out his chore and that Might’s shouting is superfluous. Might insists, “Nail the other [arm] safe, that he may learn, for all his cleverness, that he is duller witted than Zeus.” This illogical utterance would not be seen as so by jackasses who think TRiUMPh by “strength” = intelligence. (“We’re looking very strongly at toilets.”) Might sneers at Prometheus:
… How can
Mortals relieve thee in thy present state?
Falsely we named thee the Foresighted One,
Prometheus — thine the need of foresight now,
How from this art to extricate thyself! (5)
Prometheus renders his lament, but unrepentantly, until a chorus of Oceanids (daughters of Oceanus) hang out with him. “But here I am hung as a plaything of storms / And a mark for my enemies’ laughter!” (8), claims Prometheus. He relates his take on the war between the Titans and Olympians, and then begins to explain his role in the lot of humankind. “I stayed man from foreknowledge of his fate” (11). Oceanus himself advises against Prometheus’ adamant resentment against Zeus: “Hast thou, Prometheus, never learnt that words / Are the physicians of distempered rage?” (17). Prometheus tells of all the results of his bringing fire to humankind; he is ultimately responsible for their having astronomy, math, language, agriculture, medicine, dream theory and divination, etc. Also, “blind hopes.”
Io, Zeus’ recent dalliance he turned into a cow to hide her from Hera, stops for a pathetic visit. Prometheus knows that it is destined that a descendant of hers will release him from the chains (thirteen generations from now, Heracles), but he also knows how long her suffering and wanderings will last, so she gets a choice as to which she wants to hear about. The Chorus instructs him to tell Io the more relevant information for her, and to report afterwards the other matter. Prometheus also knows a prophecy about Zeus and feels sure that Zeus will go down just as the generations before him have. Zeus will hook up with a woman, and “A son shall she bear stronger than his sire” (33). (This would have been the case if Zeus had bred with Thetis, who was instead married to the mortal Peleus and would give birth to Achilles.)
Io goes off in a tizzy (having a cow?) and Hermes arrives from Zeus demanding that Prometheus report what he knows about Zeus’ fate. Prometheus is delightfully critical: “How solemn-mouthed and puffed with arrogance / The announcement, as befits a gods’ attendant!” (41), or “a lackey of the gods.” Prometheus says that this new regime stupidly thinks itself sturdy. He would not exchange his misfortune for Hermes’ obsequious subservience (42). Hermes tries to paint Prometheus’ adamance as mental illness, then tells Prometheus the worse torments Zeus is ready to inflict: after a bolt, “the blood-red eagle, ravenously / Shall tear thy tattered body limb from limb, / An uninvited, day-long banqueter / Feasting upon thy liver’s blackened flesh” (45).
But Prometheus knows “for none is it shameful to bear / At the hands of his enemies evil and wrong” (45). Hermes storms off and Prometheus remains steadfast.
Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. Trans. George Thomson. NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.