Prometheus Bound and Other Plays: Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians (Penguin Classics)
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Prometheus Bound Summary and Analysis

by Aeschylus

Lines 1-127

Summary:

Enter Might and Violence, restraining Prometheus. Enter also Hephaestus, the god of fire and the forge. Might describes the land, the barren region of Scythia, known now as the Caucasus. For the Greeks, this inhospitable region was seen as the very edge of the world. Might tells Hephaestus to carry out his duty and nail Prometheus to the rocks. Prometheus is being punished for stealing fire and giving it to mortal men.

Hephaestus does not enjoy his duty, but he must obey Zeus, king of the gods, at whose orders Prometheus is to be punished. He tells Prometheus that he is fastening him to the rocks, but that he would not if it were his choice to make. Prometheus will be alone, and he will be tortured every day by exposure to the elements. This punishment is the price for trying to help mankind, and Zeus will not be swayed.

Might urges Hephaestus to hurry, criticizing him for hesitating. Hephaestus is compassionate, and Might ruthless. They talk as Hephaestus reluctantly fulfills his duty. Might continues to push the smith god to tighten the restraints, and bind Prometheus ever more surely to the rocks. The smith god does not like this duty, but he gives in to Might's demands. As they leave, Might mocks Prometheus some more, telling him that he was wrongly named. "Prometheus" means Forethought or Forethinker, but his forethought was apparently not enough to prevent this situation. All exit except Prometheus.

Prometheus calls on nature to witness his torture. He cries out against the harshness of the punishment. And yet he knows all that will happen. He has always known his destiny. He "hunted out the secret spring of fire / that filled the narthex stem" (ll. 109-110), and gave this great gift to man. His love of man has been his undoing. He hears the approach of someone or something, and he is afraid: now, in his current helpless state, "everything that comes toward me is occasion for fear" (l. 127).

Analysis:

For some of the mythological background of the Prometheus myth, see the Short Summary section of this study guide. Anyone without knowledge of the body of myths surrounding Prometheus cannot hope to understand the play.

Our first view of Prometheus emphasizes his helplessness. He is restrained by two monstrous deities with allegorical names, Might and Violence. Prometheus is not only physically restrained, but he is silent as well. He chooses not to speak, as anything he says will give Might and Violence reason to mock or hurt him. So the opening is dominated, both physically and verbally, by Might and Hephaestus. (Violence is played mute.)

One of the great themes of Prometheus Bound is the frustration and helplessness of reason and rightness in the face of sheer power. Aeschylus hammers the theme home by having Prometheus chained not by the more nuanced and multifaceted Olympian gods, but by two demonic forces with allegorical names. Violence, appropriately, is played mute. He is there to roughhouse Prometheus, but he does not speak; such a creature has no need for words, and in many productions Violence is played as a kind of beast. Might, on the other hand, does speak. But he uses language only to give orders in the name of Zeus, or to mock those under his jurisdiction. He is a ruthless, pitiless deity, without any will of his own. He is the fist of Zeus: cold, cruel, the institution of tyranny personified.

As in the Oresteia, Aeschylus gives us a magnificent net of symbols and metaphor, all working on multiple levels at once. Prometheus is reason and wisdom personified; he is also the individual of conscience in a totalitarian state. Viewing Prometheus as reason, we see the play as the story of reason's limits, its helplessness in the face of brutal, unthinking force. Prometheus is chained by Might and Violence; because of the primal nature of the story, the theme of reason vs. power is boiled down to its basics.

But on another level, the story resonates as a political commentary. Prometheus is the individual of conscience in the state of a dictator. Tyranny was a key theme for the Greeks. For Athenians, who considered themselves freer than their neighbors, fear of losing that freedom was an obsession. Stories of tyrants, and the injustices they had committed against their subjects, ignoring law and custom, were fresh in the minds of Athenians. Athens had had its own tyrant, Peisistratus, and the Athenian democracy was often unstable during times of war, as Athenians had to resort to more centralized leadership. Liberties became fragile, and sinking into dictatorship was a real fear.

Aeschylus emphasizes these parallels between the Prometheus story and a political situation recognizable in the real world of states and people. Zeus, like the tyrants of the real world, crosses the lines of custom and unwritten law. Prometheus is kin, as Hephaestus reminds us, and a god to boot, and yet he is going to be punished in the most brutal way imaginable. In real life, many of the tyrants' worst offenses were not in the face of any written law or concretely defined institution, but rather in disagreement with custom, taste, or mercy. Hephaestus offers a very human explanation for Zeus's severity: "Every ruler is harsh whose rule is new" (l. 34). This phenomenon appears in other Greek tragedies as well: think of Creon in the Antigone of Sophocles, and his incredibly harsh methods for restoring order to Thebes.

This story is about Prometheus, the rebel with a conscience whose crime, his love of man, brings on him both the rage of the gods and the immediate sympathy of the human audience. Prometheus becomes a representative for those human champions of justice and principle who defy tyranny and pay the ultimate price.

But the play is not only political. Prometheus Bound uses parallels to political situations to give the play more resonance, but it is not merely a political critique. Aeschylus' skillful use of a recognizable political situation only enriches what is also a struggle between two principals.

On the emotional level, sympathy for Prometheus is strong because all of us can recognize his situation. He is helpless before an enemy who is clearly in the wrong. He is an ethical, brilliant, and beautiful creature in a universe where his very virtues cause him to be called criminal. Might speaks pitilessly of the necessity of obeying Zeus: "There is nothing without discomfort except the overlordship of the Gods. For only Zeus is free" (ll. 49-50.) Although almost all Greek tragedies feature characters constrained by fate, and in fact a sense of inevitability is one of the most powerful and painful aspects of Greek tragedy, Prometheus Bound shows us the protagonist in the throes of suffering itself. Prometheus constraint by destiny is literal: he is chained down to the rocks. The whole play is his Scene of Suffering, an element of tragedy, usually short and at the end of the play, pointed out by Aristotle in his Poetics. And so we watch him rail against fate, held down by creatures less compassionate and wise than he. Emotionally, this spectacle is extremely powerful. Euripides, in Medea gives us a heroine, superior to her foes, who nonetheless is under the constraint of their hypocritical laws and whims. Part of Medea's appeal is that the protagonist manages a bloody, horrible revenge, one that hurts herself as much as her enemies. But in Prometheus Bound, we are denied this thrill. Aeschylus' play is more somber, less frenzied in tone. His punishment is not the melting flesh and pyrotechnics of Euripides, but a long, slow, agonizing torture that cannot end because he is immortal. The horror is diminished for Prometheus, but the scene of suffering is graver, more elevated in tone. It is said of Aeschylus that his plays often border on religious ritual, and we see elements of this style here. Rather than watch a powerful woman fulfill the bloody, amoral fantasy that we have all had, we are watching the helpless suffering of a noble god who has been mankind's champion. Prometheus Bound is in some ways similar to watching enactments of Christ's suffering on Easter. Aeschylus is aiming for a powerful dignity, cosmic in scale, related directly to man but also above and beyond him.

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