The Chorus, the winged daughters of Oceanos, enters. These minor goddesses heard a disturbance above, and they have come to comfort Prometheus. They sing out against the harshness of Zeus. Zeus madly destroys old customs, old constraints on divine rule, and runs the universe by force. Prometheus wishes that he at least could be chained in Hades or Tartarus (the pit below Hades) so that at least he would not be out in the open, exposed to the cruelty of his enemies. The Chorus muses that Zeus will rule with this kind of severity until he is overthrown. Prometheus, who can predict the future, prophesies that one day Zeus will need him. And when does, Prometheus will not help until he has been freed and paid just recompense for his sufferings.
The Chorus asks Prometheus to tell them how he came to be chained. He reveals to them his story (see Short Summary for fuller details): Prometheus initially tried to aid the Titans in the civil war between the gods, but they would not listen to his counsel. He took his mother, Themis, Earth, who was the source of many of his prophecies, and went to join with Zeus and the Olympians. Thanks in part to Prometheus' wisdom, Zeus and the Olympians defeated the Titans and cast them down into the pit of Tartarus.
But after winning the war, Zeus planned to destroy the already-created race of man and replace them with a more perfect species. Prometheus intervened, and because of his defiance he has been chained to the rocks. The Chorus questions him on how he saved man, and Prometheus answers that he gave them two gifts. The first was blind hope, so that man would never give up. The second gift was fire, and from fire man will learn many crafts. Prometheus knew what he was doing, but he still did not think that he would be punished so harshly. Prometheus asks them to stay, and hear more, and the Chorus says that they are eager to hear all.
Prometheus, whose name means "Forethought," has been given the remarkable gift of prophecy. Zeus in part owes his rule to him. But the gift of prophecy is a two-edged sword. Fate is one of the themes of the play, and, as elsewhere in Greek literature, the ramifications of fate and prophecy are depicted in ways that often seem contradictory.
We can say at least that Prometheus' gift is cause for sorrow as often as it is cause for joy. Prometheus, knowing the future, also knows that fate cannot be escaped, or tricked. He has no choice but to submit and suffer. Not surprisingly, a glum fatalism creeps into much of what he says, and not only when he is discussing fate. Even in responding to simple requests, Prometheus speaks of the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't character of his life. "To speak of this is bitterness. To keep silent / bitter no less; and every way is misery" (ll. 199-200).
We should not overstate Prometheus knowing his own fate. Apparently, he does not foresee everything: "In helping man I brought my troubles on me; / but yet I did not think that with such tortures / I should be wasted on these airy cliffs . . ." (ll. 269-271). So his foresight is not perfect. Yet he understood that there would be consequences for his actions, and proceeded anyway.
He also knows that one day Zeus will need him again. This plays into the theme of wisdom in the face of force; although he can, with his superior insight, predict the future, for now it does him no good. Prometheus must take what little comfort he can in the fact that one day his wisdom will be needed again. In the meantime, he has countless years of torture to endure.
Again, this pain is the pain of the intelligent man, who knows he is right and perhaps knows that his time will come, but who must endure the ridicule and torture of less enlightened beings. Prometheus as visionary and creator is one of the themes of the play. Prometheus is a powerful metaphor for countless visionaries, scientists, statesmen, and artists whose work was not appreciated or understood in their own time. Many of these men and women tried to comfort themselves, as Prometheus does, by assuring themselves that one day recognition will come. But when the world is not ready for a certain kind of knowledge, being the bearer of that knowledge is painful and lonely. The Prometheus story reflects this pain and isolation in the punishment inflicted on its protagonist: part of his suffering will be the long, terrible years of loneliness he will spend, wasting away, not knowing if the sound of approaching footsteps signals a friend bringing comfort or an enemy planning to torture or ridicule him. Some versions of the myth credit him with creating man. This story reinforces Prometheus as a symbol for the supreme artist, suffering for his creation.
One of the gifts he gives man is blind hope, so that they would continue to fight on no matter what. Prometheus tells the Chorus that he stopped man from foreseeing doom, as he does, by giving them a great gift:
PROMETHEUS: Yes, I stopped mortals from foreseeing doom.
CHORUS: What cure did you discover for that sickness?
PROMETHEUS: I sowed in them blind hopes. (ll. 249-51)
Prometheus' gift to man throws his own plight into sharp relief. To save man from extinction, it was necessary for man to be spared the power of foresight that Prometheus himself possesses. Blind hope, in the face of fate, is the answer. But a similar opiate is denied Prometheus, who is dragged toward his fate with both eyes wide open.
Sparing them his own special kind of foreknowledge, Prometheus bestows on them another great gift: fire. Fire here is clearly very loaded. Fire is not just literal flame, but a symbol for craft and ingenuity itself. The flame was sacred to Hephaestus (ll. 37-8), who is god of the forge and all of the crafts that come from it. This second gift fits well with Prometheus' role as a great creator. By giving man fire, he is adding on to man, giving man the ability to live up to his maker's image. As Prometheus is a creator, so will man be.