Prometheus Bound

Prometheus Bound Study Guide

For the mythological background on Prometheus, refer to the Short Summary section of this ClassicNote. The information in the Context section focuses on the historical background of Aeschylus' times and crucial information on his art form.

Prometheus Bound is one part of Aeschylus' trilogy on the Prometheus myth. Neither of the other two plays in the trilogy have survived. We have a title for one of the lost works, Prometheus the Fire Bearer, but it is unknown whether Fire Bearer is the first or last part of the cycle. Anyone familiar with the Oresteia, the only surviving trilogy to come down to us, knows that the loss of two parts of the cycle handicaps our understanding of Prometheus Bound. If we only had Agamemnon to study, we would not know the full depth and scope of the Oresteia's brilliant vision. Likewise, we are probably missing part of Aeschylus' genius in Prometheus Bound, but even so there is still plenty here that impresses.

The specific circumstances surrounding the origin of Greek drama were a puzzle even in the fourth century BC. Greek drama seems to have its roots in religious celebrations that incorporated song and dance. By the sixth century BC, Athenians had transformed a rural celebration of Dionysis into an urban festival with dancing choruses that competed for prizes. An anonymous poet came up with the idea of having the chorus interact with a masked actor. Later, Aeschylus transformed the art by using two masked actors, each playing different parts throughout the piece, making possible Greek drama as we know it. With two actors and a chorus, complex plots and conflicts could be staged as never before, and the poets who competed in the festival were no longer writing elaborate hymns, but true plays. Incredibly, the playwrights were more than just writers. They also composed the music, choreographed the dances, and directed the actors. Athens was the only Greek city-state where this art form evolved; the comedies, tragedies, and dramas handed down to us from the period, although labeled generically as "Greek," are in fact all Athenian works.

After the defeat of the Persians in a decisive campaign (480-479 BC), Athens emerged as the superpower of the independent Greek city-states, and during this time, the drama festival, or the Dionysia, became a spectacular event. The Dionysia lasted four to five days, and the city took the celebrations seriously. Prisoners were released on bail and most public business was suspended. Roughly ten thousand free male citizens, along with their slaves and dependents, watched plays in an enormous outdoor theater that could seat seventeen thousand spectators. On each of three days, the Athenians were treated to three tragedies and a satyr play (a light comedy on a mythic theme) written by one of three pre-selected tragedians, as well as one comedy by a comedic playwright. The trilogies did not have to be an extended drama dealing with the same story, although often they were. Produced in 458 B.C., the Oresteia is the only surviving complete trilogy that we have. (Although the three Sophocles plays dealing with the Oedipus myth are sometimes called "The Oedipus Trilogy," Sophocles never presented those works together. In fact, the plays were written separately over the span of several decades.) At the end of the festival, the tragedians were awarded first, second, and third prize by the judges of Dionysis.

For modern readers, the Chorus may be the most alien element of the play. Greek drama was not meant to be what we would consider "naturalistic." It was a highly stylized art form: actors wore masks, and the performances incorporated song and dance. The Chorus delivers much of the exposition and expounds poetically on themes, but it is still meant to represent a group of characters. In the case of Prometheus Bound, the Chorus is constituted by the daughters of Oceanos, beautiful winged goddesses of the sea.

Consistent with the norms of Greek drama, Prometheus Bound is not divided into acts or discrete scenes. In general, as noted by Aristotle, most Greek tragedies have action confined to a twenty-four hour period.

This study guide works from the David Grene translation, from the Complete Greek Tragedies series published by University of Chicago Press.