The Utah Humanities Council and the Classical Greek Theatre Festival is providing this complete study guide for Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound by Jim Svendsen, festival founder and production dramaturg.
"It is, of course, by his radical adaptation of this triangle -Prometheus, Zeus, and man- that Aeschylus has transformed the Prometheus myth. To put the difference in the broadest possible terms, the Hesiodic Prometheus, by his deceptions and frustrations of Zeus in his relations with mankind, is presented (however artificially) as the indirect cause of all of man’s woes; the Aeschylean Prometheus, on the other hand, by his interventions on behalf of man is presented as the savior of mankind, without whom man would have ceased to exist and with whose help he progresses from mere substance to a state of civilization." D.J. Conacher
"Fire is essential to civilization for warmth, cooking, and even the most rudimentary technology In pre-industrial societies all over the world, myths have recounted man’s acquisition of this divine spark through a theft from the gods, usually performed by a bird or an animal, sometimes by a man, or even one of the gods themselves. For the Greeks, it was the pre-Olympian god Prometheus who was generally credited with the theft." Mark Griffith
"A prolonged residence in Sicily after the composition of the Oresteia (458 BCE) could in itself explain the abrupt jolt forward -rather than break- in the thought and style of Aeschylus which has so surprised us in the Prometheus. At this time Sicily was the home of the philosopherpoet Empedocles; but (most interesting in the present context) the rhetoricians Corax and Tisias and the young sophist/rhetorician Gorgias were now also at work in it. Their activity therefore coincided almost exactly with our postulated ‘last phase’ of Aeschylus’ career and must have overlapped with his final Sicilian residence of 458-456. In that way the new sophistic/rhetorical influence that is so apparent in the Prometheus becomes immediately intelligible." C.J. Herington
"Interest in Aeschylean drama continues because through myth he presents universal conflicts -within ourselves, our families, and our societies- without settling for easy answers. In this, Aeschylus resembles modern man’s willingness to accept uncertainty and ambiguity in his own life and to acknowledge his weaknesses the face of forces beyond his control. Yet the optimism of Aeschylus, patent in the Oresteia and glimpsed in the Prometheus Bound, inspires us to continue the present struggle. If Aristophanes, at the end of the fifth century, resurrected Aeschylus to recapture the past, we, at the end of the twentieth, have kept him alive to give ourselves the strength to face the future." Lois Spatz
"For if one thing is absolutely certain, it is that Aeschylus never meant the extant play to be a self-contained dramatic unity -that when Prometheus vanishes into the rock at its end that we are witnessing the coda of Aeschylus' symphony, but only the close of a movement. The composition and order of the sequence of Prometheus-plays has been very much debated, but the majority of students of the subject would probably agree with the following statement. The Prometheus Bound was undoubtedly followed by a play entitled Prometheus Unbound of which quite a number of fragments survive. There is some very slight evidence to indicate that the Unbound in turn may have been followed by a third play, the Prometheus Pyrphoros ('FireCarrier') of which there are only three, not very informative, fragments. This sequence presumably constituted a tragic trilogy, to be performed together, on one occasion, just like the Oresteia (and indeed like the majority of Aeschylus' known productions). It will therefore not have been three dramas as one superdrama, with the action and the ideas developing continuously from the first movement to the last." C.J. Herington
II. Plot Action and Formal Structure
- Prologue: Might, Force and Hephaistos chain a silent Prometheus and threaten violence Prometheus' aria/soliloquy of defiance to the elements.
- Parodos: Entrance song of the Chorus of sympathetic Daughters of Ocean who request that he reveal the cause of Zeus' harsh punishment (lyric dialogue).
- Episode I: Arrival of Ocean who attempts to reconcile Prometheus with Zeus with the two cautionary tales of the Titans Atlas and Typhon.
- Stasimon I: Chorus lament the tyranny of Zeus, list a number of fellow-mourners from Asia, Caucasus and Colchis and focus on the sufferings of the Titan Atlas.
- Episode II: in two long monologues Prometheus describes the revolution he has worked for mankind, helping them to advance from savagery to civilization.
- Stasimon II: The Chorus pray never to incur Zeus' anger, remind him how powerless mortals are and how worse his life is now.
- Episode III: The human/heifer Io enters, a victim of Zeus' lust, and tells the tale of her rape and enforced wanderings followed by Prometheus' prophecy of her future destiny.
- Stasimon III: The Chorus reflect on the terrors of Io’s treatment by Zeus, praise a marriage of equals and fear lest Zeus lust after them.
- Episode IV: Hermes tries to learn the fatal secret, but Prometheus continues his defiance bringing on the final cataclysm.
- Exodos: Conclusion in anapests with an emotional aria by Prometheus describing the storm protesting his innocence: "see how I suffer, how unjust it is."
"Aeschylus had from the Hesiodic tradition a typical trickster hero, similar to the Scandinavian Loki. This character, already a serious figure in Hesiod, becomes in the Prometheus Bound the archetypal rebel 'an eternal martyr chained to a pillar, at the ends of the earth, condemned forever because he refuses to ask forgiveness" (Camus). "Unlike Loki, he is essentially identified with humanity, even though he is a god; not a little of his interest, in fact, stems from this ambiguous divine/human aspect." James C. Hogan
"Against this unseen, but all-seeing and ever-threatening Zeus the dramatist has pitted a hero of unusual stature. In the play Prometheus' knowledge and cleverness appear to rival or excel Zeus’. His prophetic powers are constantly emphasized, and Zeus is well aware of his need of them. So, too there is no disputing the fact that his skills have saved man from extinction, given them Hope, and put them on the road to civilization. The archaic fire-demon and Attic potter-god has been transformed into culture hero on the grandest scale, an enemy to give Zeus pause."
"For the Zeus of this play turns out to be a very different figure from the just and impressive ruler of Hesiod's universe. He is described as a harsh and selfish despot, who rules by force rather than by law, angrily crushes all opposition without mercy, suppresses freedom of speech, mistrusts and mistreats his supporters, threatens the annihilation of the human race, and wrecks the life of the innocent Io through his lust. We are constantly reminded that Zeus is young, and his government newly established; and, though there is no sign of relenting in this play, we are told that he will somehow be reconciled with Prometheus in the end." Mark Griffith "Zeus is a tyrant, and his rule a tyranny. We learn this from his own ministers, who are proud of it, from Prometheus, who denounces it, from the Oceanids, who deplore it, and from Oceanus, who is resigned to it." George Thomson
IV. Themes and Greek Drama as a Theater of Ideas
"Power is the play's nub. As ever, those who have it use it against others partly to prove they have it, and partly because they can. But those who don’t have power have speech (and, because of Prometheus, humans have the power to write things down). And this play seems with boaster, taunters, whiners, phrase makers, and filibusterers." William Matthews
"Philia (friendship, relationship) involves socio-political ties as well as familial: like Latin amicitia, it may denote connection and obligation rather than positive affection. But both sense contribute to P.'s feelings of outrage at Zeus' mistreatment of him, for he and his brothers have been expelled and humiliated by an upstart young nephew who owes his throne to P.'s friendly efforts and has forgotten all the loyalty that is due." Mark Griffith
"As in most Aeschylean conflicts, the dispute between Zeus and Prometheus is a matter of dike (justice, revenge, penalty) on both sides. The dike on Zeus' side is the result of Prometheus’ theft of fire; at the end of the play Prometheus accuses Zeus of acting without dike. Both accusations, that Prometheus once violated dike and that Zeus no acts without dike, are valid." Michael Gagarin
"Every scene, except for the Prologue, is built around a prophecy of some kind from P. Not only are P.'s predictions themselves at times enigmatic or contradictory, but they are presented in a peculiar, piecemeal fashion with frequent interruptions and delays." Mark Griffith
V. Dramatic Strategies
"The choral odes of Prom. are relatively short and limited in their scope and emotional range. They emphasize the chorus’ sympathy and pity; they powerfully reinforce the sense of shock and outrage aroused by Io; but seldom these odes are larger questions raised, or opinions offered, about the nature of Zeus’ rule or about the hope of a future reconciliation between P. and Zeus." Mark Griffith
"In many ways the Prometheus Bound is an anomaly, and the musical design of the play provides no exception. The first musical moment is the monody by Prometheus, but there is no Aeschylean precedent for a solo monody by a main character. Then the chorus enters but with no anapests, and the plays ends not with the sounds of music but the sounds of chaos." William Scott
"At the beginning of the play the silence of Prometheus was a mark of his powerlessness. At the end, though he has had more to say than everyone else put together, his silence on the one point that matters is a mark of his predominant power. And it is that movement in the balance of power that constitutes the real action of the Prometheus Bound." Alan Sommerstein
Aeschylus' use off foils, characters in some ways similar but in others radically different e.g. Prometheus and Zeus both divine, arrogant, intransigent and yet contrasting in pity or lack thereof, approach to mankind, treatment of females etc. e.g. Prometheus and Io both victims of Zeus, both destined for reconciliation yet differing in movement, gender, awareness, status etc.
"The main recurrent images of the play are those of disease and cure and of the capture, taming and harnessing of animals. The related images of hunting and snaring have a similar effect. As in many Greek poems, a number of images from seafaring also occur." Mark Griffith
"Prometheus Bound is a cosmic pageant and a chance for Aeschylus to revel in his knowledge of geography. The wanderings off Io, foreseen by Prometheus, describe the Near East, starting from the southern Caucasus and proceeding southward along the Ionian coast, to end in Egypt. In the course of this excursion through exotic place names, Aeschylus trained his sly glance on a river he himself invented: the river Hybristes, the River Insolence." Palmer Bovie
"The spectacular devices, and particularly the use of flying, are integral to the development of this plot. The threat of danger from the air hovers over the play because the audience, from its knowledge of the myth, is expecting the entrance of Zeus’ eagle to torment further the helpless Prometheus. Thus the entrances of the chorus and Oceanus in flight, so carefully described, intensify the initial sense of Prometheus’ immobility and impotence and emphasize Zeus’ power." Lois Spatz
"All in all, however, Prom. must have been one of the most spectacular and visually sensational tragedies ever presented on the fifth-century stage; the unexpected sights and sounds, entrances and exits, provide relief and variety to a rather static and monotonous series of scenes." Mark Griffith
"But there is another sound midway between cacophony and rational speech –groaning which becomes symbolic of the feelings of pain and pity for another’s pain. The various characters’ cries, dirges sung and danced, the numerous allusions to lament, all call attention to this different aspect of Prometheus’ power, his ability to feel for others." Lois Spatz
"In Aristotelian terms, it is a ‘simple’ drama: i.e. it contains no peripateia (reversal) or anagnorisis (recognition); P. learns nothing new in the play, and the conflict between him and Zeus remains unresolved. The action develops steadily in the same direction, the tension mounting towards its climax in the Hermes scene, without producing a real lysis (resolution). Thus the play is full of pathos (pity, fear, anticipation), but for reversal and resolution we must look outside the play, perhaps to its sequel." Mark Griffith
"Indeed the major achievement of Prometheus is this powerful picture of a resister, a picture that reveals, among other things, that rebels in their stubborn arrogance often become quite similar to the tyrants against whom they are rebelling. Furthermore, by showing how different people react when confronted by a state of rebellion, the play reveals further truths about political behavior in general. Indeed the continuing interest in Prometheus and his situation is lasting testimony to the skill with which Aeschylus presented on stage some of the fundamental truths of this common but complex political situation." Michael Gagarin
"Prometheus Bound is probably Aeschylus’ most famous play because it bears the name of one of the most provocative archetypes of Greek myth. Prometheus, whose name means ‘Forethought,’ stole fire from the gods and gave intelligence and technology to man. In later times, his suffering has symbolized heroic sacrifice in the struggle for justice and man’s salvation. To the Church Fathers, Prometheus represented the suffering Christ while to a writer like Shelley he exemplified the human rebellion against an unjust God." Lois Spatz
"Almost every feature of the twentieth-century prison-camp can be paralleled in the Prometheus Bound, without pressing the evidence. We see here a political offender whose will must be broken by the regime at all costs, by isolation, by torture, by chaining, and even by psychological means. These parallels between the ancient play and the modern prison seem to confirm the fact that Zeus’ regime is represented as an odious tyranny -not only by ancient criteria but also by the standards of all democratic societies in all ages." C.J. Herington
Timeline for Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound
|508/7 Cleisthenes’ Reforms and the Birth of the Radical Democracy||c. 525-19 Birth of Sophocles at Eleusis|
|c. 499-96 Debut in the theater|
|490-497 Persian Wars||490 Fought in the Battle of Marathon|
|478 Founding of Delian League||484 First dramatic victory|
|470s Themistocles ostracized||480-79 Fought at Salamis and Plataia|
|472 Victory: trilogy including Persians|
|c. 470 First visit to Sicily|
|464-45 First Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta||467 Victory with Seven Against Thebes|
|461 Cimon ostracized and radical political reforms in Athens||c. 463 Victory with Suppliants trilogy|
|454 Delian treasury moved to Athens||458 Victory with Oresteia trilogy|
|458-6 Visit to Sicily and death at Gela|
|458-6 Production of Prometheus Bound|
Map of the Wanderings of Io