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a synopsis and analysis of the play by Aeschylus

The following essay was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 109-14.

Though the date of Prometheus Bound is nowhere mentioned, the general structure of the play, in which the choral odes are completely overshadowed by the dialogue, proves that it came after the Septem (Seven Against Thebes), and was one of the poet's latest works. There is also little doubt that it formed part of a trilogy, along with Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer. The subject of the plot is the punishment of Prometheus for raising mankind from their brutish condition, and teaching them the use of fire and various other arts, in defiance of the commands of Zeus. For this offense he is chained to a rock near the ocean, and finally plunged into the depths of Tartarus; but it is intimated, in the course of the drama, that he will eventually be delivered by a descendant if Io, and that Zeus will be compelled to consent to his release, in order to learn from him the secret of a certain danger by which he is threatened.

After the Prometheus Bound came the Prometheus Unbound, in which the liberation of the hero was accomplished. The scene, in this latter play, was laid in the Caucasus, where Prometheus again stood fixed to a rock, having been removed from Tartarus. The action commenced with the approach of a chorus of brother Titans, who came to condole with the victim, and to whom Prometheus related, in a long speech, the story of his sufferings, and of the vulture which gnawed his liver. Then Hercules appeared upon the scene, and after being told of the laborious wanderings which awaited him, shot the vulture and freed Prometheus. Zeus was informed of the danger of his intended marriage with Thetis, and his anger finally appeased. From this brief summary, which may be gathered from the existing fragments, we see that the play had many points of similarity to the Prometheus Bound. The central figure in both dramas was Prometheus chained to a crag; the chorus of sympathetic Titans corresponded to the chorus of ocean nymphs; and the narrative of Hercules' journey to the West served as a sort of pendant to Io's wanderings in the East.

The remaining play of the trilogy was Prometheus the Fire-Bringer. It used to be commonly supposed that this tragedy was the first of the series, and described the outbreak of the feud between Zeus and Prometheus. But the causes of the feud are explained in the Prometheus Bound with so much completeness, that it is scarcely conceivable that the same subject had already been treated in a previous play. It seems more likely, therefore, that this Prometheus was the last of the group, and that it was a drama of local and patriotic interest, commemorating the introduction into Athens of the cultus of Prometheus the Fire-Bringer. Prometheus was worshipped at Athens under this title with special reverence. There was an annual torch-race in his honour; the mark of his footstep was shown on a rock in the Acropolis; and an altar in the temple of Pallas preserved the memory of his reconciliation with Hephaestus. These various features of local religion might easily have been worked up into a grand concluding drama, similar to the final scene in the Eumenides, where the establishment of the Furies in their new home at Athens is also celebrated with patriotic pride.

The great difficulty in the Prometheus Bound is to find any justification for the odious conduct of Zeus, and for the severity with which he punishes Prometheus on account of his services towards mankind. Not that it is necessary to suppose, with some scholars, that the people of Athens must have been shocked by such a representation. According to the popular belief the gods, though superior to men in strength and power, were swayed by the same passions and animosities; and the picture of Zeus as a powerful despot, crushing all opposition to his will, in spite of the nobility of his victim, would scarcely have offended the religious conscience of an Athenian audience. The difficulty is to reconcile this conception of Zeus with the conception which prevails in other plays of Aeschylus, where he is depicted as the personification of perfect justice.

The critics generally agree in supposing that the mystery was solved in the later plays of the trilogy. But they differ in their views as to the nature of the solution. Some contend that the purpose of the whole composition was to portray, as in the Eumenides, the gradual triumph of new principles over old, and the victory of the mild Olympian gods over the rude earth-born deities. But there is no trace of any such feeling in the Prometheus Bound. On the contrary, Zeus is there the representative of brute force and selfish despotism; sympathy and humanity are the qualities of Prometheus. Others imagine that the scheme of the trilogy was to exhibit the gradual development of Zeus' character. In the Prometheus Bound he is represented as a new ruler, setting at defiance the laws of universal justice, typified by Prometheus and the gods of the underworld; while the reconciliation effected in the following play was the result of the slow purification of his soul, brought about by the lapse of ages. But here again we should have expected to find even in the first of the three dramas some glimpses into the motive of the whole trilogy, and some more plausible explanation of the attitude of Zeus. We should not have expected to find Prometheus so entirely in the right, and Zeus so purely in the wrong.

Perhaps the truth may be that even in the concluding plays there was no satisfactory solution of the difficulty. Aeschylus may have fallen into one of those inconsistencies to which he was often exposed, in his attempt to ennoble ancient mythology. The story of Prometheus, resolute in self-devotion and unshaken by threats of vengeance, offered a splendid subject for tragedy. It is possible, therefore, that Aeschylus, attracted by this idea, threw his whole soul into the delineation of the heroic Titan, and, for the purpose of effective contrast, left Zeus as he found him in the legend, regardless of the inconsistency with his usual utterances about the supreme being. Other great writers have not always been successful in avoiding similar difficulties; and the despicable character attributed to Aeneas, in the course of his relations with Dido, naturally suggests itself as a parallel instance. But the best example of this is to be found in Milton. The republican poet, urged on by his dramatic sympathies and by his love of freedom and independence, has drawn the "unconquerable will" of Satan, and his "courage never to submit or yield," with so much force and enthusiasm, as to disturb the ethical balance of his general scheme; and there is some justification for Shelley's criticism, that Satan is the real hero of Paradise Lost.

In spite of these objections Prometheus Bound is one of the noblest works of Aeschylus. The central idea of the play -- that of a god submitting of his own free will to ages of torment, in order to rescue mankind from their degradation -- is a conception so sublime, and so alien to the usual spirit of Greek religion, that some of the early fathers perceived in it a dim presentiment of Christian doctrine. But the drama may be regarded from many points of view. It may be looked upon, not only as a noble example of self-sacrifice, but also as a type of man's struggle against destiny, or of the conflict between liberty and oppression. It will affect different minds in different ways; and it would be hazardous to affirm that any one of these ideas was foreign to the purpose of Aeschylus. Hence it is unnecessary, with the older critics, to endeavour to define the motive of the composition in a single phrase. The great charm of the Prometheus Bound lies in its varied and perennial suggestiveness.

The plot is simple in the extreme. Prometheus, bound to a rock, discourses about his sufferings with Oceanus and the ocean nymphs, refuses to reveal to Hermes the fatal secret of which he is possessed, and is finally plunged into an abyss beneath the earth. The thinness of the material is supplemented by the introduction of Io, who comes in the course of her wanderings to the place where Prometheus is chained, tells him of her past adventures, and is informed of her future destiny. Her entrance upon the scene, though purely casual, is to some extent justified by her connection with the plot, since it is one of her descendants who eventually liberates the prisoner. Moreover, the narratives delivered by herself and Prometheus add lightness and variety to the general effect, and carry the mind away from gloomy surroundings into lands of romance and marvel. But the length to which they are protracted is a reminiscence of the old style of drama.

In modern times Prometheus Bound has been the most widely popular, and the most frequently imitated, of all the plays of Aeschylus. Shelley published a continuation of it entitled Prometheus Unbound. Byron, besides composing a lyric on the subject, confessed, in one of his letters, that the Prometheus Bound had influenced everything he ever wrote. Calderon was the author of an allegorical statue of Prometheus; and Goethe began a drama founded on that of Aeschylus, but left it unfinished. Other imitations by lesser poets are too numerous to mention.

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