Even though unambiguously attributed to Aeschylus for two and a half millennia, Prometheus Bound is now widely considered the work of another hand, possibly that of Aeschylus’ son, Euphorion. Either way, it was probably first produced in the second half of the fifth century BC, and it must have been one of the most spectacular and visually sensational tragedies of its day and age. Soon after giving fire to humankind in defiance of Zeus, Prometheus is chained to a rock in the Scythian deserts by Zeus’ agents, Power and Force, and the reluctant god of fire, Hephaestus. A chorus of Oceanids overhears Prometheus cursing his fate and arrives to sympathize with him. Over the ensuing discussions between the nymphs and the Titan, we learn that Prometheus is unjustly punished by Zeus since his only sin was helping humanity. Pursued by a gadfly, the mortal Io rushes in, half-maiden and half-cow. Prometheus reveals to her that she too suffers because of Zeus’s tyranny – she is one of Zeus’s lovers – but that in the end, it will all make sense, because she is ordained to give birth to a line of kings and heroes, one of whom (Heracles) will eventually free Prometheus. In the meantime, Prometheus is not bothered by his torment, since, as a foreteller, he knows full well that this is one battle that Zeus can’t win. Namely, unless Prometheus intervenes, Zeus is destined to enter a fatal marriage which will ultimately result in his downfall. Sent by Zeus, Hermes flies in to extract the details from Prometheus, but the Titan remains defiant, refusing to reveal the secret even when threatened with a one-way trip to the Underworld. As Prometheus is plunged into Tartarus, the moved Oceanids express their resolution to share his fate.
Date and Historical Background
Even though Prometheus Bound has reached us as just another Aeschylus’ play, due to its many peculiarities, it is now widely believed that it may have been authored by someone else, most probably Aeschylus’ son, Euphorion, who may have merely presented it under his father’s name.
If an authentic Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound is almost unquestionably one of his last, written just a few years before his death.
If composed (or edited) by Euphorion, the play may have been first presented before an audience in 431 BC, when we know for a fact that Euphorion beat both Sophocles and Euripides to win the first prize for tragedy at that year’s City Dionysia.
For more, please refer to the Analysis section of this article below.
Characters and Setting
• Prometheus, a Titan and a culture hero
• Power (Kratos) and Force (Bia), Zeus’ enforcers
• Hephaestus, the god of fire and metalworking
• Chorus of Oceanids
• Io, daughter of Inachus and one of Zeus’s lovers
• Hermes, the messenger of Zeus
The play is set in a remote uninhabited desert in Scythia, at the far ends of the earth; in the middle of the stage, a rocky hill or cliff overlooks the Ocean, the river which encircles the world.
Summary of Prometheus Bound
Somewhere in the Scythian wastelands, far to the north of Greece, Power (Kratos in Greek) and Force (Bia) drag the already pinioned Prometheus to a rocky crag; Hephaestus, the god of fire, follows them.
Since it is the “flower of his skill” that Prometheus has stolen and bestowed upon men – against the will and orders of Zeus – by the law of reciprocity, it is Hephaestus’ job to fasten him to the cliff.
Even though he is reluctant, in the end, he has no choice but to follow Force’s instructions and put bonds around the Titan.
After the three leave their victim chained and alone, Prometheus, in the absence of other witnesses, calls on the primal elements – the sky, the winds, the earth, the rivers, the sun – to observe his misfortune and Zeus’ unfair treatment.
He knows that he is punished for stealing the fire from Zeus, but he claims that this shouldn’t be considered a crime since fire has helped humanity in more than one way. Moreover, even if this theft is deemed a transgression by the gods, Prometheus suggests – somewhat like Shakespeare’s King Lear – that he is clearly more sinned against than sinning.
Suddenly, he hears some murmur and the fluttering of wings.
Parodos (Entrance Song)
Fear not, they say to the Titan, we are friends, coming in peace and understanding. During the ensuing discussion, the Oceanids imply that Prometheus has no option but to yield to Zeus; however, he thinks otherwise.
To their amazement, he reveals that not only is he not planning to back off, but he is also looking forward to some glorious day in the future when Zeus, the leader of all gods, will inevitably pay for this injustice inflicted upon him, and come begging Prometheus for friendship with sweet words and presents.
Since Prometheus (as his name suggests) was widely considered a Forethinker by the Ancient Greeks – i.e., someone who sees the future before all others – this must have startled the original spectators just as it does us.
This threat awakens the curiosity of the Oceanids, who, sheltered in their underwater caves, know very little about the dealings of the gods.
“Reveal the whole story,” says the leader of the Oceanids, “and tell us why is Zeus so painfully and harshly torturing you.”
In a long monologue, Prometheus tells the story of the Titanomachy, during which he, though Titan by birth, defected to the side of Zeus and eventually gave him some advice which, according to Prometheus, played a decisive role in Zeus’ victory.
However, we learn that as soon as Zeus took the throne from his father, he devised a plan to destroy all people and replace them with a newer race.
Prometheus was the only one who dared to make a stand, and this, coupled with his theft of fire and the fact that he gifted humans “blind hopes” as an antidote to the inevitability of death, is what eventually resulted in Prometheus’ present misfortune.
Suddenly, seated on a griffin, Oceanus enters the stage, and offers Prometheus not only sympathy but also some help: “I will depart immediately,” he says to the chained Titan, “and see what I can do to release you from these sufferings.”
Prometheus, however, is not interested in Oceanus’ help. In his eyes, he has nothing to apologize for before Zeus: it is, actually, the other way around. Zeus is a tyrant, Prometheus says, and he is not the only rebel treated in such a brutal manner.
The discussion between the Oceanids and Prometheus continues in the short second episode of the play, during which Prometheus further explains to the daughters of Oceanus in what ways he managed to help humankind.
In two monologues, Prometheus presents himself as not merely a savior, but nothing short of a creator of the modern human civilization, having bestowed upon them – in addition to fire and hope – everything from the numbers and the alphabet to agriculture and medicine.
“In one word,” concludes he, “every art possessed by man comes from Prometheus.”
Dazed and confused, Io, half-heifer and half-maiden and the only mortal in the play, bursts onto the scene chased and tormented by a gadfly.
Namely, after Zeus had fallen in love with her, his jealous wife Hera transformed Io into a heifer and sent the many-eyed Argus (Argus Panoptes) to watch over her. Zeus, in turn, sent Hermes to kill Argus, after which Hera retaliated by turning the slain Argus into a gadfly and sending it to torment Io by stinging her and driving her ceaselessly from place to place.
Moved by her sufferings, Prometheus reveals to Io that her pain and anguish is not in vain: one day in the future, she should arrive in Egypt, where, after being touched by Zeus, she should give birth to a child, one of whose imminent descendants would eventually free Prometheus from his chains and torments. (We know his name from other sources: he is none other than Heracles.)
The gadfly reappears, and the frenzied Io rushes away from the scene.
The Oceanids, mostly silent during Prometheus’ conversation with Io, burst into their fourth choral song of the play (the third stasimon), praying to never attract the advances of any Olympian gods and to marry someone on their own level.
Exodos (Exit Song)
Prometheus interrupts the song of the Oceanids with an utterly unexpected proclamation:
“Yes, truly, the day will come when Zeus, although stubborn of soul, shall be humbled, seeing that he plans a marriage that shall hurl him into oblivion from his sovereignty and throne; and then immediately the curse his father Cronus invoked as he fell from his ancient throne, shall be fulfilled to the uttermost.”
This is the secret Prometheus – and only he – knows regarding Zeus’ fate. It is also what gives him the strength to endure his torment and to refuse to yield even before Zeus’ messenger Hermes who, upon hearing the words above, immediately flies down from the heavens to find out more.
Prometheus doesn’t change his mind even after Hermes threatens to send him to Tartarus and subject him to the torture of an eagle incessantly eating out his liver. In vain are the Oceanids’ pleas to give in: Prometheus challenges Hermes to do his worst.
And so, he does.
In a final and completely unexpected twist, as Prometheus and his crag descend into the depths of Hades amidst the cataclysmic roar of thunders, the Oceanids express their determination to go down with the Titan.
“With him, I am content to suffer any fate,” they say to Hermes, “for I have learned to detest traitors, and there is no pest I abhor more than this.”
A Brief Analysis
According to many classicists, Prometheus Bound is the most enigmatic and perplexing play to survive from Ancient Greece. Consequently, we’re all but obliged to make our brief analysis longer and to divide it into a few sub-sections.
Because of the lack of resolution – and even more, because an ancient author noted on the margins of its 513th verse that “Prometheus is released in the next play” – most scholars are pretty sure that Prometheus Bound was followed by another play, appropriately titled Prometheus Unbound.
This play survives only in about twenty fragments, from which we can deduce that it probably told the story of Prometheus and Zeus’ reconciliation; our best guess is that this occurred only after Heracles freed the Titan; Prometheus may have disclosed his dangerous secret to Zeus as a gift of gratitude.
If first one, it dramatized Prometheus’ theft of fire; if last one, it depicted a newer and more just Zeus patching things up with humanity and instituting a torch race in remembrance of Prometheus’ theft.
The Peculiarities and Authenticity
Either way, Prometheus Bound remains strange for quite a few reasons, three of which are often highlighted.
First of all, it is the only one of Aeschylus’ plays in which Zeus is depicted as a tyrant, and we know from many sources that Aeschylus was pretty religious and conservative in his philosophical and political beliefs.
Secondly, unlike any other Ancient Greek play, it suggests a spectacular and inconceivably expensive (if at all possible) production, involving the use of at least several cranes (called mechane in Ancient Greece), since not only Oceanus but also the whole chorus of Oceanids arrives aerially.
Thirdly and most importantly, the play’s style and meter differ significantly from Aeschylus’ practice and strongly suggest that this play couldn’t have been written by anyone at least until a few years after Aeschylus’ death (but not after 429 BC when the play was parodied by a comedian named Cratinus).
Even so, nobody from the Ancient world – or, for that matter, until the 19th century – ever doubted Aeschylus being the author of Prometheus Bound.
Nowadays, however, there’s a growing consensus that even if Aeschylus was the original author of Prometheus Bound, the play was either completed or, quite possibly, severely revised by someone after his death.
Many believe that this editor was none other than his son, Euphorion, who, we know, won the first prize for tragedy at the City Dionysia in 431 BC ahead of both Sophocles and Euripides.
Possibly he did it with this very play.
Themes and Symbolism
As it stands, Prometheus Bound is, arguably, the most modern of all ancient plays, both in its depiction of a rebellious, hubristic protagonist who is unjustly punished by a tyrant god, and, even more, in its decision to have the typically neutral and objective chorus side unequivocally with him at the end of the play.
Neither of these two are traits of any other Ancient Greek drama or (even more surprisingly) of the Ancient Greek worldview of 5th century BC.
In fact, Prometheus’ theft of fire was deemed impious and his punishment just by virtually every Greek author before the production of Prometheus Bound, from Hesiod onward. Consequently, it can even be argued that the Prometheus we know today was first invented by whoever wrote or edited this play.
Unsurprisingly, it was this Prometheus which attracted the imagination of the Romantic poets in the 19th century.
They, inspired by this play, transformed the Titan into something bigger and more universal – a symbol of the lone genius (be he an artist or a scientist) who suffers for the wellbeing of humanity in spite of the will of the tyrant gods, and eventually pays the price with unbearable suffering and even death.
There are many translations of Prometheus Bound available online, both in verse and in prose; if you are a fan of the latter, you can read Herbert Weir Smyth’s translation for the Loeb Classical Library here. If, however, you prefer poetry, feel free to delve into Edwyn Bevan’s verse adaptation here.