“Prometheus Bound”, traditionally attributed to Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

It is difficult now not to see this play through Romantic lenses: the image of the great hero rebelling against a tyrannical authority, and remaining defiant despite the most terrible punishment inflicted by the tyrant, is virtually an archetypal Romantic image. This image received perhaps its most striking realisation in Act 2 of Beethoven’s Fidelio, in which the enchained Florestan, in his dark, solitary dungeon, bewails his fate, but remains unrepentant, and hurls defiance at the tyrant who oppresses him. It is hard, indeed, to write about that scene without using the adjective “Promethean”.  It is no surprise that just about every major Romantic writer revered Prometheus Bound – Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Hugo, etc. The later parts of this trilogy haven’t survived, but Shelley famously wrote his own version of Prometheus Unbound, one of the cornerstones of the Romantic canon. The Romantics saw Zeus and Prometheus as symbols of, respectively, tyrannical temporal power, and of heroic resistance to it, but I wonder to what extent this was intended: would the first Athenian audiences have seen it in such terms? Perhaps not. But given that the Romantics have taught us to see it this way, I don’t think we can unsee it.

Neither is it possible, I think, for us not to see this play through a Christian lens: a crucified God suffering for his love of mankind is bound to have resonances of Christianity. But the play’s central thrust remains, nonetheless, far from the Christian ethos: while the suffering God in Christianity remains part of the Holy Trinity, alongside God the Father (let’s not get into theology here!), the suffering God in Prometheus Bound is, quite explicitly, an enemy of the Supreme Divine Power, and defies him: the overriding emotion projected is not grief, but, rather, defiance.

In short, Prometheus Bound has a great many resonances that are really accumulations of ideas and concepts from later times, but seeing this play free from these accrued concepts is now virtually impossible. One point that has changed from the era of Romanticism is on the question of authenticity: no-one doubted in the days of Goethe or Shelley that this play was authored by Aeschylus, but there are very great doubts upon it now, based not only on the fact that there is no record of the Athenian Festival to confirm its date or authorship, but also from the internal evidence of its style, which – so I am told – is markedly different from his other plays. Given that only a small fraction of Aeschylus’ plays now survives (only seven out of about eighty or ninety), I’d have thought it dangerous to draw any definite conclusion about Aeschylus’ style. But this is a dispute I am happy to leave to scholars, who, I believe, are fairly evenly split on the matter.

But judged in the context of the plays that have survived, it certainly reads differently. This is mainly, I think, due to the reduced role of the chorus. In all six of the other surviving plays, the chorus plays a much more important part, at times taking on themselves the role of the protagonist (in Suppliants, certainly, and possibly in The Persians and in The Eumenides also). Here, in contrast, they seem almost dispensable: not only do they not play any part at all in the action (such as it is), they fail to reflect on many of the major issues thrown up by the play, such as the morality of stealing fire from the gods (even for what is ostensibly a good cause), or Zeus’ motives in acting as he does. The focus is very much on Prometheus, who is given long speeches throughout, and whose interactions with the chorus is, surprisingly, kept to a minimum.

Another aspect of this play that marks it out as different is its lack of human characters. The only human character in the drama is Io, whose appearance, (from a different myth) seems almost arbitrary. The very first lines establish a world far distant from that of their audience:

We have come now to the very ends of Earth,

the plains of Skythia, a desert uninhabited by man.

A world that Aeschylus’ audience could not even imagine.

Then, the first figures appear: the Titan Prometheus is led in by two characters who are not human, nor even gods or other immortals: they are Power and Violence, personifications of abstract concepts. It is hard to escape the conclusion that what we are witnessing is not a drama set in the real world as such, but, rather, a drama of the Mind. This, I imagine, would have been very congenial to the Romantic era, which produced a great many Dramas of the Mind – plays intended to be read as High Art, but not really written for the stage: Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Byron’s Manfred, the second part of Goethe’s Faust, and even Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt (although cut-down versions of the last two work very well on stage, whatever the dramatist’s intentions). This play, dealing with abstract concepts and set in some Landscape of the Mind, with many of its characters literally flying in (Ewans in his glossary describes the use of a mechane, which is a “crane used in and after the late fifth century [BCE] to swing into view gods and other characters who are to be imagined as flying into the playing aera”), set this play at some remove from Aeschylus’ other surviving works.

The concept of Zeus is also different. In the other surviving plays there had been questions about Zeus, that omnipotent god whose ways mortals cannot understand. Here, he is not omnipotent: had he been so, he would not have allowed Prometheus to steal the fire. And neither is there any ambiguity or mystery about him: his ways aren’t hard to understand: he is merely a cruel and malevolent tyrant, who, some day, will be deposed. The opposition between Zeus’ tyranny and Prometheus’ heroic resistance can be thrilling, but one can’t help feeling that the dramatic tension generated by this ambiguity in the other plays is missing: it is all much simpler here, and, as a consequence, somewhat cruder.

Prometheus is at the centre of the play, immovable, since he is crucified to a rock at the very opening of the play. So whatever movement there is (and I believe dance was an important aspect of the original setting) had to be around the static protagonist. Prometheus has four scenes – first with the chorus of Okeanides; then with their father, Okean; then with Io, the only mortal character in the drama, who appears to have wandered in from a different play; and, finally, with Hermes. None of these scenes advances the drama, as such, which remains fairly static, but it could be argued that each succeeding scene intensifies the state of Prometheus’ mind. It’s not that his mind changes, but rather, it becomes ever more obdurate and defiant as the play progresses. The appearance of Io seems to me particularly puzzling. Yes, she too is a victim of Zeus’ cruelty; and yes, she contrasts with Prometheus in that he is condemned by the cruelty of Zeus to be static upon his rock, while she is condemned by the same cruelty to be continually on the move. And one also notes that Io is, according to mythology, an ancestor of Heracles, who would, some aeons or so later, free Prometheus. But even having noted all this, it’s hard to shake off a sense of the arbitrary: why do these two particular characters have to meet, and in what way does the scene between them advance the drama?

The ending is spectacular, although one wonders how it could have been staged without modern stagecraft. Or, indeed, whether it was staged at all: certainly the poetry is vivid enough to allow the audience to imagine it all for themselves:

Now the earth is shaken

not in words but deeds,

and from the depths the sound of thunder

bellows in response, and fiery coils

of lightning flash, and whirlwinds

twist the dust, the breaths of all

the winds leap up on each other

in civil war…


For what happens next, I think we need to turn to Shelley. Whether intentional or not, Prometheus Bound lends itself to a Romantic perspective.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Prometheus Bound.]

3 responses to this post.

  1. I am enjoying your reports and analyses so very much… – even though I haven’t read these plays since university (forty-odd years ago; I studied chemical engineering). It’s also fascinating to follow Amateur Reader, too. So thank you for helping keep my mind working; and for introducing me to yet another interesting blog. Wonderful stuff!


  2. That end is amazing. Like you say, I doubt it was staged in any way. Powerful enough on its own.

    The dancing is one of the great mysteries to me, but it may help your notion of the “drama” of the piece if you think of it as a dance performance as much as a play. Real Tanztheater. if only we could see Io’s crazed cow-dance.


    • Yes, Io’s cow dance woukd have been something to see. Who knows? – maybe this is why Aeschylus introduced the character of Io in this play: there was maybe an actor available who could do a brilliant crazy-cow dance, and Aeschylus wanted to write a part for him! He was a practical man of the theatre, after all!


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