In several ways Prometheus Bound is something of a puzzle. The date of its first production is unknown, though it can probably be assumed to have come rather late in Aeschylus’s career, possibly between 466 b.c.e. and 456 b.c.e., the year of his death. Because this is the only surviving play of the Aeschylean trilogy on Prometheus, it is also not known whether it was intended to be the first or second in the trilogy, though it is known that it was to be followed by Prometheus Unbound. Prometheus Bound is the one extant play by Aeschylus to deal directly with a metaphysical problem by means of supernatural characters, yet even the questions raised in the work remain unresolved. It is a mystery centering on a mystery.
The situation of the play is static: Prometheus is fastened to a Scythian crag for having enabled humankind to live when Zeus was intending to destroy the ephemeral humans. Once Hephaestus wedges and binds him down, Prometheus is immobile. Thereafter, the theatrical movement lies in his visitors—the chorus of nymphs, Oceanus, Io, and Hermes. Essentially this is a drama of ideas, and those ideas probe the nature of the cosmos. It is irrelevant that the characters are extinct Greek gods, for the issues that Aeschylus raises are eternal ones.
The Greeks loved a contest, and Prometheus Bound is about a contest of wills. On one side is Zeus, who is omnipotent in this world, while on the other is Prometheus, who has divine intelligence. Neither will give an inch, for each feels he is perfectly justified. Zeus rules by right of conquest, and Prometheus resists by right of moral superiority. On Zeus’s side are Might and Force, the powers of compulsion and tyranny, but Prometheus has knowledge and prescience.
Zeus, inscrutable and majestic as he is, does not appear except through his agents who enforce his will. The drama begins and ends with the exercise of his power, which is used here simply to make Prometheus suffer. This power first binds Prometheus to a crag and finally envelops him in a cataclysm. Zeus has a fearsome capacity to inflict...
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