Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 892
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 pain, not merely on Prometheus but on Io as well, and in both instances it is motivated by what he perceives as their disobedience. Prometheus opposed Zeus by giving human beings both fire and the skills needed to survive; Io resisted Zeus’s love. Prometheus, being a Titan, had shown rebellion on the divine plane, while Io rebels on the human level. The price of their rebellion is written in their flesh, and both regard Zeus as their persecutor.
Aeschylus certainly disliked political tyranny, but it is a mistake to read this play merely as a parable of human inhumanity. The issues go far deeper, for Prometheus has omniscience and therefore knew what would come of his revolt. He made a great personal sacrifice when he supported humankind out of compassion. He is a savior and a tremendous hero, but his knowledge does not keep him from suffering like a mortal, nor does it make him accept his pain calmly. He knows why he suffers but defies his fate nevertheless, for he is convinced that he is right and Zeus wrong. Moreover, he claims that Zeus is not the ultimate power; indeed, he asserts that Zeus must submit to the Fates and the Furies.
Prometheus holds the winning hand in this play, for he possesses a secret that Zeus needs to retain his power. This knowledge is his only consolation in his torment. Every counsel to moderation or humility is vain, for Prometheus has no intention of giving up the joy of seeing Zeus humbled just to alleviate his own agony. This motivation comes through clearly in Prometheus’s bitter dialogue with Hermes.
Prometheus is not only self-righteous and vengeful but also full of arrogant pride. He chooses his pain; perhaps he even deserves it. No one justifies Zeus, for he is beyond any notion of justice, but Prometheus exults in justifying himself to any divinity who will listen. Because of his services to humankind, the audience must feel compassion for him. He is an authentic tragic hero, arousing both pity and fear.
As a dramatic character, Io represents the human condition. The daughter of a god, she is shut out of her home by Zeus’s command, given a bestial body, and made to run over the face of the earth in pain, stung by the ghost of many-eyed Argus (conscience). Only in the distant future will she and Zeus be reconciled.
The resolution of the Zeus-Prometheus conflict in Aeschylus’s Prometheus Unbound can only be surmised. It is possible that Zeus gained in maturity after centuries of rule and decided to release the Titan, after which Prometheus may have given him the secret. Just as human beings evolved through the gifts of Prometheus into civilized creatures, Zeus may have changed and made his reign one of wisdom and force. It is hard to believe that Prometheus would alter unless such a change did come about in Zeus, but this is pure speculation. The debate between Prometheus and Zeus remains open. Aeschylus never solves this dilemma in the play; he merely shows it in the strongest dramatic terms. Tautly written, Prometheus Bound is profound precisely because it remains an enigma.