The title character of Prometheus Bound, perhaps more than any other hero, serves scholars as a sort of critical mirror. Reformers, for example, consider Prometheus a revolutionary hero, like Satan, a principled rebel who sacrifices himself for others, like Jesus, or an ethical individual who suffers in the face of absolute power, like Job. Authoritarian critics, on the other hand, understand Prometheus's urge to save humanity but condemn his disregard for hierarchical authority in doing so. Freudian and psychoanalytic critics discuss the play's complicated parent-child relations (e.g. Zeus's overthrow of his father, Kronos; Prometheus's connection with his mother). Historical and cultural critics discuss the play in terms of contemporary events, analyzing, for example, Aeschylus' s use of medical terminology in character dialogue and considering what this tells scholars about scientific knowledge at the time.
What may account for the popularity of Prometheus as a character is that fact that all these opinions seem right, if not in Prometheus Bound itself, then in the context of the Prometheia trilogy. Though two of the three plays have been lost, there exist enough fragments and commentary to understand how the story would have been resolved. The result is a rich and complex symbolic narrative of ideas.
Of foremost consideration is what the play tells audiences about Aeschylus' s thinking on the human condition and tragedy. Because Prometheus's intervention to minimize human suffering comes from pity, Normand Berlin saw him as ‘‘a creature of feeling.’’ As Berlin wrote in The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy, Prometheus Bound offers ‘‘the tragic condition, here encompassing god and man, macrocosm and microcosm, and brilliantly displaying the contradictory perspective of tragedy, whereby the victorious tyrant is the victim of destiny and his defeated, suffering victim is victorious in possessing knowledge of that destiny—while intelligent mankind victoriously piercing through layer and after layer of ignorance and chaos, progressing in the course of time to mastery of his world, remains helpless beneath the arbitrary and dark control of both Zeus and destiny.’’
On the other hand, some critics believe that present circumstance did play a role in Aeschylus's choice and treatment of subject matter. They discuss the play's exploration of themes like tyranny and revolution in the context of Athens' s evolution from tyranny to democracy which accompanied its defeat of the Persian Empire. As the play opens, Zeus's cosmic government appears as brutal despotism. He acts, according to George Thomson, as a complete tyrant: ruling without laws, contemplating the murder of humanity, seducing female subjects, and suspicious even of his allies. For James Scully, Prometheus's predicament resembles that of any political prisoner being brainwashed; he has been isolated by Zeus, tortured by Hephaistos and Force, and interrogated and brow-beaten by Hermes, an official of the police state. Although Prometheus Bound dramatizes a righteous rebellion against a tyrant, Philo M. Buck, Jr. pointed out that it tells only part of the story. As the first part in a trilogy, much of which has been lost, the viewer must turn to existing fragments of the sequels to learn of Prometheus's ultimate reconciliation with Zeus.
Buck believed that Zeus's actions result from his inexperience as a leader and his unstable grasp on power. Zeus's goal, to establish order after overthrowing the anarchy of the earlier divine rulers, seems laudable, and requires, at least initially, a strong ruler. Zeus must punish the disobedient Prometheus, despite his noble reasons for revolt. Still, according to fragments of the second and third plays in the Prometheia , Zeus later moderates his tyranny and learns mercy, forgiving the Titans and ultimately reconciling himself with...
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Prometheus. Justice, according to Buck, must never be arbitrary but rather human and reasonable. If Prometheus, like Socrates, has been unjustly convicted, ‘‘he must wait for justice to release him. And this was done in the last and lost play, where allegorically the mutual claims of justice and mercy are reconciled in the reign of intelligent law.’’Prometheus Bound, which explores such themes as justice,"the tyranny of the majority, the caprice of misdirected reformers," conveys an important social message to "Athens, now embarked after the anarchy of the wars and the Tyrants in an effort to build a just constitution and establish human law.’’
Finally, space and time, movement and stasis, memory and history all prove important motifs in Prometheus Bound. Almost no physical action takes place during the play, where the drama focuses on character. Consequently, stasis becomes thematically important. Central to the play are the conversations between Prometheus, doomed to remain trapped on a rock, and Io, a wanderer doomed to wander still farther. She tells Prometheus about her journeys and past, then Prometheus foretells her journeys and future. That prediction includes the story of Hercules, Io's distant relation and avenger, whose life also consists of journeys and sufferings. According to myth, Prometheus aids Hercules by helping him accomplish his labors, after which Hercules kills the eagle which feeds on the Titan's liver.
Zeus has victimized both Prometheus, who remains stationary, and Io, who seems doomed to wander. As Berlin pointed out, Io's experiences ‘‘span the ages, while her wanderings which seem to take in the known world of the time, widen the canvas—so that Aeschylus's Prometheus, having already presented the progress of human consciousness through the years, seems to gather all time and all space to itself, thereby making the mood of fatalism pervasive and extensive.’’ Thus, memory and foreknowledge—movement in time— connect with Io's and Hercules' s journeying—movement in space. Together, their stories (and that of the Promethia) comprise a history that reaches from the rise of human civilization to the fifth century present, and takes in every country from one end of the known world to the other. Memory becomes history, while geography becomes empire.
In the end, regardless of which critic's argument readers find most persuasive, Prometheus Bound remains a moving text that leaves everyone with plenty to think about. And ultimately, its story remains optimistic. As Scully observed in a translation of Prometheus Bound, the ‘‘general drift of the trilogy . . . [is] a universal progress from confusion and torment, at all levels of the universe, toward peace and joy.’’