Prometheus Bound

by Aeschylus

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Places Discussed

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Scythian mountaintop

Scythian mountaintop. All the action of this play takes place atop an unnamed mountain on the edge of the Greek world—probably in the Caucasus mountains in what is now Armenia. The remote location emphasizes the isolation of the Titan Prometheus, who is bound to this mountain as punishment for his crimes against the chief god, Zeus, as the ruler of the universe.


Ocean. Mythical great sea that the ancient Greeks believed surrounded a saucer-shaped world. In this play, Ocean is personified in the god Ocean(os), who visits Prometheus on his mountaintop but refuses to ally himself with his fellow Titan. As the daughters of Ocean, the chorus of Oceanids are also identified with this body of water. Unlike their father, the Oceanids decide to cast their fate with that of Prometheus.


*Argos. Ancient Greek city located in the northeastern part of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, in which the play’s only mortal character, Io, was born. Aeschylus’s references to this unfortunate woman’s homeland provided his Greek audience with a geographical and human framework for this otherwise exotic play. Through Io and her Greek heritage, the audience may not only sympathize more strongly with Prometheus, who, like Io, is a victim of Zeus, but they can also take pride in the play’s prediction that Io’s descendants will eventually return to Greece and that one of them, Heracles, will eventually free Prometheus from his bondage.


Tartarus. Greek underworld, to which Prometheus and the chorus descend at the end of the play. The location is intended by Zeus as further punishment of the recalcitrant Titan and the completion of his isolation from the world.

Historical Context

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When Aeschylus was born in 525 B.C. outside Athens, the city could be characterized as an unimportant polis (i.e. city-state) ruled by the tyrant Hippias. In 510 B.C., a political reformer, Clisthenes, overthrew the tyrant and developed the government into a republic ruled democratically by the elite. Reforms lessened the power of the nobility and allowed non-noble landowners to participate in government. Though conflicts between the nobility and commoners (known as the demos, hence the word democracy) remained, Athens developed into a well governed city-state led by a vital, informed citizenry.

Those citizens proved to be competent soldiers as well and fought bravely against invasion by the Persian empire. Athens and the Greeks defeated the Persians, winning land and sea victories at Marathon (490 B.C.) and Salamis (480 B.C.), respectively, against numerically superior forces.

Athens's victorious role in the Persian wars led to its selection as capital of the Dalian League, a collective of Greek city-states, and peace and prosperity led to a cultural flowering rarely equaled in history. Athens evolved into one of the most important cultural and trading centers in the world. The next century was considered a Greek Golden Age, which saw such dramatists as Sophocles and Aristophanes, as well as philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Greek tragedies like those of Aeschylus were performed in Athens as part of the Great Dionysia, an annual religious festival dedicated to the god Dionysus held in early Spring. First, a statue of Dionysus was removed from his temple within sight of the theatre, carried in procession to the country, and returned to Athens. Next followed four days of performances, three of tragedies and one of comedies. The tragedies were selected in a contest among competing dramatists, a contest which Aeschylus won thirteen times. Each winning dramatist then presented a tetralogy of three tragedies and a satyr play, in performances which began in the morning and lasted most of...

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the day.

All of Athens became involved in the celebration. A local magistrate organized the procession and selected playwrights for the competition. He identified wealthy citizens to pay for masks and costumes and to select a chorus. Sponsors also may have had some input into selection of the contest judges and the plays selected for competition, though the playwright retained responsibility for his cast. Citizen judges swore to remain impartial and authorities severely punished misconduct of any kind during the celebration.

In Athens, performances took place outdoors in a huge theatre constructed on the hillside of the Acropolis. To imagine the theatre, picture a large, semi-circular fan. The orchestra, where the actors performed, and an altar, stood in the middle of the semi-circle. A stage building called a skene, in which actors donned masks and costumes, stood behind the orchestra. Stage sets of temples or landscapes could be displayed on the front of the skene. Benches for seating an audience of as many as 15,000 people radiated out around the orchestra. Women and children could attend, though they may have been seated apart from the men.

These theatre festivals began during the sixth century with displays of individual and choral songs and dancing. Credit for the first tragedy goes to Thespis in 536-533 B.C.; the play featured a Chorus of perhaps a dozen men and a single actor. Tragic theatre evolved under Aeschylus, who introduced the second actor, and developed further under Sophocles, who introduced the third. Actors wore masks and tunics, which may have been colored to indicate their roles (e.g. mourners in black, priests in white, kings in purple). Actors needed strong voices to make themselves heard in the large theatre and the ability to impersonate, since each actor played several characters in each play.

As the center of the Dalian League, Athens fast became the most important city in Greece, an intellectual and cultural as well as commercial and mercantile center. The Great Dionysia festival drew audiences from throughout the Mediterranean, and everyone from commoners to nobles, from merchants to ambassadors attended.

Literary Style

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Chorus In Greek tragedy, a dozen or so men comprise the chorus, who comment on and interpret the action unfolding on stage and underscore the play's themes and conflicts. In many ways, they stand in for the audience. For example, the Oceanides react to Prometheus and Io much as the audience would; they ask the questions and express the emotions likely to arise during an audience's viewing of the play. The Chorus performed their lyrics in song and dance, though the music and choreography have been lost.

Tragedy According to Aristotle's Poetics, a drama about an elevated hero who, because of some tragic character flaw or misdeed (a hamartia), brings ruin on himself. While not exactly a flaw, Prometheus's love for humanity can be seen as the element of his character which precipitates his imprisonment, for it leads him to go against Zeus will and challenge his authority. Prometheus exhibits an element of pride (hubris) in his belief that he knows better than Zeus (even if it is agreed that, in his sympathetic attitude toward humanity, he does) and his desire for revenge against Zeus.

Hamartia In a tragedy, the event or act that causes the hero's or heroine's downfall is known as hamartia. In Prometheus Bound, the Titan's rebellion against Zeus in giving fire to humanity sets the tragedy in motion and leads to his imprisonment.

Catharsis At the end of a successful tragedy, the spectators experience a release of energy, catharsis, because they have felt pity and fear, pity for the person suffering the tragic fate, then fear that a similar fate might befall them. Viewers might feel this toward Tetralogy.

Tetralogy During dramatic competition in Athens, held annually to celebrate the god Dionysus, called the Dionysia, winning playwrights presented a tetralogy of four related dramatic works, which usually consisted of three tragedies and a satyr play.

Satyr Play A broad comedy performed with three tragedies that usually burlesqued the same legend dramatized by the tragedies.

Compare and Contrast

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525-456 B.C.: In 510 B.C., a political reformer named Clisthenes overthrows the tyrant Hippias and establishes in Athens a republic ruled by popular democracy.

Today: Democracy in its various forms remains one of the most important philosophies of world government. While democracy today takes various forms—direct, representative, presidential, parliamentary—all these concepts have their genesis with the Attic republic.

525-456 B.C.: As the capital of the Dalian League, Athens evolves into a commercial and cultural center, with visitors and residents from throughout the known world. Teachers, artists, philosophers, and religious leaders gather at public forums to discuss their ideas and opinions.

Today: American society mirrors Athens in its emphasis on freedom of speech and religion, and its belief in the strength of diversity and multiculturalism.

525-456 B.C.:Theatre in Athens is largely comprised of a religious festival celebrating the god Dionysus. Very large outdoor theatres hold as many as 15,000 people in festivals which last several days.

Today: Theatre is a mostly secular form of entertainment. Plays are viewed in theatres much smaller than those of the Greeks. Festivals that celebrate drama still exist, though they pale in size to similar events featuring musical performers.

525-456 B.C.:In classical Greece, only the upper- and upper middle-classes of men receive an education. Generally, they study with tutors at home and then attend an academy such as the ones run by Plato and Aristotle.

Today: In America, compulsory education for all citizens through high school presents opportunities for men and women, as does the possibility of pursuing one's studies by attending college.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Berlin, Normand. The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy, University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.

Further Reading Bullfinch, Thomas. Bullfinch's Mythology, Avenel, 1979. One of the best—if a bit old fashioned—collections of information on classical mythology, as well as on Arthurian legend and many other myths and legends.

Fitts, Dudley, editor. Greek Plays in Modern Translation,Dial, 1947. Contains a selection of Greek plays, including King Oedipus translated by William Butler Yeats, and Prometheus Bound. It closes with insightful, though brief, comments on the various plays.

Havelock, E. A. The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, Beacon, 1951. Breezy discussion of Aeschylus's tragedy, though concluding with a particularly useful appendix on Hesiod's Theogony, Aeschylus's mythology, and the lost plays of the Prometheus cycle.

Herington, John. Aeschylus, Yale University Press, 1986. This offers substantial background on Aeschylus's worldview, his historical moment, and Greek theatrical conventions, as well as a chapter on each of the existing plays, including one on Prometheus Bound.

Hogan, James C. A Commentary on the Complete Greek Tragedies: Aeschylus, University of Chicago Press, 1984. In addition to a solid introduction about Aeschylus and the Attic theatrical tradition, this book contains an almost line-by-line commentary on Aeschylus's plays, including Prometheus Bound. Hogan clarifies vocabulary and mythology, and summarizes many commentators views on various crucial textual and critical.

McCall, Marsh H. Jr., editor. Aeschylus: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1972. This fine essay collection discusses Aeschylus's major plays as well as his tragic vision, though only one essay deals entirely with Prometheus Bound.

Scodel, Ruth. Aeschylus, Twayne, 1982. With substantial material covering the playwright's biography and Greek culture, it includes discussion of all the plays, with a chapter on Prometheus Bound. Of particular interest is the brief analysis of contemporary Greek scientific medical knowledge and Prometheus's "condition."

Scully, James and C. J. Herington. Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, Oxford University Press, 1975. Along with a translation of the play, this boasts a good introduction and most important, an appendix containing existing fragments of the lost sequels to Prometheus Bound.

Thomson, George. "Prometheia" in Aeschylus: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp. 124-47. Offers important background about Hesiod' s version of the Prometheus myth and the changes Aeschylus made in his dramatic adaptation. Also contains extensive material regarding the Prometheus cycle and discusses Prometheus Bound's meaning in the context of those lost plays.

Thomson, George. Prometheus Bound, Cambridge University Press, 1932. In addition to an edition of play, Thomson's background and reference material situates the play in the context of Greek history and philosophy.


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Grene, David. “Introduction to Prometheus Bound.” In Aeschylus: The Complete Greek Tragedies, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. Reviews eighteenth century criticism of Prometheus Bound and compares it to Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 334/323 b.c.e.). Discusses problems with the play, including an episodic plot, the improbable and extravagant characters, and the uncouth diction.

Kitto, H. D. F. Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study. London: Methuen, 1970. Dates Prometheus Bound in the category of Old Tragedy. One chapter offers a detailed examination of the play.

Kitto, H. D. F. Poiesis: Structure and Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966. Discusses what is known as Farnall’s Dilemma: that Aeschylus was writing about Zeus in a derogatory sense and that the playwright should have been prosecuted for blasphemy. Because he was not, he could not have written Prometheus Bound.

Podlecki, Anthony J. The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966. Discusses similarities between Prometheus Bound and the Oresteia (458 b.c.e.).

Stanford, William Bedell. Aeschylus in His Style: A Study in Language and Personality. Dublin: Dublin University Press, 1942. Claims that Aeschylus borrowed language in Prometheus Bound from two types of source, one literary and the other colloquial. Designed to help students better understand the language of Aeschylus.

Thomson, George. Aeschylus and Athens: A Study in the Social Origins of Drama. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1968. Presents history and interpretations of the myth of Prometheus; explains how this myth fits into Prometheus Bound.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide