Last Updated on January 25, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1151
In 1820, Percy Bysshe Shelley published Prometheus Unbound, a four-act play retelling the myth of Prometheus. In most tellings, Prometheus is a Titan, a member of the divine race that preceded the Olympians. Some tellings credit him with forming men from clay; in others, he is simply an empathetic benefactor who treats the early races of men kindly and gifts them with fire and, therefore, wisdom. In all, Prometheus is punished for his compassion, chained to a mountainside by Jupiter, the King of the Gods, and forced to endure a horrifying ritual: each morning, an eagle (the symbol of Jupiter) tears his liver from his body and eats it; each evening, it regrows, and the cycle begins anew.
Shelley adjusts the conventional telling slightly, using Prometheus’s centuries of suffering as a metaphor for the nineteenth-century revolutionary philosophies he so vehemently supported. In the play, Prometheus’s rejection of Jupiter’s tyrannical rule and willingness to aid the races of men directly alludes to the outgrowth of democratic ideals born in the late eighteenth century and carried into the early nineteenth century. Prometheus Unbound is a tale of tyranny, rebellion, and rebirth, which replaces oppressive hierarchies with utopian egalitarianism, a development Shelley wished to see replicated in England and abroad.
The play begins as Prometheus greets yet another day of torment. He recalls his centuries of suffering at Jupiter’s hands but explains that the agony has taught him forgiveness. Although his “empire” is one of “torture and solitude, scorn and despair,” it is far more “glorious” than the “shame of [Jupiter’s] ill tyranny.” He continues, describing his torture at the hands of Jupiter’s eagle and the passive pain of the apathetic elements, to whose violent vicissitudes he is exposed. Yet, he is resigned rather than enraged, as he knows his torment has an end. Prometheus cannot resent Jupiter but must instead pity him; soon, the proud Olympian shall face the suffering he has inflicted on others, and his rule will collapse.
Prometheus knows that, much like how Jupiter overthrew his tyrannical father, Saturn, Jupiter himself will fall to his offspring. This knowledge has kept Prometheus strong because, although he suffers terribly, his suffering ensures the eventual freedom of mankind from the King of the Olympians’ unjust rule. He explains that “misery made [him] wise” and, in his newfound clarity, recalls the curses he spoke to Jupiter on the eve of his imprisonment. As Prometheus recants the rage-fueled words spoken centuries ago, Jupiter sees his foe’s forgiveness as a sign of weakening resolve.
Jupiter sends Mercury, alongside the Furies—cruel deities of vengeance—to uncover the secret knowledge of his downfall, which Prometheus has kept from him. Prometheus rejects Mercury’s plea for his surrender and then the Furies’ torturing visions of human sin and depravity. They leave empty-handed, but the Titan is demoralized, and neither Ione nor Panthea—his loyal companions and the sisters of his lover, Asia—can assuage his hopelessness. Only the memory of Love buoys him.
Earth, sensing the spiritual pain plaguing Prometheus’s weary heart, conjures a chorus of spirits to strengthen his resolve. She reminds him of the world’s natural beauty and man’s virtues, all of which are protected by his stubborn refusal to accede to Jupiter. This reminder of Love’s many forms inspires him, preserving his strength for yet another day. As the first act ends, Prometheus fades into the background, and the focus switches to his banished lover, Asia, who sits despondent in a vale in the Indian Caucasus. Panthea arrives, visiting her with news of Prometheus. She tells her sister of the dreams of beauty and sorrow she experienced...
(This entire section contains 1151 words.)
at his feet; in one, Prometheus was freed and returned Love to the world. As Panthea regales her sister with such tales, an Echo twines through the valley, bidding them to follow it to the truth.
The sisters follow the Echo to the domain of the Demogorgon. In his cave, he tells them of the nature of things, explaining that “all things are enslaved which serve things evil,” implying that Jupiter’s power is an illusion because all things are subservient to Love. As he speaks, Spirits descend in ivory chariots, one of which carries Asia, Panthea, and the Demogorgon into the heavens, where the Spirit and his brethren herald the new morning. Standing in the chariot, hovering at the precipice of dawn, Asia is as if Aphrodite, so filled is she with the radiance of Love’s natural beauty. They gaze upon the vastness of creation, inspired by its beauteous grace, and the scene closes as they look on, enamored.
The third act begins in Olympus, as Jupiter addresses the Gods. He speaks specifically to Thetis and references their shared child, the Demogorgon, a spirit of the underworld who, on cue, appears alongside Asia and Panthea. He confronts his villainous father, and the mythological cycle turns once more. Son overthrows his tyrannical father, casting Jupiter into Tartarus but refuses to take his seat as King of the Gods. Thus, the Demogorgon breaks the divine cycle of revolution followed by the immediate reprisal of inequality; instead, he rejects hierarchical rule, leaving Jupiter’s throne empty. The Gods speak amongst themselves, come to terms with Jupiter’s fall from grace, and notice that their realm is already more beautiful and peaceful than it once was.
With Jupiter dethroned, the focus returns to Prometheus, whom Hercules frees from his imprisonment. The Titan reunites with Asia and suggests that they—alongside her sisters—adjourn to a peaceful cave where they might live in freedom, as now all men do. There, they reignite their lost wonder for the world’s peculiar beauty and curiosity, finding simple pleasure in the freedom of life. As Prometheus turns to leave, he bids the Spirit of the Hours to take Proteus’s shell and sound it across the globe, telling men that freedom has come. Later, the Spirit of the Hours visits the sisters at their new home and tells them of his journey. After he spoke Prometheus’s words, a palpable change arose. Where once the burden of Jupiter’s yoke had kept man oppressed, now the freedom of Love arrives; like Prometheus was unbound, so too were men.
In the fourth act, the transformation is complete. The confusion and torment of the past are swept aside; men and Gods alike adapt to a new, democratic way of life. The Demogorgon addresses each aspect of the world and its inhabitants—the Earth, the Moon, the living, and the dead—making it known to each that their bliss is permanent, for they are free, and he has no wish to rekindle Jupiter’s role. In the wake of Jupiter’s banishment, the world was remade. Hierarchy and subjugation no longer reign supreme, replaced by the love, joy, and equality amongst men that now order the world.