(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Shelley’s reputation is based on the 1820 volume of verse containing Prometheus Unbound, a lyrical drama on a cosmic scale that presents more fully than any other poem Shelley’s philosophy of life.

In ancient mythology, Prometheus was the smartest of the Titans. He separated humanity from the gods and gave it fire, symbolizing imaginative powers of thought. Jupiter punished him by nailing him to a rock in the Caucasus mountain range. Shelley begins his sequel to Aeschylus’s play Prometheus desmts (date unknown; Prometheus Bound, 1777) with Prometheus still in that predicament after some time has elapsed. The Titan describes his ordeal and tells the hopeful Ione and the faithful Panthea that he has secret knowledge of the time when Jupiter will fall from power. Misery has made Prometheus wise. He has realized that hatred makes one like the object of hate, and thus his bondage is primarily internal, self-imposed, and even within his will to end. His hatred for Jupiter having cooled to mere pity, Prometheus wants to gather his sundered strength, reunite with his beloved Asia, and recall the curse that he had cast upon Jupiter. However, he cannot remember it and Nature is too fearful to utter it, so he summons the Phantasm of Jupiter to repeat it. Once divulged, the curse is repudiated by Prometheus, who declares, “I wish no living thing to suffer pain.” Earth mistakenly thinks Jupiter’s victory is now complete, and Mercury carries that message to Jupiter while Panthea goes in search of Asia. As the first act...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Prometheus, the benefactor of humankind, is bound to a rocky cliff by order of Jupiter, who is jealous of the Titan’s power. Three thousand years of torture Prometheus suffers there, while an eagle continually eats at his heart and he is afflicted by heat, cold, and many other torments. Prometheus nevertheless continues to defy the power of Jupiter. At last Prometheus asks Panthea and Ione, the two Oceanides, to repeat to him the curse he had pronounced upon Jupiter when Jupiter first began to torture him. Neither his mother Earth nor the Oceanides will answer him. At last the Phantasm of Jupiter appears and repeats the curse. When Prometheus hears the words, he repudiates them. Now that he has suffered tortures and finds that his spirit remains unconquered, he wishes pain to no living thing. Earth and the Oceanides mourn that the curse has been withdrawn, for they think that Jupiter has at last conquered Prometheus’s spirit.

Then Mercury approaches with the Furies. Mercury tells the captive Prometheus that he will suffer even greater tortures if he does not reveal the secret that he alone knows—the future fate of Jupiter. Jupiter, afraid, wishes to avert catastrophe by learning the secret, and Mercury promises Prometheus that he will be released if he reveals it. Prometheus, however, refuses. He admits only that he knows Jupiter’s reign will come to an end, that Jupiter will not be king of the gods for all eternity. Prometheus says that he is willing to suffer torture until Jupiter’s reign ends. Although the Furies try to frighten him by describing the pains they can inflict, they know they have no power over his soul.

The Furies mock Prometheus and humankind, showing Prometheus visions of blood and despair on earth; they show him the Passion of Christ and humanity’s disregard for Christ’s message of love. Fear and hypocrisy rule; tyrants take the thrones of the world. A group of spirits appear and prophesy that Love will cure the ills of humankind. They prophesy also that Prometheus will be able to bring Love to earth and halt the reign of evil and grief. When the spirits have gone, Prometheus acknowledges the power of Love, for his love for Asia, his wife, has enabled him to suffer...

(The entire section is 908 words.)