Last Updated November 3, 2023.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus is the Titan god of fire. According to the Greek creation myth, Prometheus molded man from clay and imbued them with the spark of life. Moreover, he saw man’s suffering and gifted them with fire—which he did against Jupiter’s wishes—to help his creation develop wisdom and strength. For his transgression, Jupiter chained him to a rock, exiling him to an eternity of suffering in which every day, an eagle tears out his liver, and every night, it regrows. Eventually, Jupiter grants him a reprieve, allowing Hercules to free him in exchange for knowledge. Prometheus explains that Thetis, a sea nymph whom Jupiter desired, would bear a son who would exceed his father.
In Shelley’s telling, Prometheus’s story differs slightly. Although his punishment is the same, Prometheus does not tell Jupiter about the fate awaiting Thetis’s child. As such, Jupiter weds her. She bears him a son, the Demogorgon, who will ultimately live up to his destiny and overthrow his licentious, tyrannical father. It is still Hercules who frees Prometheus, but his actions are not at the behest of Jupiter. Shelley characterizes Prometheus as a Jesus figure; he is divinely beneficent and wishes only to lead the men he had a hand in creating to a life of bliss. In this pursuit, he willingly sacrifices his life and body to ensure Jupiter’s downfall.
Prometheus is a martyr motivated by love for his creations and the world that they inhabit. At the time of the play, Prometheus appears kind and gentle in demeanor; however, he was once bitter and deeply rageful. Centuries of torment have tempered his anger into a stubborn certainty, knowing that he is strong enough to ensure that the freedom of men will ring out, joyous and ebullient.
The Demogorgon is a Spirit of the Underworld who takes the form of Thetis and Jupiter’s child. In doing so, he fulfills the prophecy of his birth by casting Jupiter into Tartarus and freeing men from the Olympian yoke. Rather than taking Jupiter’s throne for himself, the Demogorgon rejects the hierarchical distribution of power and returns it to the people, who are now empowered to live happily and freely. His actions result in the freeing of Prometheus and the reunion of Asia and Prometheus, metaphorically reuniting mankind with Love.
Similar to Prometheus, the Demogorgon is a beneficent protector and strives to impose an egalitarian order on the subjugated people Jupiter once ruled. He is indeed greater than his father, so the Demogorgon’s presence is powerful and influential; Earth, the Moon, and the realms of both the living and the dead cling to his words and abide by his new writ of law.
If Prometheus acts as the protector of man, defending them from the unjust hegemony of Jupiter, Asia is the embodiment of man’s potential; she is the figure of Love, of the ideals that freedom and revolution bring about. Like her sisters, Asia is an Oceanid, a water nymph and daughter of Ocean. Unlike her sisters, she is the beloved of Prometheus and often appears throughout the play as a Spirit of Love; by keeping Asia separate from Prometheus, Jupiter separates man from Love and, therefore, freedom. In Greek mythology, nymphs are often relegated to the passive role of victim. In Prometheus Unbound, however, Asia is neither passive nor victim; although her first appearance in the play is tearful, she becomes a brave hero who, like her lover, is willing to put herself at risk to protect those she loves.
Alongside her sister, Panthea, Asia follows the mysterious Echo through...
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wide glades and thick forests, voyaging through the rapid eddies of rivers and the towering heights of mountains to reach the caverns of the Underworld. There, she encounters the Demogorgon, a fearsome but benevolent Spirit of the Underworld, whom she leads to Olympus, where he overthrows Jupiter. In many respects, Asia is one of humanity’s saviors: she aids in the coup which deposes Jupiter; reunites man with Love; and brings, alongside Prometheus and the Demogorgon, peace and equality to all men.
As part of Prometheus’s punishment, Jupiter banished his lover, Asia. In her stead, her sisters—Panthea and Ione—remain with Prometheus and offer simple comforts, such as songs and reassurance, during his daily torment. They stay at his side and bring news of him to their banished sister, circumnavigating her banishment and allowing the pair to communicate. In this respect, they are messengers of Love who carry the promise of what waits when freedom rings. Panthea accompanies Asia on her journey to the Demogorgon and, although she veils her eyes, bears witness to the terrifying dreams that the Furies give Prometheus. Like her sisters, she is a loyal and courageous water nymph who eschews the conventional role of nymphs in mythology.
An Oceanid like her sisters, Ione seems as if she is the youngest of the three. In many ways, she is childlike—she clings to her sisters when she sleeps, covers her eyes when the Furies arrive, and does not accompany her sisters to the Underworld. Yet, she sings to Prometheus in his sorrow and attempts to soothe his pain with her sweet words, even as the sight of his anguish torments her. Despite her terror, Ione stands firm and does not quail from her task.
Jupiter, as he is known in the Roman pantheon—Zeus, in the Greek pantheon—is the King of the Olympians. He earned his position by overthrowing his father, Saturn—Kronos, in Greek—a cruel ruler who devoured his children for fear that they might one day usurp his throne. Despite his revolutionary origin story, Jupiter rules with an equally iron fist. He treats mankind poorly, releasing torrential floods, famines, and abject misery upon them. He is responsible for Prometheus’s punishment because he resented the Titan’s willingness to share fire—a symbol of divine power and wisdom—with mortal men. It is ironic how closely his downfall resembles his father’s; indeed, his folly is a didactic metaphor for revolutionaries everywhere, warning against reprising that which they overthrow. Power, his story explains, is too often corrupting.
Hercules is perhaps the most iconic figure of Greek mythology, yet he appears only briefly in Prometheus Unbound. True to the myth, he frees Prometheus from his imprisonment. However, Shelley tweaks the order of events somewhat: it is at the Demogorgon’s behest—rather than Jupiter’s—that Hercules strikes the Titan's chains.
One of the fifty Nereids—the water nymph daughters of the sea god Nereus—Thetis is also mentioned but briefly in the play. In Aeschylus’s Prometheus Unbound, she is wedded to a mortal, King Peleus, because Prometheus trades the secret of her prophecy—that she is to bear a son who will outstrip his father—for his freedom. Shelley refuses to “reconcile the Champion [Prometheus] with the Oppressor of mankind [Jupiter],” so Thetis’s destiny remains undisclosed. The unwitting Jupiter weds her, and she bears him a son against her will. The Demogorgon assumes the form of this son and lives up to his prophesied greatness.
Shelley includes several other characters from the classical canon who briefly appear in the play. In the first act, Mercury, the Messenger of the Gods, appears to Prometheus. He is kind to the suffering Titan and begs him to give up his pursuit, as he does not wish to inflict further pain upon him. In their conversation, Mercury reveals that, although he disagrees with Jupiter’s decisions, he must abide by them because he has no other choice.
Mercury is accompanied by the Furies, a cruel sisterhood of winged deities of vengeance from the Underworld who attempt to drive Prometheus to his breaking point. However, their efforts are forestalled by Earth, the mother of all of creation, who offers the beauty of her Spirits to remind Prometheus of the world’s goodness. Many natural spirits, such as fawns and echoes, appear throughout, forming the choruses that background the central characters’ stories.