Critical Evaluation

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Prometheus Unbound glorifies the rebellious impulse toward freedom in the human spirit. The poem dramatizes and explains Percy Bysshe Shelley’s philosophical and religious understanding, which was individual. Prometheus Unbound is Shelley’s credo; the impulse to freedom and to rebel against authoritarian orthodoxy is one he valued highly. Shelley’s beliefs typify Romanticism. As did such Romantic poets as William Blake, Lord Byron, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shelley wrote of the freedom of the individual and of the primacy of the imagination. Institutions, social structures, and established belief were, in these poets’ views, suspect. For them, evil lay in limitation imposed on the human spirit, which, when free, was good.

Shelley and other Romantic poets also at times did more than write about their beliefs. They were activists in the causes of liberty and reform of their times. Shelley, for example, favored vegetarianism, freedom for Ireland and for slaves, the abolition of monarchy and marriage, the overthrow of established religion, extension of voting rights, empowerment of the working class, and equality for women. He advocated these ideas in his writings, which in his time was a provocative and courageous act. While a student at Oxford he collaborated on a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism (1811) and sent copies to all the college authorities and every bishop in the Church of England. He was expelled from the university as a result.

Prometheus Unbound is a play in verse in which the poetry takes precedence over the drama. This work could not easily be brought to the stage; the reader may best realize the drama of the conflicts of gods and allegorical figures with the imagination. From Prometheus’s opening oration to the paeanlike ending, the reader is carried along with the delicacy, vivacity, thunder, or choric effect of the lines. The spacelessness of the work is its virtue, and its muted, ethereal effect is lyrically matchless. This work illustrates how well Shelley fashions not only his own invented lyric patterns but also the Pindaric ode, the fourteen-syllable line, the Spenserian stanza, couplets, and infinite variations of the Greek choral effects. Every conceivable meter can be detected; the inversions, the intricately developed rhythm patterns are numerous. A “lyrical flowering” seems an appropriate phrase for the entire work, perhaps Shelley’s greatest.

Although Shelley wrote poetry that was intended to generate controversy, and did, his poetry is unmatched in its civilized, urbane, and elegant spirit. His work is still capable of offending those whose political or religious convictions are conservative. Perhaps for this reason, his verse is sometimes wrongly described as being strident or self-centered.

Prometheus Unbound uses the well-known Greek myth as a vehicle for Shelley’s themes. The playwright Aeschylus’s tragedy Prometheus Bound (fifth century b.c.e.) was known to Shelley, who could read Greek. In Aeschylus’s version of the myth, Prometheus made humanity out of clay. Zeus, envious, retaliated by oppressing human beings and depriving them of fire. Prometheus stole fire from heaven and gave it to humans; he also taught the humans many arts. Aeschylus’s play opens with Zeus’s causing Prometheus to be chained to a rock for his rebellion and refusing to free him until Prometheus agrees to reveal a secret prophecy with which he has been entrusted.

In the preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley points out that writers in ancient Greece felt free to revise myths as needed for their themes. Shelley states that it is not his purpose to restore the lost play Prometheus Unbound, which Aeschylus was supposed to have written after Prometheus Bound. Rather, Shelley intends in his play to create a new myth appropriate to Shelley’s times. Shelley compares Prometheus with Satan, who, in Christian myth and in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), rebels (for many Romantics, heroically) against God. “Prometheus,” Shelley argues, “is . . . the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.”

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Prometheus Unbound