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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Romantic author writing in the early nineteenth century, was enmeshed in a complex literary milieu. At once a late Neoclassicist fascinated with historical and mythological figures and their death-defying stories of heroism and triumph, Shelley was also an early Romantic who appreciated literary figurations of the finer human emotions and natural beauty. Prometheus Unbound embodies this lineage, placing the symbology of Classical myths into a four-act play with distinctly Romantic stylization. Moreover, Prometheus’s tale is itself a marriage of these two literary ideals: the Titan is a lonesome hero whose tragic sacrifice strikes at the heart of the Romantics' obsession with chivalry and virtue.

As a young intellectual writing in the early nineteenth century, Shelley found the revolutionary philosophy of the preceding decades—in the budding United States, more recently in France, and, slowly, in England—appealing. His version of Prometheus Unbound contorts elements of the original text composed by the Greek playwright Aeschylus to suit these ideals, infusing the story with the weight of contemporary context. Shelley’s retelling unfolds in vignettes of lurid imagery and expressive dialogue, using the gods of classical mythology as mouthpieces for modern, rather than classical, ideology. Prometheus acts for the benefit of humanity, eschewing personal safety and simple joy in the pursuit of equality and freedom. Indeed, he is the ideal revolutionary, and his perseverance against tyranny is, in many ways, a didactic lesson on the merits of resistance. 

Shelley splits the play into four acts. Each focuses on a different thematic and emotional aspect of the myth. Act one focuses on Prometheus, explaining the reasoning for his punishment and detailing his suffering. The Titan's soliloquy highlights his metaphorical importance: he represents the minds of men and their intellectual desire for freedom and peace. In the second act, Shelley shifts focus to Asia, who is devastated by her separation from her lover, Prometheus. Asia is man's emotions made manifest; in essence, she is the physical manifestation of Love and passion. Where Prometheus acts as humanity's intellect, she is humanity's emotions. Man cannot function without both aspects of himself; their separation speaks to the incomplete nature of oppressed men and their divided nature. Asia's desire to reunite with her lover spurs the play forward, indicating the power of Love to bring forth the freedom Shelley desires. 

In the third act, the focus turns to Jupiter. Shelley reveals the reality of the Olympian's oppressive rule as it existed before and in the wake of his banishment. By prioritizing the focus on the oppressor in his final moments, Shelley indicates what might happen in the world at large if citizens, such as Prometheus and Asia, unite their intellectual feelings with their passion. The Demogorgon, who is the ultimate agent of the revolution, is yet another figure of the idealized revolutionary: he rejects the hierarchies of formal power that keep men oppressed and reimagines a world in which these organizations and institutions are discarded rather than reformed. 

The fourth act intends to reveal the nature of a post-revolution world, yet this is where the play falters; that which is beyond conception—for example, the world beyond the scope of familiar power structures—cannot be artistically conceived. Shelley’s attempt is often called trite and unrealistic because of its desire to return to a bucolic past that is entirely unrealistic for people of the nineteenth-century world. This final act unites man’s intellect and passion, driven forward by the rational, revolutionary spirit of the Demogorgon. Freedom rings and man attains self-actualization. Within this cycle of revolution and reimagination, Shelley includes a clear warning. He explains revolution must reimagine a new social...

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order and bury the structures of the past, otherwise, the same tyrannies will eventually resurface. Sociocultural reimagination, he argues, is the only successful way to ensure the death of oppression. In effect, Shelley warns modern revolutionaries of this reflexive desire to replicate rather than reconstruct, as in the case of Jupiter's eventual reprisal of Saturn's immoral rule. 

The central characters—Prometheus, Asia, and the Demogorgon—are images of humanity’s disparate aspects. At Jupiter’s command, they are divided, and so too is mankind. When the Demogorgon casts Jupiter into Tartarus, these aspects reconvene, merging into a single united element. Prometheus and Asia are reunited, as are man's intellectual and emotional aspects. Love, joy, and contentment reign—those simple emotions Jupiter long denied to men. This journey from suffering to freedom unfolds in a medley of verse forms, slipping from long expanses of blank verse to imagery-laden soliloquies written in a wealth of varied verse structures. Shelley switches between verse forms to much effect, highlighting the dream-like quality of his sensory images. 

His imagery is glittering and ephemeral, and his descriptions of emotions are ever more so. Each character's feelings are rendered with organic but exquisite specificity, as Shelley ascribes each a distinct voice imbued with the pain and triumph of their respective sorrows. Even the voices of the spirits and the elements are uniquely figured and granted a sense of careful personhood. The lyrical interludes of the chorus characters are written with strict metrical and rhyme schemes, yet their consistent organization feels loose and carefree. 

As Shelley himself explains, Prometheus Unbound is a marriage of his disparate selves, both of poet and of revolutionary: 

It is a mistake to suppose that I dedicate my poetical compositions solely to the direct enforcement of reform…Didactic poetry is my abhorrence…My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence.

While he feels drawn to the revolutionary ideals of his contemporaries, the play is ultimately an artistic expression that, while it may contain the more graceful contours of revolutionary spirits, neither advocates nor commands the reader to action. Instead, it is an exploration of perseverance in the face of unyielding hostility and the spiritual heights of man’s innate desire for freedom. Neither didactic nor abstract, Shelley’s verse is lurid in description and even more so in content, relaying in precise detail the many aspects of the human spirit.