Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401
Percy Bysshe Shelley, like many other Romantic writers, was fascinated by characters from history and mythology that had defied the odds (or the gods) by taking great risks, resisting authority, or defending noble causes. Those who had made great sacrifices, even if they failed or were thwarted in their quests—especially...
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- Critical Essays
Percy Bysshe Shelley, like many other Romantic writers, was fascinated by characters from history and mythology that had defied the odds (or the gods) by taking great risks, resisting authority, or defending noble causes. Those who had made great sacrifices, even if they failed or were thwarted in their quests—especially through the actions of vengeful, unjust forces—were particular Romantic obsessions. This type of character became known as the "Byronic hero," after Lord George Gordon Byron.
Because Prometheus was one of the central mythological representations of all those characteristics, Shelley saw him as the ideal subject for an extended literary treatment. Acting for the benefit of all humanity (rather than for personal enrichment or power), Prometheus defied the Olympian gods. He was condemned to suffer terribly and perpetually, but nevertheless had accomplished his noble mission of bringing fire to humankind. Hercules is a heroic figure as well who understands Prometheus's motivations and liberated him from his punishment.
As a long, dramatic poem, Shelley's play elaborates on traditional elements of the Greek myth's plot and conveys the richness of the story and atmosphere in lush (maybe even overwrought) language. Rather than a conventional play well-suited to presentation on stage, Shelley's work engages the reader's imagination and encourages meditation on its profound themes. In emphasizing two contrasting aspects of Prometheus's punishment and ordeal, Shelley elaborates on the ideas of injustice and sacrifice.
Jupiter may seem to have overreacted considerably by doling out two horrible punishments where one would have sufficed, but it is their combination that illustrates his prodigious powers as well as his lack of rational moderation. Prometheus loses his physical freedom by being chained to a rock, and he is repeatedly mutilated by the eagle ripping into his liver. But he neither dies nor is totally imprisoned: although immobilized and weakened, he retains his intellectual and spiritual freedom.
The female characters of Asia and Panthea provide important dimensions to the idea of morality and spirituality. As positive, nurturing forces, they fit well with Romantic ideas of womanhood. Panthea dreams of love as a guiding force—another Romantic tenet. Acting as emissaries on behalf of Asia's beloved, in their journey underground, they learn from the Demogorgon the truth about Jupiter's ignoble motivations, as he acted out of hubris. Their actions and pure motivations not only make them Romantic heroes but also enable their success in overcoming the much more powerful Olympian.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 236
*Caucasus. Mountain range between the Black and Caspian Seas. The mountain to which Prometheus is chained may be seen as an image of permanence, similar to Mont Blanc in Shelley’s poem of the same name, externally symbolizing the Titan Prometheus’s unalterable refusal to give in to tyranny while he is being punished for having befriended humankind. Even as the mountains endure the extremes of wind and cold, so too does Prometheus endure extremes in torment that include Zeus’s eagle, the icy weather, thoughts of unending pain, and the Furies. Paradoxically, however, the mountains alter in appearance over the passage of time.
Prometheus also changes his attitude toward Jove. Suffering over a long period of time leads him from curses and hatred of Jove to wisdom and feelings of pity for the tyrant god. From this pity, hope and love are renewed, echoed in the landscape’s alteration from winter to spring and in his wife, Asia’s, alteration from passive sleep to active journey through a forest and up to a mountain pinnacle where she enters Demogorgon’s cave, the seat of the spirit of revolution. Asia’s passionate dialogue with the supreme god Demogorgon ends with the latter’s trip to Heaven, where he dethrones his father, Jove. Thus the play comes to the conclusion that Shelley came to after experimenting with other forms of revolution: changing the world through love.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176
Baker, Carlos. Shelley’s Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948. An introductory survey of Shelley’s most important writings in verse, this standard work includes a chapter and an appendix on the poem.
Cameron, Kenneth Neill. Shelley: The Golden Years. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. In part a biography, this survey of Shelley’s work from 1814 to 1822 analyzes all of his important poetry and culminates with a two-chapter discussion of the poem.
King-Hele, Desmond. Shelley: The Man and the Poet. New York: Yoseloff, 1960. Shelley’s evident interest in science is explored.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Prometheus Unbound: A Variorum Edition. Edited by John Lawrence Zillman. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959. Offers a full text of the poem and line-by-line commentary on it. There are also eight appendices, including “The Prometheus Story Before Shelley.”
Wasserman, Earl R. Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound”: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965. An example of close reading and profound thought, Wasserman’s philosophical interpretation of Prometheus Unbound defends the poem’s fundamental unity.