Last Updated November 3, 2023.
Knowledge as the Path to Freedom
The story of Prometheus hinges upon the Titan’s gift of fire—the divine image of wisdom and knowledge—to mankind, for which he faces eternal punishment. With this gift, he intends to grant humanity the freedom to determine their fate and live in comfort; in so doing, he sacrifices his freedom. This long-ago act signals the importance of knowledge as the arbiter of freedom, a theme that remains relevant throughout the rest of the play.
Later, as Prometheus hangs, suspended from chains and awaiting the daily onslaught, he reveals the secret he kept during his centuries of torture. He knows that the son of Thetis—a water nymph with whom Jupiter is obsessed—is prophesied to outstrip his father and will therefore bring about the end of Jupiter’s reign. Prometheus clings to the fact of Jupiter’s inevitable fall, keeping the knowledge of his destiny from him to ensure that his fate does indeed come to pass. His stubborn refusal to surrender this knowledge to his torturer ultimately ensures his freedom: the child of Jupiter’s union with Thetis, the Demogorgon, casts Jupiter into Tartarus and aids in the destruction of Prometheus’s chains.
Thus, the play conflates knowledge with freedom, arguing that Prometheus’s gift of fire grants man independence, and his awareness of the prophecy surrounding Thetis’s son leads to the overthrow of divine oppression. The yoke of institutional, organizational, and religious subjugation is reliant on ignorance and confusion; it cannot survive when viewed with the clear-eyed certainty of knowledge. The romantic literary imagination encouraged subjectivity and the empowerment of the individual; knowledge, in the view of both Shelley and the Romantics alike, is the key to unlocking these values and extending independence to both men and nations.
Freedom in the Nineteenth-Century Imagination
Percy Shelley was a young man writing on the precipice of a global cultural revolution. His work is the inheritance of the revolutionary spirit of both the fledgling United States and its companion nation, France. As such, the ideologies that informed these respective revolutions are equally evident in his work, which took inspiration from novel ideas such as man’s unalienable rights and democratic governance. Although Shelley was a wealthy English aristocrat, he felt alienated by sociopolitical structures reliant on the oppression of the common man. He was a staunch advocate for egalitarianism and resented the omnipresence of structural oppression in English society.
Moreover, his Romantic perspective inspired a desire to return to what he saw as the superiority of the past. Prometheus proposes that he and Asia live in a cave removed from humanity and spend their days in agrarian pastimes. Not only does their retirement to the countryside indicate the Romantics' focus on nature’s beauty, but it also speaks to Shelley’s dissatisfaction with modernity, which he felt did not help men attain the self-actualization of the past. The modern world, in his view, was deeply flawed and only contemporary images of freedom and self-determinism might heal the rapidly forming social schisms that left the majority of the nation on the fringes.
The Power of the Individual
From earliest memory, Prometheus’s story is one of defiance and self-destructive independence. His first action is to gift man fire against the will of Jupiter, for which he faces eternal suffering. This gift allowed men to warm themselves, cook, and, eventually, learn, grow, and become wise. The Promethean fire provides the spark of civilization and is responsible for the birth of all man’s great achievements. His empathetic act has cataclysmic repercussions and introduces the theme of the individual power to spark change that pervades the rest of the play.
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it is his refusal to surrender to Jupiter the critical information about Thetis’s prophesied son that ultimately leads to the Olympian’s downfall, indicating once more that the individual—and even the oppressed and imprisoned individual—is capable of enacting positive change upon the world. The heroes of the play—Asia during her journey to reach the Demogorgon, the Demogorgon during his fight with Jupiter, and Prometheus during the long, long years of his punishment—all illustrate the empowerment that stems from the actions of a single person. In doing so, Shelley attempts to encourage readers to empower themselves in the pursuit of their beliefs.