Prometheus Bound is so different from the six other plays we have by Aeschylus, that some scholars question whether Aeschylus authored it at all. We have no production information about the play and can only guess that it was performed sometime between 458 and 456 B.C.E. The play is very different than the three other plays I have thus far read by Aeschylus but I think that just because it is different isn’t a reason to question authorship. Authors then as now don’t want to write the same thing in the same way over and over again. Times change and styles change and the author changes and wants to try something different. Why not?
One of the things Aeschylus dares to do in this play is re-write the character of Prometheus. Up until this time, according to the introduction at any rate, Prometheus has been portrayed as a trickster figure and somewhat as a clown. When he has appeared in anything it has been in a comedic rather than a dramatic role. But Aeschylus turns Prometheus into a hero.
The play opens with Hephaistos reluctantly chaining Prometheus to a rocky crag and then driving an iron stake through his chest so he cannot escape. Prometheus is here because, after helping Zeus overthrow Kronos and gain supreme power over the gods, Prometheus disobeys. He feels sorry for humankind who Zeus had wanted to wipe out because they were so pathetic. Prometheus, as we know, steals sacred fire and gives it to humanity, and, if you believe everything he says in the play, he pretty much gave all knowledge, “all human skill and science” to helpless, empty-minded humans who had never been gifted with anything but a directionless life of burden.
What is most fascinating about Prometheus Bound is that it isn’t so much about Prometheus as it is about when absolute power becomes corrupted and the one holding the power becomes, not a liberator from the oppression of the previous holder of power, but a tyrant. Zeus never makes an appearance in the play but fear of him permeates throughout. Prometheus is chained to the rock because he dared to challenge tyrant Zeus. Prometheus is a god and so cannot be killed, he has nothing to fear and so has the luxury of being rebellious. But Hephaistos is a god too and he is afraid of Zeus and the consequences of disobedience.
The character of Power stands over Hephaistos yelling at him to
You know what to do.
You have orders.
Straight from the Father.
Get on with it!
Spike this bastard to the crags.
Iron, iron and steel,
nothing to break or shatter.
It was your flower he stole,
your flaming fire!
The power that makes all things that
And gave it to mortals!
That’s his crime.
That’s his offense to the gods.
And the gods demand payment.
He’ll learn to bow to Zeus’ tyranny,
and like it!
And all the time that Haphaistos is doing what he has been ordered he is fretting and worrying and begging forgiveness and understanding because Prometheus is his friend. He even goes so far as to tell Prometheus, “I am not the one doing this.” This whole scene was creepy and kept making me think of Hitler and what the everyday citizens and the SS troops might have been thinking as they were turning in their neighbors or turning on the gas.
After this, onto the scene comes the chorus made up of the Daughters of Oceanos. The daughters are friends of Prometheus too and wail and cry over his fate but say they are helpless to do anything. They encourage Prometheus again and again to apologize to Zeus, to say he was wrong, to do whatever it takes to get Zeus to release him for his chains. But Prometheus, as many times as the Daughters of Oceanos urge him to give in to Zeus, refuses to bow down. He would rather suffer his painful fate than give up who he is.
Prometheus is able to take courage because he knows a secret. Prometheus means “foresight” and he knows that eventually Zeus will lose his power and be deposed. He knows who will do it too. And he knows that he will also be freed eventually.
Zeus, of course, has big ears and he sends Hermes to demand names. Prometheus will give nothing and takes great pleasure in insulting Hermes calling him Zeus’ “errand-boy” and a “kowtowing ass-wipe.” I would seriously like to know how to say “kowtowing ass-wipe” in ancient Greek. Hermes eventually goes off in a huff promising more tortures and sufferings for Prometheus and exhorting him to remember as Zeus’ eagle is eating Prometheus liver, that Prometheus brought all this on himself. Zeus: master of tough love and “this hurts me more than it hurts you.” Shortly after this the play ends with the Daughters of Oceanos promising to plead to Zeus on behalf of Prometheus. Prometheus closes the play with a prayer to his mother (Earth) and Sky to look at him and see “how unjust my suffering.”
Lest the audience think that the tyrant Zeus in only unjust to Prometheus, Io in her cow form makes an appearance in the play. She shows up before Hermes does. Goaded by the gadfly, she is in a bit of a frenzied madness but still able to tell her story. She becomes the one who seals Zeus’ role as tyrant because while we might believe that Prometheus deserves his fate just a little bit, we cannot believe that Io deserves hers. She did nothing wrong, she refused the advances of Zeus but still she suffers because of Hera’s jealousy and Zeus’ lust. She drives home the message that no one is immune from a tyrant.
I suspect the Greeks who, outnumbered, would rather die than become slaves to Xerxes when he arrived with his huge army from Persia, loved this play. I liked this play. It has a much less formal tone to it than the other plays I have read. The subject of the play is also one that is easier to relate to across the millennia. I can’t praise Prometheus for being one of the greatest heroes ever because he is a god and in spite of his sufferings he is never in danger of losing his life. But that didn’t stop me from cheering him on. I sort of wish Zeus would have appeared so Prometheus could spit in his eye. Maybe that happens in one of the lost plays. And even if it doesn’t, it is still fun to imagine.