AESCHYLUS 456 B.C.
Aeschylus, considered by many scholars as the founder of Greek tragedy, wrote during a period destined to become the Greek Renaissance or Golden Age. Born in 525 B.C. about fourteen miles from Athens into a wealthy, aristocratic family, Aeschylus came of age as his homeland, which had been ruled by the tyrannical dictator Pisistratus and his sons, emerged to become a republic ruled democratically but by the elite. Aeschylus saw battle when Athens had fought against the powerful Persian empire, winning victories at Marathon (490 B.C.) and Salamis (480 B.C.), which have become legendary because of the skill with which the outnumbered Athenians defeated far superior forces.
Athens’s role in the Persian wars led it to become the capital of the Dalian League, a collective of Greek city-states, and peace and prosperity led to a cultural flowering rarely equaled in history. In addition to Aeschylus, the century that followed saw such dramatists as Sophocles and Aristophanes, as well as philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The importance of Aeschylus lies in his position at the beginning of this exciting period in the development of Western culture. His plays and ideas influenced much of what followed.
Aeschylus’s importance in theatre history stems from his dramatic innovations which changed Greek tragedy. Traditionally, Greek tragedy consisted of a performance by one actor and the chorus. Aristotle credits Aeschylus as the first playwright to introduce a second actor, thereby allowing true dialogue to create powerful dramatic conflict. Though Prometheus Bound contains almost no physical action, extensive character development and emotionally charged psychological action make this a dynamic drama of ideas.
A minority of scholars debate Aeschylus’s authorship of Prometheus Bound. Because of positions the play presents on various religious and cultural issues, as well as because of certain poetic peculiarities, some believe it written by another author. Most scholars do believe Aeschylus wrote Prometheus Bound, however, and in any event, the authorship debate does not detract from the play’s powerful drama.
Aeschylus was born in 525 B.C. in Eleusis, Greece. His father, Euphorion, headed a wealthy, aristocratic family. Little is known about Aeschylus’s childhood. Growing up during the Persian Wars, he fought in the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.), in which a citizen army of Athenians proved victorious against the numerically superior invading army. His brother, Cynegirus, died at Marathon, though Aeschylus fought on. Many scholars believe the playwright also participated in the battle at Salamis (480 B.C.), among other engagements.
Following Greek resistance of the Persian Empire, Athens established its independence as a democracy of the elite and intellectual. Aeschylus came of age during this exciting time, when Athens became the headquarters of the Dalian League of Greek city-states. This brought prosperity to the city and made Athens the center of the Greek cultural world. Critics point to the relationship between the problems and challenges facing the emerging Attic republic and the themes Aeschylus treats in his plays: crime and punishment, law and revenge, tyranny and revolution.
Although scholars credit Aeschylus with writing more than ninety tragedies and satyr plays, only seven exist today in their entirety. They are: The Persians (first presented in 472 B.C.); Seven against Thebes (467 B.C.); The Suppliant Maidens (463 B.C.); the Oresteia trilogy, comprised of Agamemnon, the Choephoroe (also known as The Libation Bearers), and the Eumenides (also known as The Kindly Ones), which was first presented in
458 B.C.); and Prometheus Bound (probably written in the 450s B.C. but first produced after Aeschylus’s death in 456 B.C.). These plays were presented during the dramatic competitions held during religious festivals for Dionysus. Aeschylus first competition was around 500 B.C., and he won first prize thirteen times.
Scholars believe that tragedy, which had a complex social and religious function in Greek society, grew out of ritualized recitations. Such readings, like those of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, might be social, while others conducted at temples on feast days might be religious. Early drama, such as that presented by Thespis, included only one actor and the chorus. Aristotle credits Aeschylus as the first to introduce a second actor, reduce the significance of the chorus, and highlight the role of dialogue. This accounts for why many scholars consider Aeschylus the founder of Greek tragedy because the actor he added enabled true dialogue and dramatic conflict to take place.
Aeschylus died in 456 B.C., in the Greek colony of Gela, Sicily. According to legend, he met his death when an eagle, trying to crack a tortoise’s shell, dropped it on the playwright’s head. Aeschylus wrote the epitaph for his own tombstone, which underscores his military activities but makes no mention of his plays. Some critics interpret this to suggest that Aeschylus believed his plays contributed to Attic religious and political culture, and in that sense, that he regarded the role of playwright itself as patriotic.
A peak in the Caucasus Mountains. Force and Violence have conveyed Prometheus to the mountain, where Hephestus, the god of fire, binds Prometheus to the mountain, expressing pity and reluctance. Force, the pragmatic agent of Zeus, urges Hephestus on, condemning his sympathy for the rebellious Titan as useless and threatening reprisals from Zeus. Force declares that suffering will make Prometheus accept Zeus’s authority, and Hephestus states that in time, Zeus’s tyranny may moderate. Throughout their exchange, Violence says nothing.
Force, Violence, and Hephestus exit. Prometheus speaks a soliloquy which begs sympathy from his mother Earth, condemns Zeus’s tyranny, and identifies the cause of his predicament, that he “loved man too well.” Prometheus indicates that he realized the consequences of his actions before he intervened to save humanity, saying “All, all I knew before, all that should be.” This shows Prometheus’s foresight, which is the meaning of his name. His foresight proves ambiguous, however, for later in the play, the Titan will express surprise at the intensity of his punishment. Here, though, he stoically councils himself to “Bear without struggle what must be. Necessity is strong and ends our strife.” This statement also proves important later, for while Force has claimed that “No one is free but Zeus,” the play shows that everyone, even Zeus, must bow to Necessity (i.e. destiny and justice). For Prometheus, this realization proves a revelation.
The Chorus of sea nymphs, the Oceanides, enters, riding in a winged car. The Oceanides sympathize with Prometheus, their kinsman, informing him that “By new laws Zeus is ruling without law,” for he has cast the defeated Titans into Tarturus. Prometheus indicates his knowledge of the way by which Zeus will fall from power and his refusal to reconcile with the tyrant. This and similar statements undermine the audience’s faith in Prometheus’s foreknowledge, as the Athenian audience knew that Zeus would not fall. The Titan has knowledge of future events, but in some ways his insight remains incomplete and ambiguous. Prometheus himself contributes to this ambiguity when he says, hopefully, “yet some time he [Zeus] shall be mild of mood . . . and run to meet me. Then peace will come and love between us two.”
The rebel Titan then explains how he came to this predicament, his support for Zeus’s rebellion, his pity for humanity, and his subsequent punishment for stealing fire from heaven and giving it to people. With fire, he gave humanity knowledge of medicine, astronomy, agriculture, and other things, as well as “blind hopes.”
Ocean enters, riding on a four-footed bird, an image that would appear ridiculous to the audience and thus identifies this as a comic interlude. As Prometheus’s kinsman, Ocean feels sympathy, but primarily a pompous wind-bag, he mostly expresses self-importance. Ocean, believing that Zeus respects him, offers to intercede for Prometheus with the tyrant, if only the rebel will control his temper and moderate his behavior. Prometheus thanks Ocean for his wisdom, which, ironically, allowed him to escape the punishment Zeus inflicted on the other Titans. Prometheus expresses his pity for his brother Atlas, who now shoulders the world, and for Typhon, a dragon, both punished by Zeus. He then advises Ocean to leave, suggesting that Zeus might punish him for trying to help Prometheus. Driven primarily by fear and self-interest, Ocean departs.
The Chorus speaks of Zeus’s tyranny, while Prometheus tells of human suffering and his attempt to alleviate it. The Chorus claims that “Zeus orders all things,” but Prometheus corrects them, indicating that even Zeus must be subordinate to Necessity. The sinner’s destiny results from “Retribution” for a past wrong which “unforgetting . . . Fate” never fails to punish. This dialogue also reveals that Prometheus, like the human race he aided, has “blind hope” that justice will be victorious and that his situation will improve.
Io enters, telling her tragic history. The half-mortal daughter of the sea god, she is romantically pursued by Zeus. Zeus’s wife, Hera, has discovered her husband’s love for Io and punished the innocent girl, having her followed first by Argos, whose thousand eyes watch her constantly, and then by a gadfly. Through no fault of her own, Io falls victim to Zeus’s lust and Hera’s jealousy. Prometheus tells Io about her future revenge, which is tied with his own. Prometheus reveals that he knows the circumstances surrounding Zeus’s ultimate fall: Zeus will impregnate Io, and one of her distant descendants, Hercules, will destroy the tyrant. As Normand Berlin observed in The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy, the “meeting of Io and Prometheus is the central episode of the play. It tells us of the future; it reminds us of the past; it covers the geography of the known world.” Io’s tale moves the Chorus, and, as she exits, they express sympathy for her and fear of finding themselves in a similar situation.
Hermes enters, telling Prometheus that Zeus has heard his boasts of knowing about his downfall. Hermes demands to know the name of the sexual liaison which will lead to Zeus’s destruction. Prometheus mocks Hermes as a child and refuses to tell him anything. Hermes threatens additional punishment and predicts future torments.
The Chorus remains with Prometheus as Hermes departs, and his prediction comes true. Amid thunder and lightening, the earth cracks, ready to swallow up the rebel Titan. As the play ends, Prometheus cries out, “I am wronged.”
Chorus of Oceanids
Earth and Sky are the parents of Oceanus and Tethys, who are the parents of the Oceanids. Aeschylus’s mythology, which names Prometheus’s mother as Earth, makes the Titan uncle to the Oceanids. Like their father Oceanus, they sympathize with Prometheus, but more bravely. Partially out of fear of Zeus, however, they disapprove of Prometheus’s behavior, urging him to attempt a reconciliation. Fear of Zeus strikes the Oceanids when they learn of Io’s suffering, but still they remain with Prometheus at the end of the play, when he is cast into Tartarus.
Force and Violence
As the play opens, Force and Violence accompany Hephestus as he impales Prometheus to a peak in the Caucasus mountains. Force remains blindly obedient to Zeus, showing no pity for the Titan and respecting only Zeus’s pure power. Force’s attitude is realistic. When Hephestus laments that it was his skill at metallurgy that led Zeus to select him for the task of fastening Prometheus to the mountain, Force admonishes him, “Why blame your skill? These troubles here were never caused by it.” Force’s reverence for Zeus’s power leads him to error, however, when he states that “No one is free but Zeus.” As the drama unfolds, it is revealed that even Zeus remains subject to Necessity. Note that Force and Violence, who does not speak, travel together, one symbolizing power and the other the way power manifests itself. In spite of their power, Force, Violence, and even Zeus require the intelligence and foresight of Prometheus to understand the cosmos truly.
The god of fire, Hephestus has a distant relation with Prometheus through Uranos. As the god of fire, he is directly affected by Prometheus’s theft of fire and his subsequent gift of the element to humanity. Despite this challenge to his jurisdiction and power, however, Hephestus remains sympathetic to Prometheus’s suffering. Associated with the forge and volcanos, Hephestus pities Prometheus but does his duty, mostly because he fears Zeus.
Child of Zeus and Maia, Hermes is the messenger of the gods. He enters at the play’s end, trying to convince Prometheus to reveal the secret that will lead to Zeus’s downfall, but the Titan refuses. Hermes taunts Prometheus and threatens him with further punishment, but the Titan ridicules him. Young and inexperienced, Hermes proves a poor mediator between Zeus and Prometheus, ultimately appearing juvenile and intemperate
Niece of the Chorus, Io is the half-human daughter of a river god. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself desired by Zeus and therefore persecuted by his jealous wife Hera. She has been pursued and watched, first by Argos, whose thousand eyes never close, and then by a gadfly which seems Argos’s spirit. Like Prometheus, she too suffers the injustice of Zeus’s tyranny, though she is completely innocent of any transgression. Prometheus predicts that one of Io’s decedents, Hercules, will revenge her by overcoming Zeus and killing the eagle that daily feeds on Prometheus’s liver. This prediction becomes partially true: Hercules does kill the eagle, but Prometheus and Zeus reconcile, leaving Zeus ruler. Thematically, Io’s movement contrasts with Prometheus’s stasis. Physically, Io appears to be half woman-half cow.
A titan who rules the watery elements, he is brother to Earth, Prometheus’s mother, and so the rebel’s uncle and father to the Oceanid chorus. Pretentious and foppish, Ocean offers to intervene with Zeus on Prometheus’s behalf, showing off an influence with Zeus which he does not have. He advises reconciliation, but he cowers before Zeus’s authority. Some critics see him as comic relief. In his role as the foolish advisor, he is reminiscent of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Greek cosmology describes three generations of gods, (1) Heaven (Earth and Sky) and the Titans, (2) Kronos, and (3) Zeus and his Olympian hierarchy. Prometheus was the son of Iapetus, a Titan, and Clymene, an ocean nymph.
Prometheus helped Zeus defeat the Titans and helped eliminate conflicts among the gods by assigning each specific jurisdictions.
During this time, humanity, created, according to some versions of the myth, by Prometheus, lived a primitive existence without hope. Zeus decided to let humanity perish, so he could create a new race himself, but Prometheus pitied people and gave them fire stolen from heaven. Fire, as Prometheus explains in his monologue, brought with it technology and astronomy, mathematics and language, agriculture and medicine, but most of all, hope. Zeus, angered by Prometheus’s interference in his plans, punishes the Titan by impaling him on a mountain peak, where he is partially devoured by an eagle each day. Prometheus knows but refuses to tell how Zeus will fall. In time, Zeus gains sympathy and Prometheus humility. They reconcile. Zeus forgives the Titans and Prometheus. Acknowledging Zeus’s power, the rebel exchanges a chain of flowers for the metal chain he wore.
Guilt and Innocence
Aeschylus believed that the gods punished those guilty of human pride (hubris) by trapping them in a web of crime and revenge, from which only the gods could free them. While the reasons behind the gods’ actions remain mysterious, for Aeschylus, humanity must subordinate itself to divine will, which ultimately achieves justice. In Prometheus Bound, this notion of inherited guilt emerges during the Titan’s discussion of Necessity.
Love and Passion
Zeus feels lust for Io and follows her, hoping to seduce her. Although Io wants nothing to do with Zeus, he infects her dreams, causes her to be driven from her family and home, and sees her tormented by his jealous wife, Hera. His lust makes him behave unreasonably and Io, an innocent person, suffers because of him. According to classical ethics, as exemplified by Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, for example, moderate, reasonable behavior best suits one for a happy and ethical life.
Io’s suffering stems from the jealousy of Zeus’s wife, Hera. Suspecting Zeus of desiring this innocent woman, Hera has her followed by Argos, whose thousand eyes never entirely close and then tormented by a gadfly. Io has committed no offense, however, and suffers unjust punishment. Jealousy, like lust, interferes with a person’s judgement and makes them behave unreasonably.
Although the reasons for Prometheus’s rebellion may provoke sympathy, such behavior can disrupt social order. At the same time, Zeus’s tyrannical behavior deserves, even requires, resistance. Significantly, the play presents the conflict between two value systems personified by two powerful individuals. In Prometheus Bound, rebellion seems justified, though within what is known of the Prometheia trilogy, mercy and patience in the end become the order of the day.
To some degree, every generation of children finds themselves in conflict with their parents’ value system. Parents require obedience, children independence. Parents see their children in a specific way and act toward them according to that image. The children themselves may have outgrown that image, though, and see themselves differently. In any event, children must make a place for themselves
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- One of the questions raised by Prometheus Bound pertains to the meaning of justice and the power to make and enforce laws. Most readers would agree that Prometheus does no wrong in helping a suffering humanity which Zeus seems prepared to allow to perish. From Zeus’s point of view, though, Prometheus seems a rebel, going behind his ruler’s back and against his wishes. Have you encountered a similar situation in literature, a story from the news, or an episode from your life, one in which two different value systems compete to create an ethical dilemma? How would you make such a decision? More specifically, what criteria would you use to help you arrive at an ethical decision?
- Consider the issue of gender in Greek mythology and the ways it presents images of men and women. For example, both Prometheus and Io suffer because of Zeus, but the Titan, active, suffers as a consequence of his action, while Io, passive, suffers because Zeus finds her sexually attractive. Compare Io to Earth, who seems knowing and sympathetic. Or research other versions of the Prometheus myth. Based on further research into classical culture, how do Greek myths represent women? Men?
- In addition to fire, Prometheus Bound says that the Titan brought many gifts to humanity, including mathematics, language, medicine, and agriculture. Myths like this serve to explain the origins of a society, how it began and evolved. Study the role of mythology in creating social and cultural identity and as a vehicle of history and spirituality.
- Consider the the tale of Prometheus Bound from Zeus’s point of view. How might he view Prometheus’s rebellion, his interference with humanity, his threats? Can you present an image of Zeus that justifies Prometheus’s imprisonment?
in the world and do so with some degree of independence. Prometheus Bound presents a variety of parent-child relationships, from Kronos patricide to Zeus’s rebellion to the positive connection between Prometheus and his mother, Earth. Further reading in Classical mythology will reveal additional examples of fond and problematic family relations.
Atonement and Forgiveness
Most viewers see Prometheus, particularly as he appears in this first play of the Prometheia trilogy, as a benevolent rebel struggling against tyranny, suffering because of his love of humanity. In this respect, he resembles Jesus, who according to Christian theology suffered to save humanity. In art and religion, such struggle and pain is often linked with spirituality and redemption. A final element—forgiveness—also commonly occurs, as seen when Christ forgives his murderers (“Father forgive them for they know not what they do”) and, in what is known of the now lost Prometheus Unbound, when the rebellious Titan reconciles with Zeus.
Law and Order
On one level, Prometheus Bound presents a conflict between two models of law, one, Zeus’s, aligned with Power and another, Prometheus’s, identified with sympathy. From Zeus’s perspective, his monarchy requires obedience and Prometheus, by helping humanity, has broken the law and deserves punishment. Prometheus, however, has to negotiate between two codes of law, Zeus’s rule in which might makes right and his own, motivated by his pity for humanity. The play explores the relationships among law, justice, and mercy, the latter a theme of greater significance in the context of the three play trilogy, the Prometheia. From fragments of the now lost sequels, it is known that Prometheus does acknowledge Zeus’s law, exchanging his chains of steel for chains of flowers, and Zeus learns to show mercy, freeing the imprisoned Titans, including Prometheus.
In Greek tragedy, a dozen or so men comprise the chorus, who comment on and interpret the action unfolding on stage and underscore the play’s themes and conflicts. In many ways, they stand in for the audience. For example, the Oceanides react to Prometheus and Io much as the audience would; they ask the questions and express the emotions likely to arise during an audience’s viewing of the play. The Chorus performed their lyrics in song and dance, though the music and choreography have been lost.
According to Aristotle’s Poetics, a drama about an elevated hero who, because of some tragic character flaw or misdeed (a hamartia), brings ruin on himself. While not exactly a flaw, Prometheus’s love for humanity can be seen as the element of his character which precipitates his imprisonment, for it leads him to go against Zeus will and challenge his authority. Prometheus exhibits an element of pride (hubris) in his belief that he knows better than Zeus (even if it is agreed that, in his sympathetic attitude toward humanity, he does) and his desire for revenge against Zeus.
In a tragedy, the event or act that causes the hero’s or heroine’s downfall is known as hamartia. In Prometheus Bound, the Titan’s rebellion against Zeus in giving fire to humanity sets the tragedy in motion and leads to his imprisonment.
At the end of a successful tragedy, the spectators experience a release of energy, catharsis, because they have felt pity and fear, pity for the person suffering the tragic fate, then fear that a similar fate might befall them. Viewers might feel this toward Prometheus, afraid that they might find themselves facing an ethical dilemma on a grand scale. On the other hand, audiences might more generally experience catharsis in regard to Io, an innocent person who suffers through no fault of her own—the viewer hopes that such a capricious fate never strikes them.
During dramatic competition in Athens, held annually to celebrate the god Dionysus, called the Dionysia, winning playwrights presented a tetralogy of four related dramatic works, which usually consisted of three tragedies and a satyr play.
A broad comedy performed with three tragedies that usually burlesqued the same legend dramatized by the tragedies.
When Aeschylus was born in 525 B.C. outside Athens, the city could be characterized as an unimportant polis (i.e. city-state) ruled by the tyrant Hippias. In 510 B.C., a political reformer, Clisthenes, overthrew the tyrant and developed the government into a republic ruled democratically by the elite. Reforms lessened the power of the nobility and allowed non-noble landowners to participate in government. Though conflicts between the nobility and commoners (known as the demos, hence the word democracy) remained, Athens developed into a well governed city-state led by a vital, informed citizenry.
Those citizens proved to be competent soldiers as well and fought bravely against invasion by the Persian empire. Athens and the Greeks defeated the Persians, winning land and sea victories at Marathon (490 B.C.) and Salamis (480 B.C.), respectively, against numerically superior forces.
Athens’s victorious role in the Persian wars led to its selection as capital of the Dalian League, a collective of Greek city-states, and peace and prosperity led to a cultural flowering rarely equaled in
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 525-456 B.C.: In 510 B.C., a political reformer named Clisthenes overthrows the tyrant Hippias and establishes in Athens a republic ruled by popular democracy.
Today: Democracy in its various forms remains one of the most important philosophies of world government. While democracy today takes various forms—direct, representative, presidential, parliamentary—all these concepts have their genesis with the Attic republic.
- 525-456 B.C.: As the capital of the Dalian League, Athens evolves into a commercial and cultural center, with visitors and residents from throughout the known world. Teachers, artists, philosophers, and religious leaders gather at public forums to discuss their ideas and opinions.
Today: American society mirrors Athens in its emphasis on freedom of speech and religion, and its belief in the strength of diversity and multiculturalism.
- 525-456 B.C.: Theatre in Athens is largely comprised of a religious festival celebrating the god Dionysus. Very large outdoor theatres hold as many as 15,000 people in festivals which last several days.
Today: Theatre is a mostly secular form of entertainment. Plays are viewed in theatres much smaller than those of the Greeks. Festivals that celebrate drama still exist, though they pale in size to similar events featuring musical performers.
- 525-456 B.C.: In classical Greece, only the upper-and upper middle-classes of men receive an education. Generally, they study with tutors at home and then attend an academy such as the ones run by Plato and Aristotle.
Today: In America, compulsory education for all citizens through high school presents opportunities for men and women, as does the possibility of pursuing one’s studies by attending college.
history. Athens evolved into one of the most important cultural and trading centers in the world. The next century was considered a Greek Golden Age, which saw such dramatists as Sophocles and Aristophanes, as well as philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Greek tragedies like those of Aeschylus were performed in Athens as part of the Great Dionysia, an annual religious festival dedicated to the god Dionysus held in early Spring. First, a statue of Dionysus was removed from his temple within sight of the theatre, carried in procession to the country, and returned to Athens. Next followed four days of performances, three of tragedies and one of comedies. The tragedies were selected in a contest among competing dramatists, a contest which Aeschylus won thirteen times. Each winning dramatist then presented a tetralogy of three tragedies and a satyr play, in performances which began in the morning and lasted most of the day.
All of Athens became involved in the celebration. A local magistrate organized the procession and selected playwrights for the competition. He identified wealthy citizens to pay for masks and costumes and to select a chorus. Sponsors also may have had some input into selection of the contest judges and the plays selected for competition, though the playwright retained responsibility for his cast. Citizen judges swore to remain impartial and authorities severely punished misconduct of any kind during the celebration.
In Athens, performances took place outdoors in a huge theatre constructed on the hillside of the Acropolis. To imagine the theatre, picture a large, semi-circular fan. The orchestra, where the actors performed, and an altar, stood in the middle of the semi-circle. A stage building called a skene, in which actors donned masks and costumes, stood behind the orchestra. Stage sets of temples or landscapes could be displayed on the front of the skene. Benches for seating an audience of as many as 15,000 people radiated out around the orchestra. Women and children could attend, though they may have been seated apart from the men.
These theatre festivals began during the sixth century with displays of individual and choral songs and dancing. Credit for the first tragedy goes to Thespis in 536-533 B.C.; the play featured a Chorus of perhaps a dozen men and a single actor. Tragic theatre evolved under Aeschylus, who introduced the second actor, and developed further under Sophocles, who introduced the third. Actors wore masks and tunics, which may have been colored to indicate their roles (e.g. mourners in black, priests in white, kings in purple). Actors needed strong voices to make themselves heard in the large theatre and the ability to impersonate, since each actor played several characters in each play.
As the center of the Dalian League, Athens fast became the most important city in Greece, an intellectual and cultural as well as commercial and mercantile center. The Great Dionysia festival drew audiences from throughout the Mediterranean, and everyone from commoners to nobles, from merchants to ambassadors attended.
The title character of Prometheus Bound, perhaps more than any other hero, serves scholars as a sort of critical mirror. Reformers, for example, consider Prometheus a revolutionary hero, like Satan, a principled rebel who sacrifices himself for others, like Jesus, or an ethical individual who suffers in the face of absolute power, like Job. Authoritarian critics, on the other hand, understand Prometheus’s urge to save humanity but condemn his disregard for hierarchical authority in doing so. Freudian and psychoanalytic critics discuss the play’s complicated parent-child relations (e.g. Zeus’s overthrow of his father, Kronos; Prometheus’s connection with his mother). Historical and cultural critics discuss the play in terms of contemporary events, analyzing, for example, Aeschylus’s use of medical terminology in character dialogue and considering what this tells scholars about scientific knowledge at the time.
What may account for the popularity of Prometheus as a character is that fact that all these opinions seem right, if not in Prometheus Bound itself, then in the context of the Prometheia trilogy. Though two of the three plays have been lost, there exist enough fragments and commentary to understand how the story would have been resolved. The result is a rich and complex symbolic narrative of ideas.
Of foremost consideration is what the play tells audiences about Aeschylus’s thinking on the human condition and tragedy. Because Prometheus’s intervention to minimize human suffering comes from pity, Normand Berlin saw him as “a creature of feeling.” As Berlin wrote in The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy, Prometheus Bound offers “the tragic condition, here encompassing god and man, macrocosm and microcosm, and brilliantly displaying the contradictory perspective of tragedy, whereby the victorious tyrant is the victim of destiny and his defeated, suffering victim is victorious in possessing knowledge of that destiny—while intelligent mankind victoriously piercing through layer and after layer of ignorance and chaos, progressing in the course of time to mastery of his world, remains helpless beneath the arbitrary and dark control of both Zeus and destiny.”
On the other hand, some critics believe that present circumstance did play a role in Aeschylus’s choice and treatment of subject matter. They discuss the play’s exploration of themes like tyranny and revolution in the context of Athens’s evolution from tyranny to democracy which accompanied its defeat of the Persian Empire. As the play opens, Zeus’s cosmic government appears as brutal despotism. He acts, according to George Thomson, as a complete tyrant: ruling without laws, contemplating the murder of humanity, seducing female subjects, and suspicious even of his allies. For James Scully, Prometheus’s predicament resembles that of any political prisoner being brainwashed; he has been isolated by Zeus, tortured by Hephaistos and Force, and interrogated and brow-beaten by Hermes, an official of the police state.
Although Prometheus Bound dramatizes a righteous rebellion against a tyrant, Philo M. Buck, Jr. pointed out that it tells only part of the story. As the first part in a trilogy, much of which has been lost, the viewer must turn to existing fragments of the sequels to learn of Prometheus’s ultimate reconciliation with Zeus.
Buck believed that Zeus’s actions result from his inexperience as a leader and his unstable grasp on power. Zeus’s goal, to establish order after overthrowing the anarchy of the earlier divine rulers, seems laudable, and requires, at least initially, a strong ruler. Zeus must punish the disobedient Prometheus, despite his noble reasons for revolt. Still, according to fragments of the second and third plays in the Prometheia, Zeus later moderates his tyranny and learns mercy, forgiving the Titans and ultimately reconciling himself with Prometheus. Justice, according to Buck, must never be arbitrary but rather human and reasonable. If Prometheus, like Socrates, has been unjustly convicted, “he must wait for justice to release him. And this was done in the last and lost play, where allegorically the mutual claims of justice and mercy are reconciled in the reign of intelligent law.” Prometheus Bound, which explores such themes as justice, “the tyranny of the majority, the caprice of misdirected reformers,” conveys an important social message to “Athens, now embarked after the anarchy of the wars and the Tyrants in an effort to build a just constitution and establish human law.”
Finally, space and time, movement and stasis, memory and history all prove important motifs in Prometheus Bound. Almost no physical action takes place during the play, where the drama focuses on character. Consequently, stasis becomes thematically important. Central to the play are the conversations between Prometheus, doomed to remain trapped on a rock, and Io, a wanderer doomed to wander still farther. She tells Prometheus about her journeys and past, then Prometheus foretells her journeys and future. That prediction includes the story of Hercules, Io’s distant relation and avenger, whose life also consists of journeys and sufferings. According to myth, Prometheus aids Hercules by helping him accomplish his labors, after which Hercules kills the eagle which feeds on the Titan’s liver.
Zeus has victimized both Prometheus, who remains stationary, and Io, who seems doomed to wander. As Berlin pointed out, Io’s experiences “span the ages, while her wanderings which seem to take in the known world of the time, widen the canvas—so that Aeschylus’s Prometheus, having already presented the progress of human consciousness through the years, seems to gather all time and all space to itself, thereby making the mood of fatalism pervasive and extensive.” Thus, memory and foreknowledge—movement in time—connect with Io’s and Hercules’s journeying—movement in space. Together, their stories (and that of the Promethia) comprise a history that reaches from the rise of human civilization to the fifth century present, and takes in every country from one end of the known world to the other. Memory becomes history, while geography becomes empire.
In the end, regardless of which critic’s argument readers find most persuasive, Prometheus Bound remains a moving text that leaves everyone with plenty to think about. And ultimately, its story remains optimistic. As Scully observed in a translation of Prometheus Bound, the “general drift of the trilogy . . . [is] a universal progress from confusion and torment, at all levels of the universe, toward peace and joy.”
Schmidt is a professor of English at California State University, Stanislaus. In this essay he examines the myth of Prometheus, discussing the missing plays of the trilogy that concluded the Titan’s tale and also appraising Aeschylus’s play as a psychodrama—a struggle in personality and ethics between the title character and Zeus.
Poets and scholars have traditionally read the tale of Prometheus as a lesson in revolution, seeing the imprisoned Titan as an emblem of the lone individual in heroic rebellion against mindless tyranny. This view became more common during the French Revolution and Napoleonic periods of the nineteenth century, when Prometheus became a symbol first of freedom, and later, of the leader Napoleon himself. We encounter this image of Prometheus in poems by various Romantic era poets, in particular Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley, himself an accomplished classical scholar who translated works by Plato and the other notable Greek dramatists, wrote Prometheus Unbound, his version of Aeschylus’s work that speculates what might have occurred when the Titan became free.
Remember that Prometheus Bound forms only the first part of Aeschylus’s trilogy—commonly known as the Prometheia—whose other plays have been lost. We know, for example that the story of Prometheus Bound continued in Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bearer. Significantly, Shelley’s version ends with Zeus defeated, dragged down into darkness by Demogorgon, a figure of Necessity. Everything we know about Aeschylus’s version of the play, however, tells another tale, that of reconciliation between the rebel and the tyrant. While the romantic version retains a certain appeal in its representation of heroic individualism and its vision of redemptive love leading to an earthly utopia, Aeschylus’s version raises a different set of intriguing themes and questions. Enough fragments of the lost Prometheia plays remain to provide an outline of Aeschylus’s conclusion, indicating that after thousands of years, Zeus and Prometheus reconciled, the tyrant learning mercy and the rebel obedience.
If we consider Prometheus Bound in the context of themes laid out in the trilogy, the Prometheia
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Some have compared Prometheus with the figure of Satan, particularly the way Milton presents him in Paradise Lost, where his rebellion has political overtones. Students might consider what it means to be a hero and compare Satan with Milton’s version of the story. Samson Agonestes offers another tale in which a proud individual suffers, learns a lesson in humility and inner strength, and sacrifices himself for what seems a worthy cause.
- Prometheus Bound offers themes of law and justice that are familiar to many of William Shakespeare’s plays. Merchant of Venice explores the relationship between justice and mercy while Measure for Measure, treats the same themes from the perspective of the ideal ruler.
- The myth of Prometheus became tremendously popular during the nineteenth century. Two well-known retellings of the myth come from a husband and wife, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley’s version of the myth, her Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, is considered a masterpiece of horror fiction and has been adapted into numerous plays and films. Based on his study of Greek literature and philosophy, Percy Shelley composed what he believed might be a conclusion for Prometheus Bound, entitled Prometheus Unbound. Written in verse, many consider this his finest composition.
- After the French Revolution, the rebel Prometheus became synonymous with Napoleon and such romantic poets as Byron and Shelley wrote poems on this theme. For the historically minded, many good biographies tell the story of the Corsican who rose from artillery officer to Emperor of the French empire, though J. Christopher Herold’s The Age of Napoleon may be one place to begin. Several twentieth century figures take on Promethean dimensions, suffering individual pain while struggling against tyranny for the good of humanity, including Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King.
can be read as a psychological and political allegory, representing the human microcosm (i.e. the mind) and macrocosm (i.e. society). Arguably, the play suggests that freedom and authority must be balanced in any ethical person, leader, and/or society. We might see this as a shift in the notion of the hero, evolving from that of Homer’s Odysseus, a wily trickster given to spontaneity and temper, to the moderate, reasonable individual validated in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Since Homer comes before Aeschylus and Aristotle afterward, the Prometheia may mark a transition between these two models of the hero. After all, the Prometheus of Prometheus Bound resembles Odysseus in many ways, and what we know about the reconciled Prometheus of Prometheus Unbound exhibits many of the characteristics Aristotle applauds. This contradicts those wanting to read the Prometheus myth as solely a struggle between two absolutes: tyranny and freedom. Instead, being an ethical, individual ruler or society requires balance.
Prometheus faces a classic ethical dilemma, in which he must choose between two mutually exclusive systems of law. From the Olympian point of view, Prometheus wrongly disobeys authority, given classical society’s need and respect for hierarchy, but he acts with noble purpose, to save humanity from destruction. Like Antigone (who defied her ruler by performing a forbidden funeral ritual for her slain brother), Prometheus commits the lesser wrong—disobeying a tyrant—and prevents the greater wrong—the destruction of the helpless human race. Seen from the human perspective, Prometheus’s actions seem heroic, while seen from the vantage point of Olympus, they seem like betrayal.
So far, we have discussed what the Prometheia says about society, about the ruler and the ruled. By reading this play as a psychodrama, we can see that Zeus and Prometheus can represent two sides of a single personality. After all, their personalities share much in common: pride, temper, stubbornness, vengefulness. If at first this seems a stretch, consider that in many ways, Prometheus’s character and behavior appear ambiguous. He presents himself as the sympathetic champion of humanity, but he aided Zeus in overturning his father Kronos and the Titans. That means Prometheus also overturned the authority of his own father, the Titan Iapetus, who with the others ends up imprisoned in Tarturus.
This raises the question: why does Prometheus help humanity? He claims he feels pity for peoples’ suffering, but might part of his motive to be to challenge Zeus? After all, Prometheus, having already seen the overthrow of two dynasties, now participates in the founding of a third. Remember that Zeus cannot win without the help of Prometheus, who explains that Zeus will win, not by force, but by strategy, by freeing some giants who will fight against the Titans. Thus intelligence and not physical power alone allows the overthrow of Kronos and the rise of Zeus.
Hesiod’s Theogony describes three generations of gods, (1) Heaven (i.e. Earth and Sky [Uranus]) and the Titans, (2) Kronos, and (3) Zeus and his Olympian hierarchy. Kronos overturned his father Uranus just as Zeus overthrew him, so these first two dynasties prove violent and chaotic. Zeus’s reign eliminated the anarchy that existed among the Titans and earlier gods. His success cannot be viewed as a solitary success, however. Zeus created a sense of order because Prometheus assigned different jurisdictions to the various Olympian gods. Good social order comes from a balance between Zeus’s power and Prometheus’s intelligence. Neither can succeed entirely without the other. Given his importance to helping Zeus gain power, might not Prometheus feel too proud to be subservient?
If this accurately characterizes the struggle between the tyrant and the Titan, what makes Zeus change his mind? Much time has passed since Prometheus’s original offense, and Zeus has begun to soften—according to the Prometheia, in part because he pities Hercules, the mortal child he fathered with Io’s descendent Alcmene.
James Scully’s edition of Prometheus Bound contains several fragments from the lost trilogy. According to book four of his Geography, the Greek geographer Strabo (64 B.C. to 21 A.D.) quoted from the now lost version of Prometheus Unbound. Hercules, threatened during his Labor to retrieve the golden apples from the Hesperides. Prometheus predicts that Zeus will help Hercules, saying, “You’ll come upon / the Ligyes, a horde / that doesn’t know what fear is . . . / As fate has it: you’ll run out of weapons,. . . / But Zeus will see you / bewildered there / and pity you.” Zeus thus comes to Hercules’s aid and saves his life.
Zeus’s reconciliation with Prometheus involves a compromise on both their parts, with Zeus learning to feel pity and the Titan learning submission. Zeus indicates his victory gently, however. The Deipnosophistae, written about 200 A.D. by the Greco-Egyptian scholar Athenaeus, explained that in Prometheus Unbound, when Zeus frees Prometheus, the Titan agrees to substitute a chain of flowers for his chain of steel. Prometheus would wear the garland as painless punishment for his resistance to Zeus and as a symbol of his submission to his law and authority.
Love factors into the reconciliation, as illustrated by two predictions, Prometheus’s to Io and Hermes’s to Prometheus. Io, the half-mortal daughter of the sea god, has been pursued by Zeus. Zeus’s wife, Hera, has discovered his adulterous love for Io and punishes the innocent girl, having her followed first by Argos, whose thousand eyes watch her constantly, and then by a gadfly. Thus, through no fault of her own, Io falls victim to Zeus’s lust and Hera’s jealousy. In her conversation with Prometheus, he reveals that she will have a role in Zeus’s eventual fall.
Zeus will impregnate her, and one of her decedents will arrive in the Egyptian city of Canopus, where after five generations, fifty sisters will resist marriage with their “near of kin” and will murder the men. “One girl, bound by love’s spell, will change / her purpose, and she will not kill the man she lay beside,” and in time, “she will bear a kingly child” whose descendent, Hercules, will set the Titan free. After Hermes tells Prometheus about the eagle which will daily consume his liver, the messenger says the Titan will find “no ending to this agony / until a god will freely suffer for you, will take on him your pain, and in your stead / descend to where the sun is turned to darkness, / the black depths of death.” This occurs when Chiron, the immortal centaur renowned for his wisdom and virtue, agrees to die in Prometheus’s place.
According to E. A. Havelock, Prometheus Bound differs from most tragedies in which the hero fails and dies, because Prometheus triumphs and lives. Both Zeus and Prometheus have learned and grown in the process. As R. D. Murry pointed out in The Motif of Io in Aeschylus’s “Suppliants,” the “release of Io from her woes is to provide the initial indication of the increasing wisdom of Zeus and the concomitant sowing of the seeds of compassion for humanity.” Hercules’s freeing of Prometheus “marks the coming of age of the divine wisdom and the synthesis of Promethean knowledge and humanitarianism with the effective Jovian power. The trilogy is a paean in honor of the Greek mind, but above all an affirmation of the dignity of man and wise majesty of god, qualities attained through the perfecting course of evolution. Zeus the tyrant and Prometheus the forethinker coalesce” in a process of “learning through suffering.”
As we have seen, the Prometheia’s dramatic struggles between law and justice, mercy and punishment resonate with both individuals and society. Reading Prometheus Bound less as an object lesson about revolution and more as a resolution of ethical dilemmas becomes more meaningful if we situate the play within the context of Aeschylus’s historical moment. He wrote after the political reformer Clisthenes overthrew the tyrant Hippias and developed a republican government. Reforms lessened the power of the nobility and allowed non-noble landowners to participate in government. Conflicts between the nobility and commoners remained, however, and Athens had to develop an attitude of compromise and cooperation.
Thus, the same problems and challenges facing the characters in the Prometheia—crime and revenge, tyranny and revolution—also faced the young Attic republic. The citizens and rulers of Athens had to come to terms with these issues, and achieve balance freedom and authority, in themselves individually and in their society. This is in keeping with the way Scully described the “general drift of the trilogy . . . [as showing] a universal progress from confusion and torment, at all levels of the universe, toward peace and joy.”
Source: Arnold Schmidt for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.
J. M. Mossman
In this excerpt, Mossman discusses the imagery in Prometheus Bound, illustrating the large role it plays in relating the drama.
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Source: J. M. Mossman, “Chains of Imagery in Prometheus Bound,” in Classical Quarterly, Volume 46, no. i, June, 1996, pp. 58–67.
Goetsch discusses the techniques necessary for the staging of Prometheus Bound, while also addressing the debate over the play’s authorship. She concludes that it was possible for the play to have been written and performed during Aeschylus’s time (although she notes that someone other than Aeschylus could have been its author), discussing several key elements of the play and how they could have been staged.
Prometheus Bound is a peculiarly controversial play. Scholars continue to debate both its authorship and its date—not to mention its quality—with considerable passion and not inconsiderable arguments. The major reason for dating the play late in the fifth century B.C.E. and thereby denying Aeschylus’s authorship stems from the apparent demands for elaborate mechanical devices that were unavailable earlier in the century. A close examination, however, yields the opposite conclusion: performance of Prometheus does not require stage equipment or technology beyond what was available to Aeschylus in the early-mid fifth century B.C.E. In fact, within the performance traditions of Athens, Prometheus would have been easiest to produce before the skene was introduced into the Theater of Dionysus. Since the skene had to be in existence by the year 458, when Aeschylus produced the Oresteia, we have a terminus ante quem of about 460 B.C.E.
The idea of Prometheus as a play best enacted without a permanent scene-building in place has been with us at least since the time of Margarete Bieber, who pointed out that if Prometheus was to seem to disappear into the earth, it would be easiest to have the actor fall off the edge of the retaining wall at the back of the orchestra. Even this argument betrays the prejudices of a theatergoer accustomed to blackouts and curtains which allow actors to appear and disappear suddenly, an expectation that Prometheus must indeed be seen to be swallowed into the earth at the end of the play. Audiences, who had never known anything but outdoor performances in broad daylight and who were capable of accepting the convention of actually seeing actors waiting for hours or days at a certain place onstage suddenly take up positions and become characters, would not necessarily have required the same kind of realism. Conventions of representation in and out of the theater evolved over the course of the fifth century and down into the fourth, and Prometheus is a play written for the conventions belonging to the theater Aeschylus grew up with in the first half of the fifth century.
The most notable difficulties that Prometheus poses to a would-be producer are as follows: first, the binding of Prometheus to the rock; second, the entry of the chorus in their winged chariots; third, the entry of Okeanos on his four-footed bird; and fourth, the final cataclysm which engulfs Prometheus and the chorus. Each of these points has subsidiary problems, such as the fact that Okeanos and the chorus make no mention of or address to one another. The basic challenge involved in staging Prometheus can be expressed in fairly simple terms: how are all these flying characters to fly and how is the cataclysm to be effected?
“THE MAJOR REASON FOR DATING THE PLAY LATE IN THE FIFTH CENTURY B.C.E. AND THEREBY DENYING AESCHYLUS’S AUTHORSHIP STEMS FROM THE APPARENT DEMANDS FOR ELABORATE MECHANICAL DEVICES THAT WERE UNAVAILABLE EARLIER IN THE CENTURY”
Aeschylus scholars have taxed their imaginations to the fullest over these points and provided a great number of possible solutions, most of them a considerable strain on fifth-century technology. (Indeed, most of them would be a considerable strain on twentieth-century technology.) Most of them also assume the existence of both skene and mechane, except for N.G.L. Hammond, who holds out for a natural outcropping of rock at the edge of the orchestra as the site of Prometheus’s binding and prefers rolling mechanisms to flying mechanisms for the winged conveyances of Okeanos and his daughters. One of the biggest difficulties with this suggestion is that the cars would have to be propelled by their riders, and the scooter or skateboard type constructions which Hammond envisions would not only have been beyond the mechanical capability of fifth-century Athenians but would also have been useless on an unpaved surface. Donald Mastronarde suggests cars rolled onto the roof of the skene; others have claimed that all twelve or fifteen choreuts were swung from one or several cranes.
The problem with these proposed stagings goes beyond the purely practical issue of whether the stage equipment was up to it. As Oliver Taplin said in The Stagecraft of Aeschylus, “What on earth would be the point of this abnormal scenic technique?” Perhaps Aeschylus or one of his contemporaries or successors could have done it, but why bother?
Yet Taplin dismisses the simplest and most elegant solution, that the various spectacular flying effects were achieved by means of dance, almost as soon as he raises it. For how, he asks, could the chorus mime chariots and then step down from them? And how could Okeanos provide a “four-footed bird” by dancing alone?
These objections are trivial compared with the difficulties of any of the other proposals, and a more systematic examination of the possibilities of mimetic dance demonstrates that this simple and elegant solution is a viable one, perhaps the only viable one if we look at certain other indications of the text.
The very first lines of Prometheus stress the complete barrenness of the scene: “We are come to the farthest boundaries of earth, to the Scythian land, to a desert empty of mortal things” (1–2). Not much further on, Hephaistos refers to the “crag apart from humanity, where [Prometheus] will perceive neither voice nor body of mortals” (20–22). Both of these statements argue against the presence of a skene. No extant play which was written after the advent of the skene ignores its existence. Even in Euripides’s Suppliants, where no one goes inside the skene, it is important: Evadne commits suicide by jumping off of it. Sophocles transforms the skene into caves and groves, and Aristophanes into all manner of things, but all plays from the Oresteia onwards use it. Even though Eumenides ignores the skene in its latter half, the building is necessary to that play’s prologue and parodos. It is therefore hard to see where the skene would fit into the barren setting of Prometheus Bound.
The only thing referred to in the text of Prometheus which might conceivably be identified as the skene is the rock to which Prometheus is chained. And while a skene might be a sheer-cliffed crag as easily as a cave, pinioning Prometheus to it would make it difficult for the chorus to remain so long out of his sight. A real rock would be a more convincing rock than a wooden building would, and there was in fact no reason not to use one. The Persian sack of the Acropolis in 480/79 had left debris all over the Acropolis and Agora, and the process of clearing and rebuilding lasted late into the 440s. Although the floor of the orchestra was graded earth and not bedrock, it could easily have supported the weight of a rock the size of a column drum.
An actual rock has advantages besides visual verisimiltude. It would be solid enough to stand up to a good deal of lunging and struggling on Prometheus’s part, and to support real metal chains. It would make striking ringing noises when Hephaistos hammered it, providing the clangor to which the Oceanids respond. The noise would also contribute to the illusion, if such is necessary, that Prometheus’s very flesh is pierced during the binding process. The chains could in actuality be fixed to a single spike at the rear of the plinth so as to be easy to remove for the final exit. (Actual rocks and chains might not have been a problem for fifth-century theater technicians, but actual binding would have posed a severe difficulty to the actor playing Prometheus!)
So where in our skene-free performance space would this rock have been placed? A position at the center of the orchestra would be most convenient for the actor playing Prometheus, for both visual focus and acoustic clarity. Kratos, Bia, and Hephaistos could then drag Prometheus on from the stage-left eisodos, that is, the hostile side of the stage, and affix him to it, emphasizing by crossing that space the isolation to which they are leaving him. They are coming to Scythia from the known world, the Greek world, and are therefore traveling east, reinforcing the probability of a stage-left entrance.
This positioning would also place Prometheus far enough downstage that the chorus, Okeanos, Io, and Hermes could enter out of his sight, emphasizing his vulnerability by putting his back to the door, so to speak, as well as explaining the fact that he hears and smells the chorus before he sees them and that Io spots him long before he does her.
We come then to the second problem, the entry of the chorus. We have Prometheus, thoroughly, visibly bound, completely static, standing and obviously able to breathe well enough to sing, since he embarks on what he imagines will be a lonely lament. In this, however, he is mistaken. “What sound, what smell, comes to me without sight?” Prometheus asks at 115, and then indulges in a lengthy bout of speculation. At line 128, apparently still outside of Prometheus’s line of sight, the chorus assures him of its friendly intent.
An arrival by means of the mechane, if such were feasible, would at least account for the chorus’s being out of Prometheus’s line of sight. But while such an entrance might bring the Oceanids on the scene in motion, they would have to hover afterwards, creating a very still tableau. The point of choosing barefoot nymphs in winged vehicles for the chorus must surely have been to contrast their constant and rapid movement with Prometheus’s utter immobility, an effect which would have been completely lost if they had to hover on the crane or crowd together on the skene roof.
The freedom implicit in dancing, however, is entirely consistent with maintaining this contrast conceptually and visually. The racing contest of the chorus’s entry could begin just before Prometheus’s “What sound,” which itself could as easily refer to the playing of the musician who always accompanied the chorus as to running feet and fluttering wings. Athenian audiences were clearly willing to accept dancing as a representation of flying at least as late as the production of Aristophanes’s Birds in 414, when the chorus of birds appears at ground-level in the orchestra. If Prometheus is downstage center the chorus can enter via the stage-right eisodos (since they are friendly to Prometheus), “flying,” and remain out of Prometheus’s sight.
The wings themselves are a problem easily solved by means of long scarves or streamers like those used in Chinese dances of the Han period or the draperies of Loie Fuller. They would provide a spectacular visual effect and probably a rippling sound effect as well, which the chorus would need constant motion to maintain. (One reason the choral odes of Prometheus are so short may be the physical demands of the dancing.) And while we have no evidence for this particular technique in Greece, long strips of cloth were a common enough product of fifth-century Athens. Choruses of flying creatures had been in existence in Athens since at least the sixth century, so the representation of wings on stage was not an unusual problem for the fifth-century equivalent of a costume designer.
The objection which Taplin raises to the dance theory is, as previously mentioned, that the wings on which the Oceanids are flying are not their own: they claim to be carried on “winged chariots” (135). A streamer held in the hand is more obviously a separate object than one attached directly to a costume, but the fact that the chorus has to tell the audience that they are in chariots implies that the visual distinction was not immediately obvious. (In Agamemnon, for instance, Agamemnon does not make an explicit statement that his chariot is pulled by a horse, as the fact is unmistakable.) To “dismount” from the chariots, the choreuts would need only to set their streamers aside. In doing so they would most likely move to the edges of the orchestra so as not to risk tripping over the streamers in their later odes.
It is important in reconstructing the staging to get the chorus out of the way before Okeanos enters, and not only because they take no part in that scene. Even with a winged steed, Okeanos’s entrance would not have been very dramatic if the chorus was still flying around the orchestra. If the crane existed and he were on it, he might have managed to draw attention to himself despite their movement, but why should he be flying on a higher plane, and via a different scenic convention, than the chorus? And the motion/immobility dichotomy, the fact that his departing lines (393-6) indicate he has never dismounted or touched the ground, argue strongly for constant movement from Okeanos which would have been impossible if the actor were suspended in midair.
How, then, does Okeanos accomplish mimetic dance of his four-legged bird? By using another dancer, of course. Chinese lion-dancers and the Balinese Barong are both four-footed creatures animated by two dancers apiece, and provide obvious visual parallels to Okeanos’s mount? Neither one, however, supports a rider; and Athens’s own tradition appears to have allowed a single person to enact the role of a four-footed animal and dance while being ridden. Having a human being in the role of the gryphon certainly explains Okeanos’s ability to control it without reins.
Since Okeanos returns to his own home, he exits by the same route he entered. Io enters, like Okeanos and the chorus, from the known world, that is, from the West, but Prometheus specifically directs her to go East, toward the rising sun (707), so she exits by the opposite eisodos. Hermes will enter from the same direction to predict further doom.
We come then to the final challenge, the cataclysm which swallows Prometheus and the chorus. Dance again provides the simplest solution to the challenge of presenting an earthquake. Twelve choreuts, especially if accompanied by a drum, could very easily have produced a sound of the earth shaking and indeed an accompanying whirlwind, and could have swept Prometheus off in their midst when making a final exit—through, of course, the stage-left, eastern eisodos. (Simply unhooking the chains from the back of the rock would suffice to free him.)
I should add that those who live in earthquake prone areas readily believe that there is a tremor in progress: any rumbling noise can be mistaken for an earthquake. Modern lighting effects would be nice for the lightnings which Prometheus sees, but since lighting effects were totally impossible in fifth-century Athens, no one in the audience would have expected or missed them.
So we come to the end of the play and discover that it is perfectly possible to stage Prometheus with pre-skene technology, and far easier and less expensive than it would have been to try to use the mechane. On the basis of its staging alone, Prometheus Bound could be very early indeed. The language, however, continues to point to a later date of composition and performance. The brevity of the choral odes may be accounted for by the strenuous-ness of the dances, which would not leave the choreuts with enormous amounts of breath, but the other stylistic elements which Michael Griffith and others point out are not quite so easy to dismiss. For that reason I think that Prometheus is only just a pre-skene play, and dates to the late 460s. As for its authorship, I leave that to others to debate.
Source: Sallie Goetsch, “Staging and Date of Prometheus Bound,” in Theatre History Studies, Volume XV, June, 1995, pp.219–24.
Berlin, Normand. The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy, University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
Bullfinch, Thomas. Bullfinch’s Mythology, Avenel, 1979.
One of the best—if a bit old fashioned—collections of information on classical mythology, as well as on Arthurian legend and many other myths and legends.
Fitts, Dudley, editor. Greek Plays in Modern Translation, Dial, 1947.
Contains a selection of Greek plays, including King Oedipus translated by William Butler Yeats, and Prometheus Bound. It closes with insightful, though brief, comments on the various plays.
Havelock, E. A. The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, Beacon, 1951.
Breezy discussion of Aeschylus’s tragedy, though concluding with a particularly useful appendix on Hesiod’s Theogony, Aeschylus’s mythology, and the lost plays of the Prometheus cycle.
Herington, John. Aeschylus, Yale University Press, 1986.
This offers substantial background on Aeschylus’s worldview, his historical moment, and Greek theatrical conventions, as well as a chapter on each of the existing plays, including one on Prometheus Bound.
Hogan, James C. A Commentary on the Complete Greek Tragedies: Aeschylus, University of Chicago Press, 1984.
In addition to a solid introduction about Aeschylus and the Attic theatrical tradition, this book contains an almost line-by-line commentary on Aeschylus’s plays, including Prometheus Bound. Hogan clarifies vocabulary and mythology, and summarizes many commentators views on various crucial textual and critical issues.
McCall, Marsh H. Jr., editor. Aeschylus: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1972.
This fine essay collection discusses Aeschylus’s major plays as well as his tragic vision, though only one essay deals entirely with Prometheus Bound.
Scodel, Ruth. Aeschylus, Twayne, 1982.
With substantial material covering the playwright’s biography and Greek culture, it includes discussion of all the plays, with a chapter on Prometheus Bound. Of particular interest is the brief analysis of contemporary Greek scientific medical knowledge and Prometheus’s “condition.”
Scully, James and C. J. Herington. Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, Oxford University Press, 1975.
Along with a translation of the play, this boasts a good introduction and most important, an appendix containing existing fragments of the lost sequels to Prometheus Bound.
Thomson, George. “Prometheia” in Aeschylus: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp. 124-47.
Offers important background about Hesiod’s version of the Prometheus myth and the changes Aeschylus made in his dramatic adaptation. Also contains extensive material regarding the Prometheus cycle and discusses Prometheus Bound’s meaning in the context of those lost plays.
Thomson, George. Prometheus Bound, Cambridge University Press, 1932.
In addition to an edition of play, Thomson’s background and reference material situates the play in the context of Greek history and philosophy.