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Prometheus Bound

Aeschylus

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Plot Overview

Aeschylus was born in 525 B.C. Eleusis, his birthplace, was known for its mystical rituals of worship to the Earth goddess Demeter. Biographers enjoy attributing the mysticism of the author's plays to this early influence. According to legend, Dionysus, the god of wine and drama, appeared to Aeschylus in a dream and told him to write tragedies, which the seventeen-year-old easily proceeded to do. He spent much of his life in Athens, where he witnessed political and social changes that almost certainly influenced his plays: Prometheus's rebellion against tyranny could only have been invented by an author who had seen firsthand the collapse of tyranny, the introduction of a constitution, and the slow maturation of the world's first democracy. Aeschylus fought against the Persians who invaded Athens and lost his brother in the final battle. A play, The Persians, draws on his experience. His tragedies also reflect the cultural shift in Athens, as new scientific and philosophical ideas threatened to supplant traditional faith in the gods. Aeschylus died honored and revered as a poet, though apparently under unusual circumstances. An eagle, trying to crack open a turtle by dropping it on something hard, had difficulty distinguishing bald heads from rocks. We are not told whether the turtle shell cracked, but Aeschylus's head certainly did.

Aeschylus is credited with inventing drama. Contemporary theater has more in common with the tragedies of Aeschylus than the latter had with previous drama. Before Aeschylus, drama involved a single actor on stage speaking in monologues while a chorus offered extensive commentary. Aeschylus introduced a second actor on stage, allowing for action and interaction to take place and establishing a caste of professional actors. He let the chorus converse with the characters, introduced elaborate costumes and stage designs, and wrote a good deal of material for the stage himself. Over eighty plays are credited to his name, of which only seven have been preserved in full by the efforts of ancient grammarians who considered these particular tragedies appropriate material for instructing schoolboys.

Of the Aeschylean tragedies passed down to us, Prometheus Bound may be the most significant for the intellectual history of Western civilization, with its rebellious spirit and faith in human progress. The play also presents the greatest number of difficulties for scholars. First and foremost is the problem of authorship. Throughout the history of Greek scholarship, experts have trusted historiographers from the third century B.C. who attributed the tragedy to Aeschylus. Recent examination, however, has shown that Prometheus Bound differs substantially from Aeschylus's other plays in subject matter, character portrayal, setting, and, most importantly, meter and style. Some have gone so far as to argue that certain linguistic turns and philosophical ideas expressed in the tragedy simply were not available to playwrights before 456 B.C., the year of Aeschylus's death. Most of the differences with the other plays can be explained away, but the fact that there are so many differences that require explanation suggests that the problem of authorship cannot be ignored. A more likely alternative to the traditional view is that either a follower of Aeschylus wrote the play, or that Aeschylus had written some of the play and a later playwright finished it off for him.

A second difficulty is the dearth of information on the other tragedies in the series. Greek tragedians wrote trilogies for festivals, and scholars tend to assume that there was in fact a Prometheus trilogy. We have the names of two further plays: Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire Bringer. These almost certainly followed Prometheus Bound and their existence suggests that the traditional view of the tragedy should be revised. Prometheus Bound has always been seen as a call to rebellion against an unjust god. Christian writers have condemned it, while atheists and Romantics have almost turned it into a manifesto. Both sides were probably too hasty to jump to conclusions. A Greek playwright of Aeschylus's stature could not conceivably have let things stand as they do at the end of Prometheus Bound, with Prometheus up in arms against Zeus.

Foreshadowing in the play itself clearly presumes a resolution and reconciliation between the two enemies. Furthermore, as every Greek knew, Zeus was not defeated by his offspring as Prometheus predicts, which means that Prometheus must have warned him how to avoid the fall. Existing fragments of Prometheus Unbound imply that Zeus has mellowed out and let his former enemies, the Titans, out of their imprisonment. It is certain that Heracles appeared in the later play and killed the eagle tormenting Prometheus. Reconciliation must ultimately have occurred to satisfy Prometheus's prophesies in the first part of the trilogy, ancient Greek morality also demands such reconciliation. The Greeks wholeheartedly opposed extremes of all kinds: tragic heroes were repeatedly doomed through excessive pride. This in itself suggests that neither Zeus nor Prometheus could have been left hate-filled and overly proud at the end of the trilogy. The story of Prometheus is certainly a story of rebellion and an allegory about humanity's struggle with nature through perseverance and intelligence. But it must also be a story of maturation, reconciliation, friendship, and the reestablishment of a balance between god and Titan, as well as humanity and nature.

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