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Prometheus Bound

Aeschylus

Lines 1–127

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Lines 128–284

Summary

Kratus and Bia carry Prometheus to a mountain in the Caucasus. Hephaestus follows them. Kratus explains that this is where Prometheus must be chained to a rock on the orders of Zeus in punishment for giving fire to human beings. Prometheus is expected to learn to like Zeus and stop liking humans. Hephaestus, whose job it is to bind Prometheus to the mountain, groans that he finds it difficult to do this to a fellow god. He explains, however, that he has no choice but to obey Zeus. Prometheus must be punished for stealing fire from the gods and unjustly giving it to mortals. He will remain there for a long time because his liberator has not been born yet. Hephaestus mentions that Prometheus will be unable to soften Zeus's heart for a long time, since Zeus is harsh like all new rulers.

Kratus urges Hephaestus on, asking why Hephaestus does not hate the enemy of the gods. Hephaestus explains that friendship binds them, but Kratus replies that the word of Zeus should have the most weight. Hephaestus mourns that as the blacksmith he has been given this task and accuses Kratus of being heartless and ruthless. Kratus replies that the punishment has nothing to do with Hephaestus's talent as blacksmith, but that Prometheus alone brought it on himself. There is no point in pity or reluctance since the punishment must be carried out regardless. One should be afraid of disobeying Zeus, and questioning Zeus's orders is dangerous. Once Hephaestus has finished attaching the bonds, Kratus tells Prometheus that he was foolish to help mortals because now they cannot help him. Hephaestus, Kratus, and Bia leave.

Prometheus calls upon the forces of nature to witness his torture at the hands of his fellow gods, particularly at the hands of Zeus, the new ruler. Prometheus questions how long he will remain bound to the mountain, but quickly corrects himself, remembering that he already knows everything that will happen. Nothing that can happen will be new to him, so he must find the best way to deal with his fate since no one can fight against destiny. Prometheus again repeats what Hephaestus has already said: he is being punished for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to human beings, who have learned all the arts from it. Suddenly the sound of wings approaches, and Prometheus asks what this sound is, exclaiming that he fears everything that comes his way.

Analysis

Kratus's name means "force" or "might" in ancient Greek, while Bia means "violence." Greek myth commonly personifies abstract concepts, as well as forces of nature, as gods. In Aeschylus's hands, however, the names are part of his wider poetic scheme. Zeus himself never appears, but is constantly referred to. Possibly there were restrictions on representing Zeus, greatest of the gods, as a character on stage. Zeus's absence and his replacement on stage by Force and Violence, add to the effect of the drama. Zeus governs the world from a distance and acts through his agents. The simple fact that his representatives are Force and Violence gives us an immediate intimation as to Zeus's character, as he rules only through brute force.

At first it seems a little odd that only two of the four characters on stage actually speak, especially since both of them address a silent Prometheus to no effect. This seems less odd if we realize that the simplicity of a two-way conversation greatly reduces clutter. Bia does not need to speak, since we may assume he would only echo the words of Kratus. Prometheus, although he is directly addressed, would only confuse the action by answering. Aeschylus clearly wants Zeus's servants to express their views of Prometheus before we hear the other side from Prometheus himself. Furthermore, since this is the prologue to the tragedy, Aeschylus wants to explain events as simply as possible, without introducing a third viewpoint when two are already being presented. Prometheus's own silence also serves as a sign of his resolution. No matter how strong his suffering, he will not speak to his oppressors. Besides telling us the reason for Prometheus's punishment, the first dialogue introduces us to an important distinction between Kratus and Hephaestus. While both must follow Zeus's orders, Hephaestus does so against his own will while Kratus carries out Zeus's orders without thinking. The two gods are archetypes of servants: the willing and the unwilling collaborators.

Aeschylus's uses the opening dialogues to clearly paint the scene of the action. Kratus refers to the area as "the world's limit… an untrodden desolation." References are made to the high rocks, the hot sun, and the night cold. As soon as he speaks, Prometheus immediately invokes the surrounding elements: the ocean, the earth, the wind, and the sun. Both Hephaestus and Prometheus also mention the longs stretch of time for which Prometheus is to be confined to the rock. Greek tragic drama was distinguished by unity of place and time: the scene could not change, and the action had to take place all at once. Aeschylus uses these lines to expand the audience's perception of both the location and the time of action. Furthermore, both serve to underscore Prometheus's isolation. The human beings on whose behalf he is punished will not be able to see him so far away from all civilization. He is left completely alone with the elements.

Aeschylus twice relies on ironic foreshadowing. Hephaestus comments that the man who can free Prometheus has not been born. Though Hephaestus means only that human beings are too weak to free Prometheus, his statement is in fact literally true. The Greek audience watching the play most likely knew that in the end Hercules, who has not been born yet, frees Prometheus. In another ironic comment, Kratus mockingly tells Prometheus that he will need foresight to escape from his imprisonment. Prometheus's name actually means foresight, and Kratus's remark is meant to ridicule the uselessness of foresight as well as the powerlessness of Prometheus. As we will soon see, however, Prometheus's foresight is exactly what he counts on to secure his eventual release.

Prometheus's crime is not as simple as it first appears. It is true that he is punished primarily for stealing fire and giving it to mortals. Comments by all three speakers here make clear that Prometheus is also being punished for loving humanity. Mythical accounts differ, but some suggest that Prometheus actually created human beings. As he reveals later in the play, he has also taught them almost everything of value. According to Hesiod, the earliest known writer of Greek myth, Zeus planned to destroy humanity by demanding that parts of animals slaughtered for food be sacrificed to him. Prometheus wrapped the bones in fat to make them look appetizing and tricked Zeus into accepting this part as his sacrifice while human beings kept the meat. This support for human beings in clear opposition to Zeus is the underlying reason for Prometheus's punishment. Finally, as Hephaestus emphasizes, Prometheus has betrayed his fellow gods by stealing the power of fire from them and giving it to undeserving mortals. Besides violating the laws of the gods, Prometheus has also disturbed the universal balance of power.

Kratus draws our attention to the most important conflict of the play: that between thought and force. Prometheus the thinker is bound by the brute strength of Zeus's agents. Kratus mentions that Prometheus is cunning and must be secured tightly to the rock to ensure he cannot escape. The power of Zeus is clearly contrasted with the seemingly useless forethought of Prometheus.

Aeschylus emphasizes the importance of necessity and its relation to time. Human beings are referred to as "creatures of a day," and so clearly inferior to the immortal gods. But while Zeus is immortal, he is not therefore an eternal ruler. Zeus's father Chronus overthrew his own father Uranus, and Zeus in turn overthrew Chronus. Chronus, like Prometheus, was one of the Titans and belonged to the older ruling class. Zeus is one of the younger gods, and the fact that he is a "new" ruler is mentioned repeatedly. The newness of Zeus's reign suggests that his position is not as stable as he would like to believe. Prometheus reveals that he has knowledge of the future and can see the extent of Zeus's power through time. As Prometheus tells us, the ultimate power is not Zeus, but necessity. Even the gods must live out their fate, and all they do is preordained. The important message here is that the passage of time is governed by necessity, by which both the mortals and the immortals are trapped. The gods may be superior to human beings, but the gap between them is not as wide as Zeus believes.

At the end of his first monologue, Prometheus hears the rustling of something approaching on wings. Having the gift of prophecy, Prometheus most likely knows that Zeus will in the future send an eagle to gnaw on his liver. Knowing this, Prometheus has reason to be afraid of anything approaching on wings. The threat of someone approaching from the sky is repeated throughout the play. Besides the Chorus, Oceanus and Hermes fly in from above. The sky is also the seat of Zeus's power, and he throws lightning bolts from above. The threat from above is particularly sharp for Prometheus in contrast to his own position. He is chained to the rock and cannot move, while others—whether friends or enemies—are free to fly around him.

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