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Prometheus Bound

Aeschylus

Lines 128–284

Lines 1–127

Lines 285–560

Summary

The Oceanids, daughters of Oceanus, enter on winged chariots. They tell Prometheus that they hurried upon hearing the striking of metal. Prometheus points out his predicament, and the Oceanids say that his suffering brings tears to their eyes. They say that Olympus has new rulers, and Zeus follows only his own laws. Prometheus complains that he would prefer to have been cast into Tartarus rather than left out on display where any of the gods can see and laugh at him. The Oceanids reply that no one could be so hard-hearted as to laugh at Prometheus's suffering except Zeus himself.

Prometheus reveals that one day Zeus will find his own power in danger and will come to Prometheus for help and release him. The Chorus is shocked and frightened by Prometheus's harsh language and chides him for being too bold. He replies that it does not matter: in the end, Zeus will enter into friendship with him. The Oceanids ask Prometheus to tell them why Zeus is angry with him. Prometheus replies by recounting the story of Zeus's battle with the Titans. Prometheus had tried to convince the Titans to use guile instead of force, but they didn't listen to him or his mother's prophesy that guile would win out. Seeing no other choice, Prometheus and his mother joined Zeus and helped him defeat the Titans. Zeus punishes him because, as all true tyrants, he does not trust his friends. Zeus planned to wipe out humanity, and Prometheus was the only one who stood in his way. He pitied humanity more than he pitied himself.

The Chorus continues to express their sympathy and then asks Prometheus whether he did anything else. Prometheus replies that he gave mortals hope and deprived them of the ability to see their own destruction. Finally, he mentions that he gave them fire. At this, the Chorus replies that what he did was wrong and he should look for a way out. Prometheus responds that for someone safe from trouble it is easy to give advice to someone who is in it. He states that he knowingly brought his suffering on himself and asks the Chorus to come down to earth so he can tell them his story. The Oceanids agree.

Analysis

This section develops the important notion of friendship and its relation to pity. In the preceding dialogue between Hephaestus and Kratus we have already seen repeated mention of this relation. Hephaestus says that he cannot help but pity Prometheus because of their bonds of kinship and friendship, and he criticizes Kratus for lacking these feelings. Whereas Kratus said that pity is pointless, in the appearance of the Oceanids we can clearly see that it is not. Prometheus worries that his enemies can look at him and laugh, but recognizes that his friends will be pained by his suffering and will pity him. Pity is clearly presented as a positive value, as Prometheus's pity for humanity saved the human race. Furthermore, the only ones shown lacking pity are the tyrannical Zeus and his mindless servants. Prometheus scorns Zeus for not trusting his friends. He sees his punishment as deserved, since he brought it on himself, but also as unjust, since Zeus has violated the bonds of friendship. What makes Zeus a tyrant is precisely that he lacks pity. Both the Chorus and Prometheus suggest that Zeus follows laws that are only his own. Any reconciliation between Prometheus and Zeus must involve Zeus adopting the value of friendship over his own arbitrary rule.

This section first introduces Prometheus's prophesy of Zeus's downfall, which provides him with a power that Zeus lacks. Although he suffers, Prometheus is certain that Zeus will eventually be forced to free him and compensate him for his suffering. His knowledge serves as a counterweight to Zeus's strength. Prometheus goes beyond insisting that Zeus will free him, and he claims that one day the two of them will be friends. Since friendship is a positive value that Zeus has unjustly violated in his tyranny, Prometheus is in effect suggesting that his own power, or his knowledge of the future, will serve to reestablish universal harmony by restoring friendship to its proper place in the universe. Prometheus thus seems to have a reasonable and balanced view of his suffering: eventually it will lead to a balancing out of the proper values.

On the other hand, Prometheus is clearly extreme in his condemnation of Zeus's tyranny, and Aeschylus emphasizes this fact. When the Oceanids ask why Prometheus is being punished, he takes a very long time to tell them. Instead of starting by explaining why Zeus is angry with him, he first explains why he is angry with Zeus: Zeus has violated the bonds of friendship. This reversal demonstrates Prometheus's priorities in the play. Prometheus is focused on his hatred of Zeus and considers his own provocation of Zeus unimportant. After mentioning some other things he has done for humanity, Prometheus finally admits that he stole fire from the gods. He mentions this in an off-hand way, as if it were of no importance. When the Oceanids attempt to tell Prometheus that what he did was wrong, he brushes them aside, saying that it is easy for them to talk since they are not being punished. Prometheus's speeches are meant to draw our attention to Zeus's tyranny rather than Prometheus's crime, and Aeschylus underscores this by the opposition between the protagonist and the Chorus. The Oceanids are sympathetic, but they are also cautionary. Though they recognize that Zeus is unjust and tyrannical, they also believe that Prometheus has done wrong and should attempt to reach a reconciliation with Zeus instead of antagonizing him further.

The work suggests that Prometheus is far more important than a fire-bringer. He has also given human beings blind hope and deprived them of the power to see their deaths. Prometheus, since he is immortal, can take some comfort in his foreknowledge. Human beings, on the other hand, would be unable to function if they could see their deaths. Once one knows the limits of one's life, that life seems to lose meaning. Hope, on the other hand, allows human beings to strive toward a goal without knowing whether that goal can be reached. Hope, then, is a psychological mindset necessary for progress. Fire, is the root of art and technology as Hephaestus and Prometheus have both mentioned. Thus, it is a tool needed for progress. By providing humanity with both hope and fire, Prometheus has equipped human beings to attain progress. This contrasts sharply with an earlier Greek worldview. Hesiod believed that the world had moved progressively from the paradise of the Golden Age through the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and finally the most miserable of all, the Iron Age. Without explicitly rejecting the old view that humanity has slowly been going downhill, Aeschylus advocates a more optimistic belief that progress, fueled by hope and attained through technology, will steadily improve human life.

Prometheus's account of the war between Zeus and the Titans demonstrates an interesting feature of the way the gods carry out their business—that conflicts between gods are painted as politics as usual. Prometheus did not exactly help Zeus out of friendship, and it is not entirely fair to accuse Zeus of violating friendship. Rather, Zeus violated a political alliance. Prometheus first sided with the Titans, but since they would not listen to him, he took what he considered the best option and sided with Zeus. Earth, Prometheus's mother, predicted that guile, or intelligence, would win over force. This was what Prometheus brought to Zeus after the Titans had rejected it, ensuring the new tyrant's victory. Like Zeus, then, Prometheus is guilty of betraying former allies. The political nature of the gods' rule also helps to explain what many scholars see as a serious difficulty with the play. Zeus is clearly angry with Prometheus, will not cooperate, and dominates entirely through force. The trilogy almost certainly ends, as we have seen and as Prometheus has prophesied, with a reconciliation and "friendship" between the two gods. This raises the question of whether Zeus somehow matures and grows wiser in the intervening time. Some formidable Greek scholars insist that, according to the logic of Greek myth, Zeus must remain eternally unchanging in character. The political model explains the possibility of future reconciliation between Prometheus and this unchanging Zeus. Zeus joined with Prometheus when he needed him, and broke the alliance when it threatened him. In the future, faced with a greater threat, Zeus will simply have to reestablish his alliance to secure his throne. No maturation is needed here; only political prudence is called upon.

The role of intelligence in establishing power is also important. Certainly the case is not a simple one of Zeus as force and Prometheus as intelligence. Yet Prometheus's intelligence does seem to be what helped establish Zeus's power. The suggestion is that neither force nor intelligence can survive on its own. Nothing good can come of facing the two off against each other. Intelligence is an essential component in tilting the balance of power from one side to another. This is interesting also because intelligence is precisely what Prometheus gives to humanity, as we will see in the next section. The importance of intelligence in deciding who holds power suggests that Prometheus has aided humanity in raising its resistance to the forces of nature.

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