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Prometheus Bound

Aeschylus

Lines 907–1093

Lines 561–906

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Prometheus shouts out his prophecy that Zeus, though he is confident now, will one day be destroyed by a far more powerful offspring who will be a better fighter and have recourse to greater weapons. This will fulfill the curse of Chronus, Zeus's own deposed father. Only Prometheus himself can prevent Zeus's downfall. The Chorus suggests that this is, perhaps, only Prometheus's wish, yet Prometheus replies that it will nevertheless happen. When the Chorus replies that Zeus might send further tortures and Prometheus should not say such things, Prometheus replies that the Oceanids may worship whomever they choose, but he himself foresees his tortures and is prepared for them.

Hermes, Zeus's messenger, enters and demands that Prometheus disclose the secret of Zeus's dangerous marriage. Prometheus responds that he is not afraid of these new gods, and that he will reveal nothing. Hermes exclaims that this sort of stubbornness is what got Prometheus in trouble in the first place, and Prometheus answers that he would rather be chained to the rock than be a slave to Zeus. Hermes accuses him of lacking wisdom. Prometheus mocks Hermes for thinking that he can be convinced to save Zeus through threats. Only his release will entice him to speak. Hermes threatens that Prometheus will be entombed within the rock and taken down to Tartarus, from which he will emerge much later only to have an eagle daily feast on his liver. This punishment will not end until another god agrees to go to Tartarus and take Prometheus's place.

The Chorus suggests that Hermes words are somewhat sensible, and Prometheus should put aside his stubbornness, but he replies that there is nothing shameful in suffering at the hand of an enemy and call on the earth to shake and take him into Tartarus amid bolts of lightning. Hermes responds that Prometheus is mad and tells the sympathetic Chorus to leave before they find themselves in the way of the coming thunder. The Oceanids turn on him, saying that they will stay with Prometheus because to betray a friend is the lowest act of all. Hermes responds that they should then not blame Zeus for their troubles, but realizes that they have brought them on themselves. Prometheus describes the storm around him and calls on Earth and Heaven to witness his suffering.

Analysis

In this final and climactic section, the conflict between Zeus and Prometheus is stripped down to its most basic elements. Prometheus's love of humanity is not mentioned at all, and his theft of fire is only referred to once. Instead, the conflict is now presented as arising from Prometheus's refusal to obey Zeus's arbitrary laws. Zeus is once again shown to rule only through threats, while Prometheus's power lies in his refusal to cave in to those threats. He, too, has a powerful weapon against Zeus—his knowledge of the future marriage that will ruin the god—but he will not reveal it unless Zeus ends his threats and extends his friendship. Prometheus responds only to friendship and he will not answer to threats. Zeus rules only by threats and violates friendships. Both are extreme and obstinate in these positions. This is the essential nature of the conflict emphasized here.

The content of Prometheus's prophecies has reached the same extreme stage as his conflict with Zeus. While he has retained his temper so far, he now shouts out that Zeus will be destroyed, prompting Hermes's visit and the subsequent punishment. Prometheus has come to a stage in his development where he chooses to exacerbate the conflict rather than simply waiting for it to blow over. In the course of the play, Prometheus has gone through three stages in telling his prophecies. First, he spoke of his secret knowledge of Zeus's marriage as a means to his eventual deliverance and reconciliation with Zeus. In Io's presence, he spoke of his deliverance and Zeus's downfall without mention of any reconciliation. Here, in the final section, Prometheus speaks only of Zeus's downfall and practically ignores everything else. It seems odd that Prometheus's prophecy is now clearly false, since we know that Zeus was not defeated by his offspring. The explanation of why Prometheus would offer false prophecy seems to be that, in a sense, he is "only human." In other words, he sees two possible outcomes in the future, and he chooses one of those to insist on based on the extremity of his anger, which is now at its peak.

To emphasize the preceding point, we can note that reconciliation is mentioned only twice in this entire section, but the context in both cases is not one of prophecy. The first of these mentions is in a sarcastic context directed at Hermes. Prometheus states simply that he would be happy to repay kindness with kindness. Since Hermes does not seem to consider reconciliation a real possibility, the statement is clearly a sarcastic one designed to poke fun at Hermes attempts to elicit information. The second mention occurs when Prometheus insists that only his freedom will get him to talk, while threats are useless. Again, the intention here is not to suggest release and reconciliation as a possible future event, but only to contrast Zeus's way of doing business with Prometheus's own, since obedience is placed in opposition to friendship. Angered by Io's suffering and Hermes's arrogance, Prometheus seems to have abandoned reconciliation with Zeus as a possibility and awaits only Zeus's destruction. We see this state of mind echoed in Prometheus's utterances, as he has here switched from the conditional tense entirely to the future tense in speaking of Zeus's downfall. When Prometheus states that "time in its aging course teaches all things," he is saying not that Zeus will one day learn friendship, but only that he will one day understand suffering from personal experience.

Prometheus's take on his imprisonment is particularly interesting when he compares himself with Hermes. "When I set my misfortune against your slavery, I would not change," he says. Prometheus's point is that, while Hermes is free to move around, he is still a slave because he obeys Zeus completely. Unlike Oceanus and Hephaestus, Zeus's other servants in this play, Hermes can feel neither pity nor friendship because he acts and thinks only in agreement with Zeus's orders. Hermes is subject to the same criticism that Hephaestus levies at the opening of the play against Kratus: "In you the command of Zeus has its perfect fulfillment: in you there is nothing to stand in its way." The same cannot be said of Prometheus. The Oceanids have said that he is punished because he "did not tremble at the name of Zeus: your mind was yours, not his." This is Prometheus's true sin: he thinks for himself. His intelligence is in conflict with Zeus's demand for absolute obedience, and he suffers as a result. Hermes recognizes this, accusing Prometheus of being "a colt new broken, with the bit clenched in its teeth, fighting against the reigns." Hermes is then perfectly aware that he is himself a slave to Zeus; he simply believes that it is more prudent to serve the greatest power than to think for oneself and come into conflict with it. Again, this sentiment echoes one made by Kratus at the beginning of the play: "there is nothing without discomfort except the overlordship of the Gods, for only Zeus is free." Zeus's servants recognize that they are not free, but they fear disobeying Zeus so much that they match their thoughts entirely to his orders. Prometheus, however, shows that one can remain free even in bondage, since freedom of thought may still survive despite fear of punishment.

Hermes is ironically blind to his predicament. "Obstinacy standing alone is the weakest of all things in one whose mind is not possessed by wisdom," he tells Prometheus. The irony is that this statement applies much more strongly to Zeus. Zeus is obstinate without wisdom, since he refuses to free Prometheus even though that is his only chance at survival. Prometheus, on the other hand, has only his wisdom to hold on to. Zeus is strength without wisdom, while Prometheus is wisdom without strength. The resolution of the conflict can come only when strength and wisdom are united in reconciliation between Zeus and Prometheus. Aeschylus, having hinted at this future reconciliation through much of the play, makes it seem more and more unlikely in this final section, as he escalates the conflict rather than extinguishing it. Aeschylus is also the master of reversals. One of his greatest dramatic talents is the establishment of an insolvable conflict, followed by a solution. An ultimate resolution is almost necessary, if only because without it the irony in the play will not work. Most of the irony, like that in the above statement by Hermes, is geared to an audience that understands that a resolution will come. Every time a servant of Zeus suggests that Prometheus lacks forethought or wisdom, the joke's on them.

Interestingly, Prometheus accepts that he has tragic flaws, such as hubris and lack of self-discipline. But instead of attempting to do away with these flaws, he dismisses them with sarcasm in several witty exchanges. When Hermes accuses him of being mad, Prometheus replies that he really is mad if madness means hating one's enemies. He easily turns his hubris against Hermes, who accuses him of having too much hubris, when he states that it is fitting to have hubris when speaking to those who already have too much hubris. Another often poorly translated passage serves best to express Prometheus's sarcastic wit. Hermes insists that Prometheus has not yet learned self-discipline. Yet the Greek word Hermes uses for self-discipline also means "sound judgment," and Prometheus does not miss a beat when he replies that it is true, since if he had learned sound judgment he would not be speaking with a servant. We also saw something similar earlier when the Chorus told Prometheus he had erred, he answered that he erred willingly, which is an oxymoron. Here Prometheus is distinguished from other heroes of Greek tragedy. Usually, those heroes show too much hubris and they are punished for it. Prometheus, too, is punished for having too much hubris. But unlike others, he does not deny his tragic flaws. He accepts them with a cheery sarcasm and the belief that they are only "flaws" in the flawed world of Zeus's rule. He believes that there is nothing wrong with him; instead it is Zeus's entire order that is mistaken.

The transformation of the Chorus serves to further reinforce Prometheus's value system. The function of the Chorus is to serve as a morally neutral advisor that attempts to convince the hero to turn from his excesses. The Oceanids do just that throughout the play. At the end, however, having failed to change Prometheus's mind, they disobey Hermes's command and choose instead to stay with Prometheus. The betrayal of friendship, they say, is the basest of all possible crimes. This change in the Chorus is carefully orchestrated to reinforce Prometheus's position. The value they have chosen to uphold is friendship. And they have decided to stick with friendship even against Zeus's overbearing power. Furthermore, since the Oceanids can get nothing from Prometheus in return for their devotion, they have subscribed to the same notion of friendship for which they earlier criticized Prometheus. Just as he helped human beings who cannot save him from Zeus, so the Oceanids stay with him even though he is trapped and can do nothing for them.

Finally, an interesting contrast is made between Zeus and Prometheus. The play opens with Zeus's servants loudly chaining Prometheus to the rock. Upon their first appearance, the Oceanids say that it was the noise that brought them there. The play comes full circle with noise, as Zeus's messenger brings the chaos of nature, the deafening thunderstorms and the earthquake that draw Prometheus into the earth. Zeus creates noise and confusion. Prometheus stands in clear opposition to this. Instead of noise he uses words, and it is words that ultimately will be his salvation. The contrast between noise and speech once again reinforces the contrast between power and thought with which the tragedy ends.

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