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Prometheus Bound

Aeschylus

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

How are friendship and pity related to Zeus's tyranny within the play?

Friendship and pity are naturally related in the dialogues, as pity results from sympathy with a suffering friend. Prometheus exhibits both friendship and pity, as we see in his conversations with the Chorus and Oceanus. Prometheus pities his brothers, Atlas and Typho, imprisoned by Zeus. He warns Oceanus to stay away from him so that he will not also incur Zeus's wrath. Prometheus also proves his friendship to Io as he tells her, at her request, of her future suffering and redemption. We also know that Prometheus's punishment is the result of his excessive friendship with human beings. He pitied the human race, which Zeus was planning to destroy, and consequently decided to help it although he would receive nothing in exchange. The Chorus also underscores the importance of friendship in choosing to stay with Prometheus and share his suffering despite Hermes's order to leave. Friendship is thus presented repeatedly as a strong value within the play. Zeus's tyranny, on the other hand, is reflected in his distrust of friends. Prometheus particularly loathes Zeus for having betrayed their friendship and punished him after Prometheus's help in Zeus's triumph over the Titans. That Zeus is a tyrant is also confirmed by Hermes's insistence that Zeus does not know the world "alas." Zeus does not know how to feel pity or how to honor friendships. These characteristics of Zeus lend validity to the claim that Zeus governs by his own laws and does not answer to anyone. Since friendship and pity are presented as important values, a good ruler should abide by them. Zeus's failure to understand the importance of friendship is what makes his rule arbitrary and unjust.

Somebody exclaims that Prometheus Bound is the story of an uncompromising rebel who stands up to tyrannical power, thereby giving hope to all those who want to rebel against political and religious evils. What evidence could you bring up to suggest that this is a bit of an exaggeration?

The play clearly suggests that Prometheus is a radical rebel. It is clear, however, that Prometheus only becomes radical toward the end when presented with evidence of Zeus's tyranny. His mood at the beginning is at least somewhat conciliatory, and he seems to become more defiant only in order to build toward a climax. Both external evidence and hints throughout the play make it clear that Aeschylus could not have intended to leave the audience with an image of Zeus as an unjust tyrant and Prometheus as the brave hero who opposes him at great personal cost. Since Zeus was considered the greatest of the gods, it is virtually impossible that the author could have wished to convey such a negative picture of him. Instead, Prometheus Bound is almost certainly only the first work of a trilogy that ends with a reconciliation between Prometheus and Zeus and the establishment of justice through the combination of force and intelligence. This is clearly suggested by the fact that the opponents are so excessive in their stubbornness at the close of the play. The Greek moral norm rejected excess, so reconciliation must have occurred at the end for the trilogy to work within its social context. Within the play itself, Prometheus's initial prophecies clearly suggest that Zeus will free him and a new friendship will be established between the two of them. Prometheus's prophecy does change, but the change is clearly accompanied by Prometheus's rising anger and defiance, suggesting that he oversteps his prophetic authority when he does not prophesy a future reconciliation. Finally, there is a persistent emphasis throughout the play on Zeus's newness in power. Several characters mention that Zeus is harsh because his rule is new. This emphasis clearly suggests that Zeus will allow himself to be less tyrannical once he has been in power for some time. While Prometheus is certainly a rebel, it is highly unlikely that he was meant to appear as an eternal rebellious archetype defying unjust authority. In the end, Prometheus and Zeus must have reconciled, suggesting that rebellion is only a stage in the transition to a better world.

Compare and contrast different sorts of responses to Zeus's tyrannical authority within the play?

Prometheus stands in clear contrast to the play's other characters. He never advocates moderation but insists instead on complete opposition to injustice and scorns and mocks both those who obey Zeus completely and those who, like the Chorus, advocate greater caution and piety. Rebellion is a highly extreme position, and other characters show variation in their responses to the tyranny of Zeus. A particularly helpful comparison can be drawn between Kratus and Hermes on one side and Hephaestus and Oceanus on the other. The last two clearly believe that Zeus must be obeyed, but they do not obey him to the point of letting him think for them. Oceanus and Hephaestus find themselves trapped between feelings of sympathy and fear of Zeus. They want to help Prometheus, but realize that they cannot do so without risking punishment for themselves. Hephaestus carries out his orders and chains Prometheus to the rock, but he does so slowly and hesitates, cursing his fate for having to do this. Oceanus seems to understand Prometheus's position even less than Hephaestus. He offers to help, but tells Prometheus that he must refrain from his defiant attitude toward Zeus. Kratus and Hermes do not think for themselves at all. They cannot experience friendship or pity because they are fully under Zeus's control. They seem to act not out of fear of punishment, but simply out of identification with their master. They have convinced themselves that Zeus's power is supreme and perfect, so that all must learn to love Zeus or suffer the consequences. Kratus's statement that Hephaestus should hate those who hate Zeus clearly demonstrates that Kratus does not even understand how one can think for oneself. From his perspective, the gods must let Zeus think for them. Obedience to Zeus is the most common alternative to Prometheus's rebelliousness, but those who bow to Zeus's tyranny are divided between the willing and the unwilling collaborators. Those who collaborate out of love for their master are complete slaves in thought, while those who collaborate out of fear at least recognize their slavery, though they are unwilling to shake it off.

Suggested Essay Topics

Discuss the imagery and literary devices used to portray Zeus as a tyrant.

How does Prometheus balance the need for speech and silence within the play? For example, address the role of procrastination in his first conversations with the Chorus and Io, his reticence when meeting Oceanus, or the very gradual revelation of his prophecy.

Prometheus clearly demonstrates excessive pride, which is usually condemned in Greek tragedy. Why might it be taken as a heroic characteristic in this particular play?

Discuss the picture of human progress presented in Prometheus's descriptions of his contributions to humanity. How do fire and hope fit in? What is the importance of his reference to metal mining?

What features differentiate the Chorus from another advocate of moderation like Oceanus?

Compare and contrast the features various characters ascribe to Zeus and to Prometheus. How are the two similar? What might be the reasons for this similarity?

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