Prometheus Bound

Summary

Lines 907–1093

Summary Lines 907–1093

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.