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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Zeus is presented as the ultimate tyrant because he will not honor the rules of friendship or understand such things as friendship, love, or sympathy. Zeus punishes Prometheus even though Prometheus was the deciding factor in his victory over the Titans. The punishment is presented as particularly reprehensible not because it is so harsh, but because it is imposed on someone who was a friend. Aeschylus intentionally highlights this fact by inserting references to friendship throughout the play. Hephaestus mentions that Zeus's orders trouble him because of his bond of friendship with Prometheus, and Oceanus offers his help out of friendship. The Chorus, despite counseling obedience throughout the play, suddenly switches at the end to affirming friendship as a greater value. Moreover, at least one major reason for Prometheus's punishment is that he values his friendship with human beings above reverence for Zeus. The reason Zeus cannot understand friendship lies in his self-confidence and the accompanying belief that all must obey him. Prometheus's insistence on the importance of friendship, bolstered by the Chorus at the conclusion of the play, suggests that obedience is only a secondary value. Zeus's tyranny appears as evil and misguided rather than deserved and just. In moral terms, it seems, it is not better to be feared than loved.
Prometheus and Zeus square off as the representative of intelligence and the invisible symbol of force, respectively. Prometheus helped Zeus defeat the Titans by using guile. When Prometheus attempted to use his intelligence to aid humanity, however, Zeus used his force to punish Prometheus. The conflict is emphasized throughout the play—Zeus's henchmen mock Prometheus for not being clever enough to avoid or escape punishment, and both the Chorus and Oceanus chide him for this in a more sympathetic manner. Yet Prometheus makes clear that without his knowledge Zeus will fall, overthrown by a power greater than his own. Force can overwhelm thought but cannot exist indefinitely without it. In Prometheus Bound Aeschylus intentionally cultivates an apparently irresolvable conflict between force and intelligence by presenting Prometheus as the powerless but defiant victim of an unjust and powerful god who rules by arbitrary laws and demands blind obedience. Underlying this conflict, however, is the idea that force requires thought to guide and sustain it. Aeschylus is clearly preparing us for a resolution where thought and force work together to avoid catastrophe. Prometheus's thoughtful defiance, in opposition to the unthinking obedience of Zeus's cronies, underscores the idea that thought must be sustained. Prometheus's clear judgment will one day save Zeus, while his opposition to Zeus is a necessary stage on the path to resolution.
Both Prometheus and Zeus are constantly accused of being too excessive in their stubbornness. Prometheus will not obey and Zeus will not end his punishment. Even in love Zeus is shown to be excessive, as his obsession with Io ruins her life. As we have seen, excess is the greatest sin in Greek moral thought. The healthy functioning of the universe requires the cooperation of opposing elements, such as thought and power, and the avoidance of excessive positions. Nothing good can come of conflict. The Chorus constantly emphasizes this moral belief while counseling Prometheus to tone down his defiance. In Greek tragedy excess, usually excess of pride, is almost universally condemned. Here, although they lead to Prometheus's suffering, his excessive pride and defiance are clearly praised, though perhaps with some reservations. This makes sense only if we assume that a resolution was originally part of the complete trilogy of plays. Yet in the only extant part of the trilogy the lack of a resolution and, in fact, the building up toward a climax where a resolution appears impossible, the excessive defiance of Prometheus makes for a masterpiece. Prometheus becomes the first great rebel of Western civilization. His excess is painted as a heroic feature of an individual faced with unbeatable odds and yet clinging resolutely to his certainty that he will prevail.
Prometheus stands for human progress against the forces of nature. We learn close to the beginning that he has given humanity the gifts of fire and hope. Hope helps human beings to struggle for a better future while fire, as the source of technology, makes success in that struggle possible. Prometheus lists his gifts to humanity in a progressive order, starting with the things necessary for survival and continuing on to the tools of commerce and economic expansion. Aeschylus here expresses a faith in human progress, and there is at least a veiled implication that Zeus feels threatened by this progress. The gods are at least partially personifications of nature. Human progress is the slow advance of humanity against the threatening elements of nature. In a sense, progress threatens to do away with the gods as nature is slowly understood and conquered through technology. Prometheus's contribution of technological gifts to humanity thus endangers the other gods and he is punished for bestowing on human beings the favors that rightly belong to the gods alone. Yet the faith in human progress as Aeschylus expresses it is clearly a new mode of thought in Greek civilization, and it is one that would be echoed more than a millennium later in the thought of the Enlightenment. It is clear that Aeschylus opposes the earlier view of Hesiod that human civilization has slowly been slipping for a perfect Golden Age into a decrepit Bronze Age. In Prometheus's words, humanity advances from dire need and fear of nature to a deeper understanding, advancement in survival, art, divination, and finally mining, which symbolizes the progress of civilization in the consecutive discovery and use of bronze, iron, silver, and finally gold.
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