AESCHYLUS: Prometheus Bound

  • Hephaestos chains Prometheus to a rock in the Caucasus mountain range at the behest of Zeus.Zeus is angry at Prometheus for giving humanity fire. Zeus intended to destroy mankind, so Prometheus’ actions are directly hostile towards Zeus’ will.
  • Oceanids visit Prometheus, and commiserate with him.
  • Prometheus tells them that he will obstinately persist in defiance to Zeus because he possesses knowledge about the fate of Zeus – i.e. Zeus will be overthrown.
  • Oceanus visits Prometheus, and entreats him to humble himself and beg forgiveness of Zeus. Prometheus refuses.
  • Io arrives on scene. She is a woman that has been changed into a cow and chased across the world by a gadfly. Her suffering is a result of Zeus’ love for her and consequently Hera’s jealousy. Prometheus informs Io that she will eventually find respite in Egypt, and that one of her descendant will liberate Prometheus from his bondage.
  • Hermes arrives on scene and commands Prometheus to tell him who will supplant Zeus as king of the gods. Prometheus remains intransigent. Zeus sends a tempest to the Caucasus. The play ends when a lightning bolt strikes the rock to which Prometheus is chained, and he falls into an abyss.
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    POWER

    “Everyone is harsh when new to power.”

    “Even though my limbs are held in these strong, degrading fetters, the ruler of the immortals will yet have need of me, to reveal the new plan by which he can be robbed of his scepter and his privileges”

    “Hast thou not seen this brief and powerless life, fleeting as dreams, with which man’s purblind race is fast in fetters bound? Never shall vain counsels of mortal men break through the ordering of Zeus.”

    1. According to the play, does might make right, right make might, or neither? There is a lot of injustice in this play. Prometheus helps Zeus in the war against the Titans, but is punished as if he never was a friend of Zeus. I don’t think that it was right of Zeus to punish Prometheus for giving humanity fire. However, as the ruler of the gods, he is the ultimate judge and administer of justice.
    2. Who is the most powerful character in the play? Why? Where does that power come from? The most powerful character in the play is Prometheus. Despite being chained to a rock, and mercilessly tortured, he possesses knowledge of the means by which Zeus will lose the throne of the gods. The act of sending Hermes to learn of this information from Prometheus demonstrates the fear of Zeus regarding his future. Prometheus even predicts that his knowledge will be his salvation. Zeus might possess more physical power than Prometheus, but Prometheus’ intellectual power is much more valuable, both to him and to Zeus. The predominance of knowledge over physical power is reinforced by the story of the war of the Titans. Prometheus’ mother told him that the side which would win the war would be the side who exercised the greatest cunning, not the greatest might. That cunning was provided by Prometheus to the Olympian Gods.
    3. The play begins with a personification of the god of Power. Why does he only appear at the beginning of the play? The god of Power only appears at the beginning of the play perhaps because Aeschylus desired to actually show the physical loss of power from the state of Prometheus. As the god of Power exits the scene, Prometheus’ physical power is metaphorically gone as well.
    4. Though he is one of the most important figures in the play, Zeus never appears onstage as a character. Why might the playwright have chosen to leave him offstage? Is he more powerful as an invisible, menacing figure? By having Zeus remain offstage, Aeschylus maintains the utmost sense of power and menace that can be produced by the imagination of the reader or theater-goer. The imagination can always produce greater evils than reality. As Macbeth says: “present fears are less than horrible imaginings.”

     

    SUFFERING

    “Unto the sick ’tis sweet clearly to know what yet remains of pain.”

    “What gain is it to live? Why cast I not myself at once from this high precipice, and, dashed to earth, be free from all my woes? Far better were it once for all to die than all one’s day to suffer pain and grief.”

    1. Who does the play portray as suffering more: mortals or gods? Or is there no real difference? Both the mortals and the gods suffer much. Io, a mortal, initially suffers only from physical torment. Upon learning about her future troubles, she immediately contemplates suicide. This seems to suggest that the knowledge of one’s inevitable suffering is much worse than ignorance; perhaps this is so because one always has hope that there will be a swift end to the suffering. Prometheus suffers physically, but not mentally. Mentally, he remains defiant, and never despairs; for he knows that one day he will be liberated from his torment, and that his tormentor will require something from him. The potential for revenge is clearly present, but Prometheus seems content only to become free of his bondage by disclosing the information at the appropriate time. However, because he is a god, he has the potential to suffer indefinitely while Io at least knows that one day her life will end, and her suffering along with it. Therefore, I believe that the gods suffer more than humans from the mere knowledge that they might suffer eternally.
    2. Which character suffers the most in the play? Why? How would you characterize his or her suffering? I don’t think that either Io or Prometheus – the two characters most likely selected by readers to answer this question – is the character that suffers the most in the play. I think that Zeus is the character that suffers the most. He is clearly outraged at the actions of Prometheus, and anger is a response to a painful stimulus. Furthermore, he is clearly worried about his fate. He sends Hermes to extract from Prometheus the identity of the one who threatens his power. Because he did not receive a satisfactory answer, he grows even more angry, and consequently one can conclude more anxious. And because mental suffering has been proven to be much greater than physical suffering by Io’s immediate contemplation of suicide when she experiences mental suffering for the first time, Zeus is the character that suffers the most because his suffering is mental, with the added drawback that he is immortal, and will suffer the pain of his ruin forever.
    3. Which type of suffering does the play portray as more difficult to endure: physical torture or mental torture? I have already answered this question. Io’s actions demonstrate that mental suffering is greater than physical suffering.
    4. Could any god who inflicts as much suffering as Zeus does ever be just? In my opinion, no god that inflicts as much suffering as Zeus can be just. I am looking forward to Milton’s justification of the ways of God because the Christian God is comparable to Zeus in the amount of affliction that he either directly inflicts upon the world, or indirectly allows.
    5. Is there ever a good reason to suffer? To cause suffering? A good reason to suffer is when there is an object whose attainment compensates for suffering. Prometheus likely endures his suffering with greater dignity than Io because he has a reason to endure his suffering – to see the day when Zeus will need his assistance – while Io does not – i.e. until Prometheus informs her that one of her descendants will liberate him from his bondage, and only then does Io resolve not to commit suicide. There are many sayings such as “you gotta go through hell before you can get to heaven,” and “long and hard is the way out of darkness that leads to light,” that seem to suggest that suffering is almost necessary in order to attain the highest goods of life. As to the question regarding justification for causing suffering, I do not believe that there is any such justification, likely because I just finished reading Mill’s On Liberty, in which Mill’s principle  of determining the limits of the exercise of one’s freedom to be those actions that harm others; such actions are never justified, and always are punishable offenses.

     

    MAN AND THE NATURAL WORLD

    “I fetter thee against thy will with bonds of bronze that none can loose, on this lone height, where thou shalt know nor voice nor face of man, but scorching in the hot blaze of the sun, shalt lose thy skin’s fair beauty. Thou shalt long for starry-mantled night to hide day’s sheen, for sun to melt the rime of early dawn; and evermore the weight of present ill shall wear thee down.”

    “I made men cease from contemplating death. I planted blind within them. I gave them fire.”

    “The waves of the sea cry out in unison , the depths groan, Hades’ dark subterranean recesses rumble in response, and the flowing streams of holy rivers lament your piteous pain.”

    “All the skills that mortals possess come from Prometheus.”

    1. Prometheus claims that he gave humans all the technological knowledge that they possess. What do we learn about humans before Prometheus enlightened them? Before Prometheus enlightened humans, mankind lived as beasts. They had no knowledge of the seasons, or any forethought to sow and reap harvests. They had no language to preserve any of the innovations that an individual might happen to create. This description was very reminiscent of Rousseau’s description of the natural man. However, Prometheus description suggests that man was in a wretched state given his lack of intelligence, while Rousseau argued that man was truly blessed to be in that relatively ignorant state. Did they ever exist in a state of oneness with nature? To some extent, mankind existed in a state of oneness with nature. Mankind did not subjugate the other animals, nor did they construct artificial shelters to protect them from the elements. They had no medicines to cure diseases. Essentially, they were a part of nature, not a superior entity.
    2. Does the play portray the natural world as friendly to humans, or hostile? The play portrays the world as hostile towards humans until Prometheus gives them the several gifts of arts and intelligence. Before Prometheus gave them his assistance, mankind was subject to nature. After receiving the gifts of Prometheus, nature is subject to mankind.
    3. Does Io’s transformation into a cow represent any unity between humans and nature? Io’s transformation represents the reality that man is both body and spirit, animal and divine. Prometheus shared some of the gifts of the gods with humans, thus elevating them from the rank of beasts. However, humanity does not possess immortality, which means that they reside in a state between gods and beasts.
    4. How do humans’ relationships to nature change after Prometheus shares his knowledge with them? Before Prometheus bestows upon them gifts of arts and intelligence, mankind was subject to nature. After receiving the gifts, nature is subject to mankind.

     

    FATE AND FREE WILL

    “I must bear my destined fate as easily as may be, knowing that the power of Necessity is unchallengeable.”

    “It was destined that the victors should be those who excelled not in might nor in power but in guile.”

    “Even Zeus cannot escape fate.”

    “Those who bow to fate are wise.”

    1. Are fate and free will in conflict with each other in Prometheus Bound? Or, is it possible (in the world of the play) to know the future, and still have freedom to act in the present? Fate and free will are in conflict with one another at all times in the world, not just in Prometheus Bound. As Kant explains, it is only possible for us to conceive of the world by causal relationships. If everything is caused by something else, then there is no room for free choice. However, Kant says that this might not be how the world truly is, it is only how it appears to us. We are limited to a very narrow interpretation of the world. We might exercise free will, but there is no way that we can prove or disprove this.
    2. How much is the question of fate and free will related to knowledge? For those (unlike Prometheus) who don’t actually know the future, does it really matter whether anything is fated or not? Because Prometheus knows the future, fate seems unavoidable, and free will seems non-existent. However, compatibilists would argue that although the future is immutable, that future was created by the free choices of individuals. From the perspective of one who does not know the future, the validity of free will seems much more persuasive.
    3. In the play, Prometheus says that Zeus isn’t all powerful, but is instead bound by fate. Seriously? Do we believe him? One could argue that Fate constrains Zeus to certain actions. Zeus’ behavior appears hereditary. His father, Cronus, violently supplanted his father, Uranus, as Zeus overthrew Cronus. Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus are all fearful of losing their power, which compels them to take certain actions that ultimately lead to their ruin. On the other hand, one could argue that Zeus has the choice of liberating Prometheus and preserving his reign, or leaving Prometheus fettered in Scythia only to suffer his own son to usurp his throne.
    4. Hephaestus claims that he isn’t acting freely when he chains Prometheus to the rock, because he’s following Zeus’s orders. Is following Zeus’s orders the same as not having free will, or is Hephaestus just using that as an excuse? One could argue that Hephaestus has a choice of whether to execute Zeus’ commands. He could refuse, and suffer punishment instead. On the other hand, it could be argued that the threat of punishment is coercion, and removes the liberty of the actor to freely choose an action.

     

    FREEDOM AND CONFINEMENT

    “For me, death is not in my destiny: that would have been a release from my sufferings. As it is, no end has been set for my toils, until Zeus falls from his autocratic rulership.”

    “I have ample leisure—more than I want.”

    1. Does the play portray freedom and confinement as completely opposed? Or can a person who is confined still act with some freedom? There are different types of freedom – mental freedom and physical freedom. Prometheus is physically confined to a rock, but he is mentally free from the influence of corporeal punishment. He obstinately refuses to disclose the identity of the being that will usurp Zeus’ throne, and therefore retains some sense of freedom.
    2. At different points in the play, Prometheus manipulates other characters by refusing to provide them full information. Is this Prometheus’s way of confining the people who confine him? Yes, by refusing to disclose the identity of the usurper, Prometheus confines Zeus to a state of anxiety and dread.
    3. Which form of confinement does the play portray as worse: physical confinement or mental confinement? The play portrays the mental confinement of Hephaestus, Oceanus, and Hermes as worse than the physical confinement of Prometheus. Prometheus is clearly a sympathetic hero. His defiance and generosity towards mankind makes Zeus’ punishment seem entirely unjust, and arouses resentment towards Zeus in the reader. Because the reader sympathizes with Prometheus, we adopt many of his attitudes towards the other characters. Prometheus believes that the fawning and slavish behavior that Hermes, Oceanus, and Hephaestus display in executing the commands of Zeus is ignoble and the deeds of beings that are truly confined.
    4. Does any character in the play appear truly free? Which character(s) are most enslaved? The chorus is the group of characters that are most free in the play. They are not physically confined, nor can Hermes persuade them to leave Prometheus before Zeus sends forth his lightning to smite Prometheus. The characters that are the most enslaved are Hephaestus, Oceanus, and Hermes for reasons already discussed.

     

    COMPASSION AND FORGIVENESS

    “What god is so hard-hearted As to take delight in this? Who does not share the distress of your sufferings—except for Zeus?”

    “Time, as it grows old, teaches everything.”

    1. Which character(s) in the play display(s) the most compassion? The characters that display the most compassion are the nymphs of the chorus. When they arrive on scene, they immediately begin to lament Prometheus’ conditions, and wonder who would not weep for Prometheus except Zeus.
    2. Why does Prometheus reject the compassion of those who offer it? Prometheus rejects the compassion of the chorus, and the offers Oceanus makes to reconcile him with Zeus because Prometheus does not wish to be a fawning slave to Zeus. He values his freedom – i.e. mental freedom – above all else. Furthermore, he knows that one day his punishment will cease, and that Zeus will require assistance from him. Thus, Prometheus does not need the pity or aid of others.
    3. Prometheus’s actions on behalf of humans seem motivated by compassion. Does he show compassion to anyone else in the play? He does show compassion for Io. When Io implores him to tell her the future sufferings that she must endure, Prometheus initially refuses because he does not want to add to her sufferings the knowledge of future misery. Furthermore, after being persuaded to tell Io the future, Prometheus discourages her from committing suicide by giving her a sense of purpose for her suffering – i.e. one of her descendants will liberate Prometheus.
    4. Does Prometheus expect that Zeus will ever forgive him? Does he even want forgiveness? Prometheus does not expect Zeus to forgive him, but he does expect Zeus to require his assistance in the future. Therefore, Prometheus does not even seek forgiveness, but rather a sense of superiority, a time when Zeus will need him.

     

    SACRIFICE

    “How can you advise me to behave like a coward? I am willing to stay with him and suffer what I must.”

    1. If Prometheus decides to help humans knowing how much he’s going to suffer for it, does that mean he is sacrificing himself for humans? Yes, if he didn’t know that he was going to suffer, or that there was a high probability that he would suffer, then the action would not be a sacrifice. The very essence of a sacrifice includes foreknowledge of the adverse consequences that await the performance of an action, but performing that act nevertheless for some greater good.
    2. Do any other characters in the play perform a sacrifice? Prometheus sacrifices himself to many years of suffering to save mankind from Zeus’ design to exterminate them. Io sacrifices herself to many years of suffering so that one of her descendants can liberate Prometheus in the distant future.
    3. Would Prometheus still be such an admirable character if he had given humans everything he did but wasn’t forced to pay such an extreme price for it? No, the fact that Prometheus knew he would incur the wrath of Zeus for helping humanity makes him a more admirable character. If he didn’t know that he would suffer for his actions, then I would regard him as simply unfortunate.
    4. Why does Prometheus sacrifice his freedom and comfort for the sake of humans? I think that Prometheus makes his sacrifice for mankind because he has a strong sense of justice. Zeus intended to eradicate humanity simply because he did not like our race. Furthermore, Zeus’ capricious behavior very likely alarmed Prometheus to the possibility that Zeus might just as suddenly turn upon Prometheus, which is exactly what happens in the play, but at least Prometheus knows that he has some means of avenging himself.

     

    PRIDE

    “Do not think that my silence is due to vanity or arrogance. No, my heart is eaten up with brooding, when I see myself treated so outrageously.”

    “I wouldn’t exchange my misfortunes for your servitude.”

    1. What does pride mean in Prometheus Bound? Pride means having an excessive consideration of one’s worth.
    2. Who has pride, and who doesn’t? Who is the most prideful character in the play? The least? Prometheus is prideful according to Oceanus and Hermes because he does not regard himself as Zeus’ inferior as he ought. Zeus is proud because he considers himself inviolable, and believes he can coerce anyone. The least proud is Io. She has a very humble opinion of herself; it is only after Prometheus predicts that one of her descendants will liberate him from bondage that she begins to develop any sense of self-worth.
    3. Does the play portray pride as a positive or negative force? Pride, in the sense that one is confident in one’s self, is a positive force. Pride lends strength to Prometheus so that he can endure his physical tortures and see the day when Zeus will need him.
    4. If pride is a bad thing in the play, is it bad for moral reasons or because it is likely to bring bad consequences to the person who feels it? Pride is bad in the play because of the negative consequences to the person who possess it. For example, the pride of Zeus causes him to foolishly punish Prometheus for refusing to tell him the identity of his future usurper.
    5. If pride is a positive force, what good does it do? Pride can be a positive force. The pride of Prometheus gives him strength to endure his suffering.

     

    JUSTICE AND JUDGMENT

    “O Mother venerable!O Æther! rolling round the common light of all, seest thou what wrongs I bear?”

    1. Most of the characters in the play (except for Io and Prometheus) try to convince Prometheus that Zeus is enforcing justice by punishing him. Does the play encourage the audience to see things this way? The play does not encourage the audience to regard Zeus as the source of justice. As I have previously discussed, the play makes the reader sympathetic to Prometheus’ cause; and therefore we identify with his attitudes and beliefs more readily than with those of any other character. I consider Prometheus to be the defender of justice, and Zeus to be a capricious tyrant.
    2. Who suffers the most unjust punishment in this play? Prometheus and Io both suffer injustice. However, because Prometheus willingly sacrificed himself, knowing that he would endure centuries of torture, I think that Io’s punishment is far more unjust; for Io did nothing to deserve her punishment.
    3. Imagine that Prometheus is wrong, and that Zeus actually is the guardian of justice. Based on the type of acts Zeus punishes, what can we learn about what Zeus thinks justice is? Zeus punishes Prometheus for thwarting his plan to eradicate humanity. Therefore, Zeus’ sense of justice is a strict accordance with all that he wills, and if anything contradicts his will, then they ought to be severely punished.
    4. If Zeus isn’t just, then who is, in this play? Is anyone? I think that Prometheus is just. He defends mankind from the caprices of Zeus, and nobly bears his punishment.

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