Prometheus Bound is an ancient Greek play usually attributed to Aeschylus. It tells the story behind why the Titan Prometheus was chained to a rock. Rather than being a series of actions that depict the events leading up to Prometheus being punished by Zeus, the play starts at the point where Prometheus is brought to the rock upon which he’ll remain chained for the next 13 generations of man. Once he has been chained, a number of other gods and goddesses come by to talk with him, feeling sorry for him and making suggestions as to what he should do or seeking advice for their own future actions. Through these various discussions, a great deal can be learned about the character of Prometheus, but perhaps more can be learned about the character of Zeus. Zeus, the ‘father’ of the gods, is most often portrayed as a somewhat selfish and lustful kind of god, spending much of his time chasing after the pretty younger goddesses and fathering a great number of half-humans/half-god or godly offspring. Although selfish and often absent, he is not usually characterized as overtly tyrannical or unjust. However, in this play, Zeus emerges as a vicious, dishonorable, tyrannical usurper as his actions and attitudes are discussed by those with reason to be resentful or fearful of his newfound power.
As the play opens, the reaction of Hephaestus begins to suggest that the punishment decreed for Prometheus is beyond what should be expected or what was just. He describes the punishment Prometheus is to suffer in all its stark horrors: “the sun-blaze shall roast / Thy flesh; thy hue, flower-fair, shall suffer change; / Welcome will Night be when with spangled robe / She hides the light of day; welcome the sun / Returning to disperse the frosts of dawn. / And every hour shall bring its weight of woe / To wear thy heart away” (1st speech). Throughout this first scene, Hephaestus is seen to be reluctant to bind and chain Prometheus, himself dreading the kind of abuse Prometheus is about to undergo and wishing he could avoid the task before him. Although Kratos seems to have none of the same sorts of emotional reaction to the fate of Prometheus, even perhaps triumphant that the titan should suffer such pains, he also makes a comment regarding Zeus’ practices as he comments upon Hephaestus’ laments regarding his role in Prometheus’ suffering: “Why all things are a burden save to rule / Over the Gods; for none is free but Zeus” (6th statement). While Kratos’ concern that the binding is tight and completed quickly, much of his concern might be more properly attributed to a fear of his own that he will be somehow punished as well as Prometheus for simply not obeying Zeus’ orders quickly enough or to an acceptable degree of attention to detail. While Kratos might not have much sympathy for Prometheus, he is undoubtedly concerned about the unpredictable nature of the new hierarchy and anxious to be sure he does not fall on the wrong side of power.
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A great deal of this uncertainty is brought about by the newness of Zeus’ reign. Prometheus makes this clear when he is left alone by those who have bound him and begins lamenting his own fate. He calls Zeus “the new-throned potentate” and the daughters of Oceanus who come to try to comfort Prometheus make their own comments regarding Zeus’ recent rise to power. The chorus mentions, “for now new steersmen take the helm / Olympian; now with little thought / Of right, on strange, new laws Zeus establisheth his realm / Bringing the mighty ones of old to naught” (2nd speech). In this speech, it is made clear that the new rules Zeus has imposed upon the gods are strange and unfamiliar and, in many cases, have served to strip the power away from the older gods as a means of establishing himself as all-powerful. These strange new ways are frightening to the elder gods and those who were familiar with what had gone before not only because they are unfamiliar but also because of the terrible means by which he is seen to punish those who go against his wishes.
That Prometheus did not always have a low opinion of Zeus is evident in that it was primarily through the help that Prometheus gave to Zeus that the latter was able to gain control of the gods. He tells the chorus, “That not by strength neither by violence / The mighty should be mastered, but by guile. / Which things by me set forth at large, they scorned, / Nor graced my motion with the least regard” (6th speech). In saying this, Prometheus relates how it was his wisdom and foresight that enabled Zeus to outsmart the old gods and chase them into hiding. However, as he continues, it seems clear that Prometheus himself was never given any credit for his assistance, nor any of the apportionment of the spoils of war. Prometheus’ resentment is made very clear as he begins name-calling as he thinks of the thanks he’s received for his counsel and advice. “But ’tis a common malady of power / Tyrannical never to trust a friend” (6th speech). In this, Prometheus suggests both that Zeus had a need to punish Prometheus in such a way that he would not be easily believed against Zeus as well as informs the audience that much of what will be said throughout the remainder of the play, while it may be based on fact, remains tainted with this resentment and anger.
Even before this hint is given, though, Zeus is illustrated as particularly cruel in allowing the punishment too far to outweigh the crime, at least at first. Prometheus cries to the sky, “I sought the fount of fire in hollow reed / Hid privily, a measureless resource / For man, and mighty teacher of all arts. / This is the crime that I must expiate” (1st speech). In other words, all Prometheus did was to help mankind creep from their earliest, most primitive beginnings by giving them fire, a simple tool that would help them live slightly better lives than those of the common animals. It is hinted throughout much of this early segment of the play that Prometheus’ crime was not so much what he provided the humans, but that he gave mortals something against the wishes of Zeus. In commiseration, the severity of Zeus’ cruelty is echoed through the chorus as they tell Prometheus of their fear regarding Zeus: “fear hath roused my soul with piercing cry! / And for they fate my heart misgives me! … / An unpersuadable heart hath Chronos’ son” (4th speech). With this in mind, it is possible for the reader to see Prometheus’ punishment as an object lesson to the other gods as a means of keeping them in line with the new order rather than making it necessary for all-out warfare as the various factions resisted Zeus; however, this is the typical tyrant’s justification for excessive cruelty and evil. At the same time, it remains possible that Prometheus is already planting the seeds of disloyalty against Zeus already.
While much of the information provided so far remains highly subjective in nature and probably heavily biased, Prometheus’ revelations about Zeus’ attitude toward mankind begin to provide weightier support to the claim that Zeus has exceeded all bounds of wickedness. According to Prometheus, it was Zeus’ intention to completely eradicate mankind from the earth and start his own race of men. “When first upon his high, paternal throne / He took his seat, forthwith to diverse Gods / Divers good gifts he gave, and parceled out / His empire, but of miserable men / Recked not at all; rather it was his wish / To wipe out man and rear another race” (6th speech). Whether out of fear of reprisal or general agreement, the other gods apparently all fell into line with this intention with the exception of Prometheus himself. In order to save mankind, then, Prometheus intentionally defied the wish of all the gods and gave to mankind those talents and attributes that would make it impossible for the gods to simply eliminate them. More than simply conveying upon man the means of making fire, Prometheus also admits to the chorus that he provided them with hope against the future and, with fire, the ability to develop a number of fine arts that could rival those of the gods themselves.
Thus, while Zeus is portrayed as an evil tyrant who arbitrarily inflicts tremendous punishment on others with little to no provocation, an objective look at this characterization reveals something larger at work. Prometheus’ characterizations of Zeus are necessarily skewed to the negative because of his painful position and the length of his punishment, which he knows full well. The only way in which this might be changed is if he can somehow persuade enough of the other gods that his punishment is unjust to encourage them to either speak on his behalf or band together to once again overthrow the godly hierarchy. At the same time, Zeus has reason to try to silence and discredit Prometheus as a means of protecting his own position and of keeping him from providing the mortals with any more of the knowledge of the gods and thus become a threat to the gods themselves. Finally, the revelation that all of the gods were in agreement about starting a new race of men that was blocked by the actions of Prometheus opens the possibility that Prometheus truly did break the laws of the gods and deserved some form of punishment. Being mortals and the beneficiaries of his mercy, it is impossible for us to determine whether the punishment fit the crime. As terrible as Prometheus’ punishment is described to be, so, too, have the benefits of mankind been tremendous in their scope and proportion.
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