Prometheus Bound is a short ancient Greek tragedy about the title character Prometheus, a Titan (Greek god). It is a tale of self-sacrifice, as Prometheus knows that to destroy the Titan he hates – Zeus – he must first be destroyed himself. The play is regarded as one of the ancient classics, and is usually attributed to the Greek playwright Aeschylus.
The play commences with Prometheus being chained to a mountain (hence the play’s title) at the behest of Zeus, the father of all gods, as punishment for stealing fire from him and giving it to the human race. While he struggles with his predicament he has several visitors. The Oceanids comfort and converse with him, and Prometheus seeks sympathy for his plight. He acknowledges he has done wrong to disobey Zeus, but hints that Zeus himself is not as mighty as he thinks. Next, Oceanus, father of the Oceanids, pleads with him to instead make peace with Zeus, but Prometheus will not. The nymph, Io, talks to him as she tries to escape Zeus’ wife Hera. She begs Prometheus to tell her how long she is doomed to roam the earth, and in doing so Prometheus reveals a secret about Zeus that will lead to his downfall. The play ends with Zeus demanding Prometheus reveal this secret, but he refuses, and Zeus strikes him with lightning, sending him into the abyss.
Style of the play
The play consists almost entirely of talking and singing, with very little action. It concentrates mainly on Prometheus’ predicament, as he laments his fortune both alone and with the other gods that visit him.
Like all ancient Greek plays, it makes use of the chorus, a group of performers who act as one throughout the performance, commenting on the action and helping the audience understand the plot and emotions conveyed. The ancient equivalent of the laughter track perhaps. In Prometheus Bound the chorus is performed by the Oceanids (daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys).
The resolute title character of the tale.
The personification of strength and power, persuades Hephaestus to strike the chains into place around Prometheus or risk Zeus’ wrath himself.
The god of fire, this soft-hearted mythic smith forges the chains that bind Prometheus to the mountain. He reluctantly fixes them in place, lamenting the punishment of a fellow god.
Chorus of Ocean Nymphs
The daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys.
Oceanus tries in vain to convince Prometheus to forget about his anger towards Zeus.
Io is a nymph (minor Greek deity) and Zeus’ mistress, left to wander the earth on the run from Hera, Zeus’ wife.
Translation into English
Much of the play is written in a rhyming style, which is notoriously difficult to translate accurately into English without losing some of the essence of the original. Metaphors can be lost and word order changed as the translator attempts to keep the rhyming alive. Different translations can therefore vary quite considerably, so if you are studying Prometheus Bound seriously it will be important to pick an accurate translation.
If you have an interest in Greek tragedy or the history of theatre, this would be an excellent purchase. As you would expect with a book written many hundreds of years ago, it is not an easy read for the average reader. Some grounding in classical works would be handy, to aid with understanding the terminology and imagery. Buying a volume with explanatory notes also comes highly recommended if you want to know what every line means.
A popular and cheap purchase is the Penguin Classics version, which you can buy online from Amazon. It has an introduction by Philip Velacott and plenty of explanatory notes to help you understand the text.