Prometheus Bound Essay Sample

Aeschylus’ tragedy, Prometheus Bound, is an interesting example of Aristotle’s tragedy because it encompasses a god’s own reversal leading to suffering brought upon his fellow gods. Prometheus Bound is the story of the god Prometheus and the events that follow after he disobeys the new ruler, Zeus, by granting gifts of survival, namely fire, to humankind. Catharsis is found in the play because the audience pities Prometheus for having to suffer for an act of kindness. Prometheus Bound combines hamartia with catharsis because of the intentions of the hero and its elements of Aristotle’s tragedy.

Prometheus’ hamartia is brought on because of his error in judgment by granting the gift of fire to the humans against Zeus’ will. Prometheus was a god that created mankind and, in order to ensure its survival, tried to protect them. His hamartia fits in Aristotle’s definition of tragedy because Prometheus is the perfect example of a god in ultimate happiness on Mount Olympus literally falling to Earth to be chained to the side of a mountain. Hermes references Prometheus’ hamartia as the source of his downfall by saying, “Only your own folly will entangle you in the inextricable net of destruction” (52). Prometheus has no proud characteristic like hubris but merely makes a mistake by disobeying the ruler of the gods. Prometheus is morally innocent because he committed a selfless, kind act but must be punished for failing to recognize what his actions would cause.

Every tragedy, according to Aristotle, must contain a reversal, discovery and suffering and, in Prometheus Bound, Prometheus’ reversal is the unintended results his action causes followed by his discovery. Prometheus intends to help mankind by committing a selfless act but instead causes his own destruction. The situation is ironic because Prometheus gets in trouble for doing something good but suffers because the people he aides are the ones who cannot help him. In the beginning of the play, the character Strength that carries him to the mountain says, “Stay there, and swell with upstart arrogance; and steal the privileges of gods to give to mortal men. How are your mortals going to cut this knot for you?...Wisdom is just the thing you want if you’ve a mind” (23). Prometheus’ hamartia causes this reversal because his error in judgment results in an unintended way. Prometheus’ discovery is part of the plot as the audience, and not necessarily Prometheus, realizes that Prometheus has caused the action of the play because of too much love for his creation. His physical and emotional ties to mankind cause him to ignore the reality of the gods and ignite Zeus’ wrath.

The final step of the character in a tragedy is defined by Aristotle as his pathos, or suffering, and in Prometheus Bound, Prometheus suffers greatly for his hamartia. Prometheus’ and most other tragic characters’ suffering is pitied because their hamartia is usually an unintended act and, in this situation, Prometheus’ mistake was a morally innocent one. Prometheus’


Analysis of Prometheus Bound

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Like other works of the Classical Age, Prometheus Bound doesn't begin in the beginning but leaps in medias res ("into the middle of things"), just as Prometheus, a defiant demigod, is brought in chains to be fettered to a desolate mountain crag. For the modern reader - as opposed to an Aeschylian audience, who would have already been familiar with the plot - a bit of background is in order.
Prometheus was a god from the old order, the Titans, who had now all been overthrown by a group of young upstarts, the Olympians (all except for Prometheus, that is). Rather than go down in honor, this half-god Prometheus, in order to avoid further violence, chose to desert the Olympian forces. In fact, he was instrumental in Zeus' usurpation of the throne from the old Titan king Chronus. In the new order, Zeus stood as chief god.
Now one of Zeus' first objectives was to destroy the rice of men, who, until then, had been a primitive, unenlightened and miserable lot. Zeus' intent was to replace mankind with a new, more noble race, servile to the gods' every whim.
When the destructive proclamation went out, however, Prometheus alone objected to Zeus' heartless proposal. He saw in man a spark of divine promise that even the gods might envy, and in order to save the human race, he willingly and courageously committed a crime: he brought fire down from heaven and taught the mortals how to use it. Furthermore, he tutored them in practical arts, applied sciences and philosophy, so that he might edify, ennoble and empower them.
But these saving acts were deemed highly treasonous; such knowledge in the hands of mortals threatened to put them on an equal footing with the gods themselves. Furious, Zeus commanded the Olympian blacksmith god of fire, Hephaestus, and the gods of Might and Force, Kratos and Bia, to seize Prometheus and shackle him to a barren mountainside. But Hephaestus approached his task halfheartedly. He had been taught to respect deity and he sympathized with Prometheus - after all, it didn't seem right that a divine being should suffer such abuse. The exchange between Hephaestus and Might (Kratos) showed clearly their separate sentiments.
Compassion will not move the mind of Zeus:
All monarchs new to power show brutality ....
How bitterly I hate any craftsman's cunning now! ...
Prometheus! I lament your pain .

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Might stood by complaining of Hephaestus' delay, and demanding full punishment:
Now do your work - enough of useless pitying.
How can you fail to loathe this god whom all gods hate,
Who has betrayed to man the prize that was your right? ...
The hammer! Strike, and rivet hurt against the rock! ...
Teach this clever one he is less wise than Zeus.
Now take your wedge of steel and with its cruel point
Transfix him! Drive it through his breast with all your strength!
Hephaestus had no choice but to comply with his orders; and tied with bonds "as strong as adamant," Prometheus was left alone on the jagged face of the cliff. Before departing, the mighty Kratos hurled one last taunt at the Titan god, asking how his human friends could help him now, and chuckling at the foolish Titans who had named him Prometheus, "the Forethinker." It seemed now, Kratos pointed out, that Prometheus required a higher intelligence to do his thinking for him.
The captive god called upon the wind, the waters, mother earth, and the sun to look on him and see how gods tortured a god. He was puzzled that he should be punished simply for loving mankind.
Next, Prometheus received separate visits from three characters - Oceanos (Prometheus’ brother), Io, and Hermes.
Oceanus came with a plan. He would go before Zeus and convey his brother's sorrow and plead for forgiveness. He reasoned that if an apology were offered, and if the captive Titan subjected himself to Zeus' sovereignty, Prometheus might be granted a pardon. But Prometheus was outraged at this proposal; he was a god, and would not stoop to such an apology. Had not Zeus been the true traitor? Had he not betrayed and bound a fellow god? Oceanos begged his brother to allow him at least a word with Zeus on his behalf, but Prometheus dismissed his offer, calling it a "useless effort" and claiming that if Oceanos tried to intervene, he too would be in danger of punishment for siding with a rebel.
Before his reluctant withdrawal, Oceanos chastised his brother for his arrogance and warned that he would someday be sorry for it. Prometheus responded that he would rather suffer forever than beg for the forgiveness of Zeus.
Io, the daughter of Inachus, a river god, was the next to pass. Zeus had once tried to seduce the lovely Io, but Hera, his jealous wife, had discovered her husband's intentions and turned poor Io into a cow, left to wander about the earth, constantly pursued and tormented by the gadfly. Io complained about her unhappy fate. Prometheus only responded with fresh lamentations on his own misery. Finally, though, he offered Io some consolation: he revealed, through prophetic knowledge, the time and day when she would be restored to her true form. Io pled for Prometheus to tell her more, but he would divulge only this: Zeus would one day give her back her beauty, and she would bear Zeus a son. After three generations had passed, one of this offspring' s descendants (Hercules) would rise up and overpower Zeus, and finally free Prometheus from his mountain isolation.
No sooner did the Titan finish imparting this information, than the gadfly renewed his torment or poor Io, driving her off in a frenzy.
Now Prometheus had openly denounced Zeus and had predicted his downfall. This blasphemous invective did not go unheard by the chief god, who dispatched the messenger Hermes both to rebuke Prometheus and to inquire after the meaning of his prophecies.
This third visitor questioned Prometheus concerning the report that one of Zeus' own descendants would someday usurp him. Exactly who would bear the child? What would be the child's name? Prometheus, more bitter than ever, scornfully refused to answer any of these questions. Rather, in a brilliant and biting exchange, he belittled Hermes as nothing more than a puppet-slave to Zeus: "I'd rather suffer here in freedom than be a slave to Zeus as you are."
Hermes: Your words declare you mad.
Prometheus: Yes, if it's madness to detest my foes.
Hermes: No one could bear you in success.
Prometheus: Alas!
Hermes: Alas! Zeus does not know that word.
Prometheus: Time in its aging course teaches all things.
Hermes: But you have not yet learned a wise discretion.
Prometheus: True, or I would not speak so to a servant.
With this, Hermes made off in a huff, quickly retreating from the revenge he knew would arrive forthwith on the proud captive; and indeed Prometheus' fate was soon sealed. The enraged Zeus sent a thunderbolt hurtling down to shatter the cliff, and with blasts of wind, opened an abyss-dungeon deep within the trembling earth. Thus damned, Prometheus was thrust down to this hellish punishment - until the time should come for his escape.
This simple yet compelling drama is almost devoid of action, but full of reflection and ideas. For this reason, it has enjoyed more success as a dramatic poem than as a play - a work to be read rather than staged.
It is quite natural for the reader to sympathize with Prometheus here, and to see Zeus as a pitiless, imperious young tyrant, more concerned with suppressing insubordination than with the general welfare of his subjects. We ought to remember, however, that Prometheus Bound is only the first in a trilogy. The Zeus depicted in the second play, Prometheus Unbound, is far less stern; he reconciles with Prometheus and frees him.
Those who denounce Governments and other institutions as oppressors of the individual have frequently used the plots of these plays as figurative evidence. For instance, a scientist who uncovers a principle that appears to contradict established religious or scientific tenets could identify with Prometheus when his findings are ridiculed or suppressed.
Prometheus, a god made subject to suffering by the pettiness of gods, is symbolic of man's petty inhumanity to man. Even as the figure of Prometheus, with the daughters of Oceanos around him, sinks out of sight, he cries out:
Ocean and sky are one great chaos!
So mighty a gale comes only from Zeus:
He sends it to rouse wild fear in my heart ....
O glorious mother, O sky that sends
The racing sun to give all thing s light,
You see what injustice I suffer!

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