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Prometheus Bound

  • Michael Ewans (a1)

In this paper I shall outline a possible new interpretation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. I find that despite universal agreement that this drama has immediate and deep relevance to our lives, there is no available reading which comes closely to grips with the rich, specific details of the play as well as its broad outline. Prometheus Bound is neither a symbolist drama nor an allegory, since the Olympian gods and their predecessors were immediate, shared reality for the Greeks of the early fifth century. So we should begin by asking what Aeschylus meant by his choice of scene and subject, and in particular what issues would have been evoked for the Athenian audience by the confrontation between Prometheus and Zeus.

The manuscripts place before this drama an excerpt from the History of Poetry attributed to Dionysius the younger. Singling out Aeschylus' Prometheus plays for special praise, the author comments that ‘the dramas are filled with the most senior of the gods, and all the masks, both on the stage and in the orchêstra, are divine’.

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These notes are primarily intended to direct readers to the evidence for my own contentions. They do not refer extensively to previous discussions of Prometheus Bound. This is because the article is designed more to outline a direction in which interpretation of the play might profitably go than to rehearse familiar lines of argument.

1. I am reluctant to apply such terms as symbolism and allegory to a relationship as direct as that between Aeschylus, his audience, and the gods of Greek myth. Though direct, this mode of communication is not naive; Aeschylus’ Olympian vocabulary is as complex as his political imagery. Cf. the Introduction to my Janácek’s Tragic Operas (London 1977). I shall return to these matters in Aeschylus and Wagner, now in progress. I should add that I find Zeus no less harsh in the Oresteia than in Prometheus Bound, even if the emphasis on his tyranny, natural in a play which describes his seizure of power, is less pronounced in the extant complete trilogy.

2. I have nothing to add to the debates of those who believe that the authorship of this play can be determined by analysis and argument. We simply do not have enough surviving Greek tragedies. Each reader must have the courage of his or her own subjective convictions. Mine are clear from what follows.

3. Iliad 1.188f.

4. On this cf. Ramus 4 (1975), 17–32.

5. Theogony, 507–616.

6. Cf. e.g. Sophocles, fr. 432, Pearson.

7. Works and Days, 106f.

8. For the Kronos/Chronos identification cf. Aristotle Peri kosmou, 401a 15.

9. A similar sequence is latent in the Theogony. There also Zeus first persecuted the Titans with singular violence and then, when his power was confirmed, consolidated his position by the addition of intelligence — in this case by union with Metis (Th. 886f.).

10. Cf. M. L. West on Theogony, 511.

11. This type of sequence recurs throughout the Oresteia; cf. e.g. the destruction of the temples at Troy and the consequent scattering of the Greek fleet, Ag. 338f. and 527 with 644f.

12. Cf. J. D. P. Bolton, Aristeas of Proconnesus, 45f.

13. Westphal, cf. Thomson, Aeschylus; Prometheus Bound, p. 33, n. 3.

14. Scholion on Prometheus Bound, 94.

15. Fr. 193, cf. Prometheus Bound, 1021f.

16. Frs. 200 and 201, cf. Prometheus Bound, 771–774.

17. Cf. Scholion to Prometheus Bound, 167, and Probus on Virgil, Eclogue 6.42.

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  • ISSN: 0048-671X
  • EISSN: 2202-932X
  • URL: /core/journals/ramus
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