DATE: unknown, if by Aeschylus late in his career (460–456)
CHARACTERS: Power, Hephaistos, Prometheus, Okeanos, Io, Hermes; Force (silent)
CHORUS: daughters of Okeanos
SETTING: a crag in the Caucasus mountains, at the eastern end of the earth
In the recent war between the older Titans and the younger Olympian gods, Prometheus (a Titan) had sided with Zeus and been largely responsible for the victory of the Olympians. When he learned that Zeus was intending to destroy the human race, he gave men fire, in this play a symbol of all human civilization and technology, and saved them from extinction. As punishment Zeus has Prometheus chained to and impaled upon a rock in the Caucasus Mountains. He is visited by the daughters of Okeanos (the god of the sea that surrounds the world) and then by Okeanos himself, to whom he justifies what he has done and foretells (his name means “fore thought”) that even Zeus is subject to Necessity. Io arrives, the play’s only human character, with whom Zeus has fallen in love, whom Hera has changed into a heifer and is cruelly driving around the world with fits of madness and pain. Io recounts her past and Prometheus predicts her future: she will end up in Egypt, be healed by Zeus, and bear him a son; her descendant (Herakles) will release Prometheus from his rock. He then tells the chorus his secret: by whom Zeus can be overthrown. Hermes, official emissary of the Olympians, arrives to wring this secret from Prometheus, but Prometheus refuses, and is catapulted into Tartaros by a violent tempest.
For the past generation the authorship of this play has been seriously questioned. In many ways it is more like a play by Sophokles in the 430s than a mature work by Aeschylus. Features of style and meter, the reduced role of the chorus, matters of staging, and the radically different concept of Zeus have led some scholars to conclude that this might be an unfinished work, perhaps completed by Aeschylus’ son Euphorion, who won the prize in 431. Another play, Prometheus Unbound, certainly followed, and a Prometheus Pyrphoros (“Fire-Bringer”) has been seen as the first or third play of a trilogy. The most significant feature of the play, apart from the controversy over author and date, is the concept of Zeus, who elsewhere in Aeschylus is the patron and dispenser of Dike (Justice) but here is a rough young ruler, with all the stereotypical arrogance of a tyrant. Did Zeus “evolve” in the later play(s), or was he simply forced into a deal to release Prometheus in return for the secret? Prometheus and his gift of fire represent great symbols in human existence: practical knowledge, “blind hope,” the desire to progress and succeed against all odds, community and civilization”: “all arts (technai) that humans have are owed to Prometheus.”
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005