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Prometheus Bound | Context

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About Greek Tragedy

Actors performed Prometheus Bound at a Greek theater festival called the Great Dionysia. It was an annual playwriting festival and competition held to honor Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility—and theater. A goat was sacrificed to honor the god, and the word tragedy, which means "goat song," is the name for the kind of theatrical performance that evolved from the original ritualistic singing and dancing that accompanied the sacrifice. Other playwrights had written tragedy plays before Aeschylus, starting about 535 BCE, but he was the first of the great triad of writers—Aeschylus, Sophocles (c. 496–06 BCE), and Euripides (c. 484–07 BCE)—who wrote the 32 great tragedies that have survived to modern times.

Prometheus Bound is the first play of a trilogy. Only fragments remain of the other two plays in the three-play cycle, which was called in its entirety The Prometheia. For the Dionysia competition, thousands of audience members would watch the entire trilogy of plays in one day. Playwrights received an award for best tragedy, and Aeschylus won the award more often than any other playwright.

Each tragedy fit prescribed specifications:

  • The theme had to come from mythology or other ancient tales.
  • The actors had to be male and wear masks.
  • The number of speaking roles actors could have was limited to three although an actor could play multiple parts.
  • The chorus consisted of 12 to 15 performers. In Aeschylus's plays the number of chorus members was consistently 12. Later playwrights would increase the number.

Tragedies were performed in open-air theaters. Violence and death were prohibited from being shown onstage. Any violent action in the plays came through dialogue and was not shown directly. The performances took place in the orchestra area of the stage. Actors entered and exited from the skene. This was a backstage area, usually a tent or a building. Aeschylus was the first playwright to introduce a second actor to the stage, which increased possibilities for dialogue. Aeschylus's plays focused more heavily on plot and less heavily on the chorus than other plays in his era. His plays were also well-known for his bold use of imagery and elaborate costumes.

Generally, Greek plays are built on a five-part structure:

  • The Prologos: This section introduces the play's topic, including its characters, background, and setting.
  • The Parodos: The chorus sings the Entrance Ode, or Parodos. This introduces the chorus to the audience.
  • The Episodes: There are usually three to five Episodes, in which one or two actors interact with the chorus. Episodes move the plot forward.
  • The Stasima: After each episode, the chorus sings a song to comment on the scene. The chorus's reaction may reflect the view of the playwright.
  • The Exodos (or exit ode): This is the chorus's last song, where the moral is revealed or discussed.

Aeschylus and His Sources

Plays during the time of ancient Greece usually dealt with characters familiar to the Greeks and drawn from their religious tales or legends: either gods and goddesses or characters from the most important heroic tales such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. The most famous writings about the gods came from Greek poet Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) and they would have been well-known to the theater audiences of Aeschylus's time. Hesiod's poetry—Theogony and Works and Days—were important sources for any playwright who wanted to create a play based on a mythical figure. But in Prometheus Bound Aeschylus reimagines the characters in his play to fit his own dramatic purposes. Aeschylus also makes some interesting choices that show how he adapted these ancient stories of the gods for his own reasons.

In Hesiod Prometheus is more of a clever trickster figure than a hero. According to Hesiod, Prometheus gives Zeus more than just cause for his anger—Prometheus humiliates Zeus by tricking him into accepting from humans a less desirable sacrifice of an ox's fat and bones rather than the meat. This makes Zeus so angry he takes away fire from humans. Later, Prometheus sneaks it back. Zeus's punishment isn't just for bringing fire to people. It is for Prometheus's act of tricking him into choosing the lesser sacrifice, which is a challenge to his authority. Indeed, throughout Hesiod, Prometheus is not only called "wily" and "clever" and "scheming" more than he is characterized as heroic, but he has a less noble lineage as well. In Aeschylus Earth is Prometheus's mother, which would make him Zeus's uncle. In Hesiod Prometheus's mother is Clymene, a daughter of Oceanus—a lesser deity of a later generation.

Zeus, on the other hand, is treated far more favorably by Hesiod. After deposing his father, Cronos, and sending most of the Titans to Tartarus after a 10-year war called the Titanomachy, Zeus establishes a rule far superior to that of Cronos, and of his grandfather, Ouranos, because he is able to live in relative harmony with his siblings, the Olympic gods, and establish an order based on divine justice.

Another difference between Aeschylus and Hesiod is, although there is a threat to Zeus a son will supplant Zeus in both texts, and although both imply Heracles (Io's descendant) will eventually free Prometheus, only in Prometheus Bound does Prometheus have a secret prophecy to hide from Zeus. According to Hesiod, it is not Themis's child who would be a threat to Zeus, but the child of Zeus's then-wife Metis. To save himself Zeus swallows Metis, who is pregnant, and then Zeus himself gives birth to Athena, a girl, who is loyal to him. Prometheus has nothing to do with the prophecy. That means Aeschylus gives Prometheus a motivation to continue to rebel against Zeus and Zeus a reason to continue to be angry with Prometheus, heightening the conflict in the play.

Against Tyranny

Why does Aeschylus choose to personify Zeus as a cruel tyrant? To understand that it is necessary to understand what was happening in Athens at that time. Until Aeschylus was 15 years old, Athens was governed by a tyrant. Tyrants are leaders who seize power. However, they are not always unpopular. Unlike aristocrats, who inherit their thrones, sometimes they come from the middle class and have popular support. But over time, their rule often becomes corrupted. In 510 BCE the tyrant who governed Athens, Hippias, was forced to resign, and the Athenians started a radical new experiment—democracy. This new form of government, which allowed all adult male citizens of Athens to speak freely and to participate in politics through discussion and direct voting, became an important part of Athenian identity.

As an adult, Aeschylus, who came from a wealthy family, also had a chance to see how other tyrants ruled as he traveled to various city states (poleis) around Greece as he produced his plays. He was not favorably impressed. And he found himself defending Athens fiercely on the battlefield several times against the mighty Persian army, which was ruled by a tyrannical king. He distinguished himself as a soldier in the fight against the Persians so valiantly that when he died, his tombstone commemorated his military accomplishments, not his skills as a poet and a playwright.

In Prometheus Bound Zeus is cruel and distrustful of his friends and sets them against each other. He punishes Prometheus in a demeaningly personal way and makes innocent Io, a vulnerable mortal woman, suffer for his own personal gain. By having all the characters warn Prometheus he speaks too freely, Aeschylus reveals though their bodies are free, fear of Zeus has put their minds in chains. The playwright shows the problems of unchecked power vested in a single man (or god).

By making Zeus a tyrant, the play makes a case for democracy. In addition to arguing for simple justice, Prometheus Bound contains a patriotic assertion of the values, such as free speech, Aeschylus and his Athenian audience shared.

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