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Prometheus Bound | Themes

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The themes in Prometheus Bound revolve around the relationship between those who rule and those who are ruled.

Tyranny

In Prometheus Bound Zeus is portrayed as a classic tyrant: brutal, mistrustful, and stubborn. Although Zeus is never directly represented on the stage, the play draws a clear portrait of tyranny by illustrating its effects on those subject to his rule. From the very beginning Zeus rules by brute force, which is represented on the stage by his two thuggish lieutenants, Strength (sometimes translated as Power) and Violence. The first (and practically the only) action that occurs onstage is the chaining and impaling of Prometheus to the rocky cliff in the Prologos, executed by a weeping and sorrowful Hephaestus (god of fire and forge) under the direction of a bullying Strength.

Zeus's harshness is linked to his newness as ruler of Olympus. Several times in the play Zeus is referred to as a new master of the gods. As a new ruler, Zeus has deliberately crushed the previous generation of gods and is particularly heavy-handed in dealing with Prometheus. Even Hephaestus, who is ostensibly on the winning side, remarks, "Power newly won is always harsh." As a new ruler, Zeus violates past tradition and seems to rule by laws he has just made up: "These are new laws indeed / By which Zeus tyrannically rules," says the Chorus. And there is nothing to stop or moderate his actions. As Oceanus mentions in Episode 1, "[W]e are ruled by one / Whose harsh and sole dominion none may call to account."

For Zeus's subjects life is hard. All live in fear of him and seem to tiptoe around, hoping to avoid his notice. He had kept fire and knowledge from humans, and would have destroyed them but for Prometheus's intervention. He is stubborn and inexorable, as the Chorus notes: "the son of Cronos is unapproachable in temper, / And no words can soften his heart." He mistrusts his friends, treating Prometheus with "ignominy" and brutality, and he oppresses women through sex, as seen through the example of the pitiful Io.

Knowledge versus Brute Force

Prometheus Bound deals with the struggle between brute force and knowledge as a means of wielding and maintaining power, represented by the contest between Zeus and Prometheus. Brute force, though dominant at the beginning of the play, is portrayed as being an older and cruder means of control. The audience immediately witnesses the suffering and injustice caused by Zeus's reliance on physical force in the actions of his two lieutenants, Strength and Violence, who are his direct representatives onstage. Force is the heavy-handed means by which Zeus maintains power, but the audience also learns early in the play it was brute force in which the Titans had mistakenly placed their faith, and it lead to their downfall.

Prometheus, whose name means "wise-before-the-event," or forethought, knew that "not brute strength, / Not violence, but cunning must give victory / To the rulers of the future," which is why he switched sides and supported Zeus. Zeus now seems to put his faith in the same quality his fallen opponents had trusted, which hints at what may happen to him in the future. It is clear Zeus's forces do not value knowledge, for Strength says of Prometheus, "All his wisdom is but folly before Zeus." Although Prometheus suffers under Zeus's forceful hand, he knows ultimately knowledge will win, and he knows his knowledge of the future will make him powerful: "I ... / Shall yet be needed by the lord of immortals / To disclose the new design, tell him who it is / Shall rob him of his power and his glory."

Knowledge in the form of prophecy takes a central position in the play. It is knowledge of the future that keeps Prometheus defiant and gives him his power. The Chorus and Io are drawn to Prometheus's prophetic ability and are given strength by knowledge of what he tells them.

Compassion for Humanity

Just as Zeus is portrayed as villainous and tyrannical because of his disdain for human beings, Prometheus's compassion for humanity renders him heroic. In many tales from Greek mythology, the gods show little concern for humans, as does Zeus in Prometheus Bound: Prometheus says, "Of wretched humans he took no account, resolved / To annihilate them and create another race."

In contrast to Zeus, Prometheus is fundamentally a compassionate soul, as is evident in his unwillingness to see others suffer because of him, which is why he urges Oceanus not to intervene on his behalf. Prometheus also shows great compassion for the suffering of Io. It is Prometheus's compassion for humans that has resulted in the torment the audience sees him endure throughout the play. Not only does he save humankind from extinction, he teaches them a long list of arts and sciences, turning them from mindless brutes into human beings: "All human skill and science was Prometheus' gift."

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