Classics Aeschylus' Prometheus
by
Nikos Manousakis
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0407

Introduction

Prometheus Bound (Prometheus Vinctus) is a tragedy of disputed authorship in the Aeschylean corpus, and the only extant Greek drama populated almost entirely by divine beings. The play was popular in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and subsequent centuries. It puts on stage the feud between the Titan Prometheus, a member of the older generation of gods, and Zeus, the leader of the new divine order, the Olympians. The plot consists of a series of encounters between the immobile Titan, Zeus’ vassals/accomplices/emissaries, and a supernaturally afflicted mortal—a victim of Zeus’ passion. Prometheus opens with an interlocutory prologue of two speaking (Hephaestus, Power) and two nonspeaking (Prometheus, Violence) characters. It is set far in uninhibited Scythia, where, by Zeus’ order, Hephaestus, Power, and Violence take Prometheus to be bound: paying the penalty for stealing fire, a divine possession, and offering it to the mortals. Reluctant at first, Hephaestus eventually yields and binds his kindred god. After the three deities leave, the Titan is left alone on stage, speaking a soliloquy about his sorrows, when, suddenly, a Chorus of Oceanids arrives. The divine maidens show pity for the sufferer, and he recounts the story of how he (along with his mother Themis–Gaia) benefited Zeus, helping him to become ruler of the gods, and how the Olympian is repaying him. Then the maidens’ father, Oceanus, another Titan, who is, however, on very good terms with the currently prevailing order, visits Prometheus’ remote exile. He attempts to change the bound Titan’s mind and bring reconciliation with Zeus. However, Prometheus sends him away, refusing to comply and to be politic. Subsequently, the only human character in the play enters. Daughter of Inachus, king of Argos, Io has now grown horns (the actor is shown onstage wearing a horned mask) as part of her transformation into a cow, and is pursued by a gadfly due to Hera’s jealousy of her husband’s lust for the mortal girl. She is driven to Prometheus’ rock of torture, where the two have a long conversation, and the Titan foretells the end of her wanderings: Zeus will release her from her pains in Egypt. Yet Prometheus also reveals, to a certain extent, how Zeus’ reign will come to an end: the Olympian ruler will father a son superior to him, and this son will remove him from power. Io leaves, and Hermes is sent to the bound Prometheus to draw out the secret about Zeus’ future fall. The Titan refuses to cooperate and Zeus causes an earthquake, throwing him into Tartarus. The Chorus, contrary to Hermes’ advice, stays with Prometheus. This drama is a technically demanding spectacle: it involves a Chorus airborne in some kind of car, an airborne Oceanus riding a mythic bird, and, most likely, a somehow visibly perceivable earthquake. By Aeschylean standards, there are not many textual difficulties in this play, and its Greek is comparatively easy.

Editions, Commentaries, and Introductions

The standard editions of Aeschylus one should now consult when studying this (or as a matter of fact any other) play in the poet’s corpus are Page 1972 and West 1990a. Both works provide us with some very interesting (more or less daring) ideas and conjectures on this text. Griffith 1983 and Podlecki 2005 (includes an English translation) are the currently most useful critical editions of the play accompanied by a detailed commentary. One can also find some insightful comments on the play in the older editions Groeneboom 1928 and Thomson 1932. Sommerstein 2008a, now the most practical edition of the drama, is accompanied by a philologically accurate English translation. Ruffell 2012 is a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the play. Calderón Dorda 2015 is a handy, relatively recent edition with Spanish translation.

  • Calderón Dorda, Esteban, ed. 2015. Esquilo Tragedias V: Prometeo Encadenado; Fragmentos de otras tragedias sobre Prometeo. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas.

    A useful critical edition with Spanish prose translation of Prometheus Bound and the fragments of the Prometheus plays. The book is also aimed at a wide audience.

  • Conacher, Desmond J. 1980. Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound: A literary commentary. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    A close literary analysis of the play with two appendices discussing the problems of authorship and staging, respectively. The most interesting sections are those on the use of the myth by the author of Prometheus Bound, the Chorus, and the dramatic quality of the play. To Conacher, Prometheus Bound is a great Aeschylean drama. Yet it seems that he is biased to believe the play is Aeschylean because he feels it is great.

  • Griffith, Mark, ed. 1983. Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The editor’s erudition and sharpness are clear in the text (though based on secondary sources) and comments; the introduction is to the point and illuminating. The most original and valuable remarks are those about the language and meter of the play.

  • Groeneboom, Petrus, ed. 1928. Aeschylus’ Prometheus. Groningen, The Netherlands: J. B. Wolters.

    In Dutch. A thorough critical apparatus. Some comments are still perceptive and worth a look. There is not much in the introduction. Reprinted in 1966 by Uitgeverij Adolf M. Hakkert.

  • Page, Denys L., ed. 1972. Aeschyli septem quae supersunt tragoediae. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    A very careful source-centered (though unduly inflexible at times) edition of all seven plays in the Aeschylean corpus. This scholar aims more at representing what can be made out of the manuscript tradition than reconstructing the poet’s possible ipsissima verba.

  • Podlecki, Antony J., ed. 2005. Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound. Warminster, UK: Aris and Phillips.

    Text and English translation are printed on opposite pages. Some parts in the introduction are original and very interesting (especially the Near Eastern parallels). There are also interesting (mainly thematic) observations in the commentary.

  • Ruffell, Ian. 2012. Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound. Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Bristol Classical Press.

    All a nonexpert needs to know before reading the play, but also a book with various new and fascinating ideas. Some aspects of the play are treated schematically mainly due to the nature of this companion work.

  • Sommerstein, Alan H., ed. 2008a. Aeschylus: Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants, Prometheus Bound. Loeb Classical Library 145. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Currently the most accessible edition of the play; and the English translation of Prometheus Bound most often used by academics and others.

  • Thomson, George, ed. 1932. Aeschylus: The Prometheus Bound. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The commentary—even though outdated—is meticulous. The translation is linguistically old-fashioned but artfully crafted. The introduction is not great. Reprinted in 1988 by Ayer Company Publishers. The translation alone was also printed by Dover Publications in 1995.

  • West, Martin L., ed. 1990a. Aeschyli Tragoediae cum incerti poetae Prometheo. Stuttgart: B. G. Teubner.

    Edition of all seven plays in the Aeschylean corpus with an excellent critical apparatus—the first to acknowledge in the title that Prometheus Bound is of a different, unknown, author. This scholar treats the Aeschylean text cautiously but also imaginatively (the outcome is brilliant in many cases but can also be to some extent forced in others).

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