Posted in History, Media

They’re Reading Greek Tragedy Online – Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound

With a full performance of Elektra being done on the 22nd August, I’m going to be leaving my write up for that till then, so this week I’m going to be taking a look at Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. If you haven’t seen me say so already, it was this show, and the subsequent write up I wanted to do, that finally got me to start this blog, so I’ve had a really good time writing this one up, I’ll stop rambling and get on with it now though.

Back in September 2013, in the first lesson of my AS Classical Civilisations class, we were given a piece of homework to pick a Greek play and write something about it, at least 500 words, limit of 1000, and we had a week to do it. I chose Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, and with possibly the vaguest homework question I have ever received, I chose to write on the topic of ‘Why?’. Why is Hephaestus there, why is Io there, and why is Zeus portrayed in such a tyrannical light? With it being nearly 7 years ago, I unfortunately can’t find a copy of the essay I wrote, but in light of some of the discussion that took place on July 1st’s episode of Reading Greek Tragedy Online, I would like to delve back into that issue of ‘why?’, though maybe in a slightly less formal manner than back then.

The way I went about dissecting this was by looking at the history of the characters in question and what their individual stories represent. Neither Hephaestus or Io belong in this story, so what does their inclusion signify? Surely that significance has to be in their own stories and the mythology those characters bring to mind.

Hephaestus 

Hephaestus is a difficult character to dissect within ancient Greek literature. With his persona ranging from the jovial ‘mummy, daddy, look what i’m doing and stop arguing’ at the beginning of the Iliad to the much more serious, resentful depiction we get of him within the play there isn’t much consistency within the characterisation. That consistency is seen within the mythology though. He has been punished by the gods himself and is able to sympathise with Prometheus over his plight, but because of this experience he also knows that to disobey the orders he’s been given would be to receive more punishment at their hands. He represents fearful descent and begrudging obedience. Hephaestus knows what will befall him, causing him to follow through with his orders, in contrast to Prometheus who despite knowing what would happen, gave fire to humanity and will take his punishment willingly because he knows it will end in time. 

Io

Depending on how you read the juxtaposition within the play, you can see many ‘reasons’ for Io to be included: The contrast of the punishment of men and women; the contrast of the punishment of divinities and mortals; and much like Hephaestus, the contrast in the psychological effects knowledge can have on a person. It’s not just juxtaposition Io provides though, as Evvy very succinctly put it: ‘Io is chased to the ends of the earth and Prometheus is bound and unmoving, and in this moment there is a meeting point between the two which is suffering’. The empathy and sympathy Io has for Prometheus as she finds him gives the audience a relatable anchor within the play and being the only human character, she represents humanity and it’s suffering, empathy and sympathy as a whole. Following on from the theme of ‘knowledge’ that runs deep throughout this play, when Io finds out what her future holds, the suffering and horror not only her, but her descendants will face, she is distraught and questioning why she doesn’t just end it now, but if she does so Prometheus’ suffering will never end. 

  • Hephaestus follows his orders through fear of knowing what will happen if he doesn’t
  • Io is distraught in her knowledge but chooses to live through her suffering because she knows another’s suffering won’t end if she doesn’t 
  • Prometheus goes against the gods and gives fire to humanity, knowing the future he will face because he knows his suffering will one day come to an end

The final question then, is why is Zeus depicted in such a tyrannical light? When looked at in line with the political climate of 5th century Athens, this becomes clear. Throughout the play Prometheus makes repeated use of political, anti-authoritarian language, at one point even calling Zeus a tyrant. Prometheus Bound was written in 430 bc, about 30 years after Ephialties’ contribution to the development of Athenian Democracy set down by his predecessors Solon and Cliesthenes and the anti-authoritarian language is likely an echo of that move to democracy from the tyrannical, oligarchic rule they had previously. With that being said though, the Peloponnesian War had just started, and it’s possible, though not necessarily provable, that Aeschylus saw the direction the war would go and was warning against the inevitable collapse back into oligarchic rule that takes place towards the end of the century in the closing years of the war. 

The one question I’ve never been able to answer though, despite revisiting this several times since my first encounter with the play, is what’s worse, knowing or not knowing? Would Io have been better off in ignorance of what the future held for her, or does the knowledge give her the strength to survive? Does the knowledge Prometheus has ever actually help him, or is it only ever the cause of distrust, pain and confrontation? I’ve argued both sides over the years, and I still can’t figure out what side of the line I fall on, and in all honesty, watching the performance of this play has actually made things less clear in that regard.. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. 

I once again want to say thank you to The Centre of Hellenic Studies, Out of Chaos Theatre, and Joel Christensen, as well as this episode’s guest, Joshua Billings – Another great performance from everyone involved and a very interesting discussion with so much more covered than what I touched on today. 

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