Perhaps the most famous
of the severn surviving
plays of the Greek playwright Aeschylus
. The date of its composition
, but the author
's creative period
spanned the last 16 years of his life, and he died in Sicily
in either 465 or 455 BC
. It should, perhaps, be noted that there is a minority
view that the play has been wrongly attribute
d to Aeschylus
The story concerns Prometheus, a Titan from Greek Mythology who join's Zeus's rebellion against the reign of Kronos. Prometheus is also held to have fashioned humankind from clay. As the myth goes, Zeus held humans in contempt and decided to wipe them out. Prometheus, fearing for his creations, decides to give them the gift of fire, until then something only possessed by the gods. This prevents their destruction and brings the wrath of Zeus down on Prometheus's head. He is chained to a desolate rock and visited daily by an eagle, who rips out his liver (which, since Prometheus is immortal, grows back each time, only to be consumed again). Prometheus is later freed from his bondage by Heracles.
It seems that Prometheus was originally considered a rather comic figure by the Greeks, a kind of cautionary example and a reminder that you can't fight city hall. It was, in short, his own hubris that condemned Prometheus to bondage. Aeschylus, however, was one of the first to recognize the full dramatic potential of the Prometheus myth.
The play opens with Prometheus being led to the rock by Power and Violence (servants of Zeus), followed by Hephaistos bearing the chain. While it was Hephaistos from whom Prometheus stole the fire, the blacksmith is reluctant to imprison even a rebellious brother. Power instructs Hephaistos to witness, through Prometheus's example, the futility of disobeying the father of the gods. Prometheus is chained and left to lament his fate. He is in pain, but remains defiant and continues to believe that Zeus's reign is cruel and arbitrary. He is visited by Io, whom Hera (Zeus's wife) has transformed into a heifer in order to make her unattractive. Prometheus, endowed with the gift of prophecy, tells Io that one of her descendants (Heracles) will free him from his rock, thus subverting Zeus's will. Prometheus also knows that, one day, one of Zeus's own children will overthrow him. Hearing this, Zeus sends his messenger, Hermes, to get the information out of Prometheus and thereby (hopefully) avert disaster. Prometheus more or less spits in his face, telling him that he is happy to endure his torment, being warmed by the knowledge that Zeus's reign is fleeting. Yet the injustice of his situation continues to wear on Prometheus, and in the end he cries, "You see me, how unjust the things I suffer!"
This play is actually only the first installment of a trilogy, of which the final two plays are lost; only fragmentary evidence of them remains. These include Prometheus Unbound (when Heracles frees Prometheus and it is suspected that Prometheus is reconciled with Zeus) and Prometheus Pyrphoros about which almost nothing is known save the title.
The play's powerful ideas--rebellion against divine tyranny, the nobility of suffering for a just cause, and the belief in the ability of man to challenge even the gods--resonate even today, and have influenced many of history's great thinkers. Even today, the image and tragedy of Prometheus retain the power to move the modern mind.