Review by: Lawrance Bernabo, Amazon.com - July 26, 2002
There was a point at which some critics contended that "Prometheus Bound" was not actually written by Aeschylus, arguing that someone else, perhaps his son Euphorion, who was also a dramatist, was the actual author. The argument hinged on the portrait of Zeus in the play, which is highly critical of the king of the Gods and at odds with the wise and just Zeus Aeschylus presents in the "Orestia." Since we have only a half-dozen complete plays of the ninety Aeschylus is believed to have written, it is difficult to make a judgment regarding his entire body of work. However, we do have fragments from the other plays in the trilogy, "Prometheus Unbound" and "Prometheus the Fire-Carrier," which suggest that what happens in this first play sets the stage for an evolving Zeus, who eventually finds his better nature when he achieves a reconciliation with the rebel Titan. Given the dramatic scope of the "Orestia," with its evolving notion of justice, it seems to me reasonable enough that Aeschylus was attempting something similar with this trilogy.
"Prometheus Bound" finds the titan, who defied Zeus and gave humanity the saving gift of fire (among other sins), bound on a remote mountain peak with iron spikes driven through his flesh by the unwilling Hephaestus and his assistants Might and Violence, allegorical figures who define the source of Zeus's power. The scenes of the play consist of a series of dialogues between Prometheus and the ancient god Oceanus (the chorus consists of the daughters of Oceanus), Io, a woman turned into a cow because of Zeus's attentions, and Hermes, who wants to know the secret held by Prometheus that threatens the power of Zeus. Prometheus (whose name means "foresight") refuses and is then cast into the underworld to be punished further. At the heart of the play is the conflict between the immovable will of Prometheus and the irresistible force of the power of Zeus.
Clearly this tragedy speaks to an archetypal human condition, wherein physical power seeks to break the mind of an individual to its will. The audience is caught in a dilemma, for on one side is the king of the gods and on the other is the savior of humanity, for without the gift of fire early man was doomed. Indeed, that was clearly the intent of Zeus. Consequently, like Prometheus, the audience is caught between their own rock and a hard place. Fortunately, by the end of the trilogy Aeschylus gives his audience an out, for the Zeus who is represented in this play is transformed into a more acceptable deity in the end. Even without those plays and knowing the innovative brilliance of Aeschylus as a tragic dramatist, we can certainly appreciate the overall story arc that begins with this play. For teachers who do not want to contend with the entire "Orestia" or have to contend with editing it down for students, "Prometheus Bound" represents a single work by Aeschylus that is equally as pivotal to our understanding of classical mythology.