In Aeschylus’ renowned Greek play, Prometheus, Bound, Prometheus is shackled and held by Zeus for disobeying divine order. Prometheus tries to get out of his predicament by justifying his actions and attacking the character and divinity of Zeus. Could it be that Zeus is not the noble god that he is deemed? While Aeschylus does draw a series of interesting similarities between Zeus and Prometheus, the irony of these similarities reveals that in spite of them, Zeus still prevails as god and king. While Prometheus’ plea is compelling, ultimately Aeschylus is just providing a raw image of justice and order.
The irony is that while Prometheus tries to demonstrate that he has been wronged by Zeus, and that Zeus cannot be who he says he is, Prometheus is guilty is some of the very same charges that he imputes to Zeus. One such example is stubbornness. Early on, Prometheus declares that one of Zeus’ flaws is his stubbornness. He says that his is why he is chained in the first place. Zeus knew that what Prometheus had done was not really worthy of such a harsh punishment, but he castigated Prometheus anyway (Aeschylus 907-8). Yet, Prometheus himself displays the same stubbornness he indicts Zeus for. Prometheus’ anger against Zeus never relinquishes throughout the duration of the play. It is one of the cornerstones of the story. “‘Zeus will one day be ‘humble,’ Prometheus predicts towards the end of the play (908); “you are not yet humble,” Oceanus tells Prometheus (320)” (Podlecki 287). In his determination to point fingers at Zeus, Prometheus has overlooked his own questionable behavior.
Another of Prometheus’ claims against Zeus is that he orchestrates the other gods to do his will. Prometheus demonstrates disdain for what he clearly sees as an unfair manipulation of others. However, Prometheus, too, attempts to sway opinion. In fact, Prometheus is also a god, albeit a “smaller” god, of sorts. He uses nature to aid his cause. He looks to Hephaestus and Io to support him and push for his cause. Anthony Podlecki explains that this hypocritical pattern we see in Prometheus is not necessarily unique to Prometheus Bound. The concept “hydris,” or the motivated ignorance of the hero, is actually very common in Greek theater (Podlecki 289). Yet, it doesn’t necessarily help explain all of the very intricate similarities and reciprocities that take place throughout the play.
These surface level similarities between characters go much deeper. Their similarities are a starting point for a further irony that drives the conflict and plot of the play. Robert Houbeck is sympathetic to reading into the strange way that Zeus is characterized as a result. Houbeck notes that the overall depiction of Zeus is highly unusual: “The poet has portrayed him as brutal, vengeful, insecure-not at all the far-seeing, wise Father-Zeus of Hesiod or the other surviving plays of the Aeschylean corpus” (Houbeck 33). Despite his cries for help and compelling story, Prometheus nonetheless violated rules that were important for the function and well-being of all that Zeus oversaw. Further, we see Zeus in a somewhat sticky position when he ends up needing Prometheus’ take on the prophecy. So, even though we see Prometheus and Zeus as similar in character and dependent on one another, rather than merely declare a draw, Aeschylus has an agenda to fulfill and a moral to tell.
Prometheus attempts to show the fickleness and fallibility of the gods in multiple ways. One way that is seen numerous times is his call to nature both to help him and to commiserate with him. Likewise, through his cruel and seemingly inconsistent view of Zeus in relation to his other works, Aeschylus has sought to depict a robust image of justice and truth. Aeschylus does not believe Zeus to be unfair or severe. In fact, he believes quite the contrary. He does believe that Zeus is a proper and powerful god. However, he acknowledges that faith, worship, religion in general, is not always easy or straightforward. So, he tells the story of Prometheus, bound by Zeus, in order to show the sometimes dark and harsh side to what is just. While some might think that this is too convenient an interpretation, Houbeck defends his thesis that Zeus remains godlike in this play by reminding his audience that the “harsh” depiction of Zeus in Prometheus, Bound, does not only deviate from the style of the time, but from the rest of Aeschylus’ works as well (Houbeck 36-7). While it is possible that this is merely an anomaly, it seems highly unlikely.
Ironically, in this play, rather than seeing the gods as all good and powerful, we see a god in the thick of a difficult decision. We see him criticized and pitted against a less powerful and divine character. While the audience may be tempted to denounce the power of the gods when faced with a picture of a god in such a fallible position, Aeschylus actually meant for this depiction to bolster belief in god. While the less than perfect aspects of Zeus are shown, in the face of Prometheus’ disobedience, ultimately Zeus comes out as capable of keeping order and maintaining divinity, even in a difficult situation. While Prometheus may see these characteristics as negative, Aeschylus shows us that Prometheus too demonstrates these vices. The difference between the two is that Zeus is of a higher order and is ordained to use his vices for good.
- Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. Translated by Marianne McDonald. 2008.
- Houbeck, Robert L. The Compassion of Orthodoxy: The Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus. Modern Age, 1986.
- Podlecki, Anthony J. Reciprocity in Prometheus Bound. Pennsylvania State University, 1969.