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Prometheus Bound serves as an allegory radiant in theme. Yet, while the symbolism employed by Aeschylus is fairly ubiquitous, and while some scholars argue that the paramount issues of Aeschylus’s play lie in both Prometheus’s services to mankind and in Io’s wanderings and future progeny, it is in the relationship between Prometheus and Zeus that the most notable concepts are manifested. It is through the interaction between the so-called “master of the universe” and the human-loving “superhuman” that such striking themes as individuality, justice, and moderation (or lack, thereof) can be well illustrated. (62)
The struggle between individuality and conformity has been used prevalently in literature. Examples include Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the protagonist is pressured to decide between what his own conscience deems as just and what the masses view as acceptable. The Book of Job provides a biblical instance in which this same theme is introduced in the relationship between the ill-fated Job and his Comforters. Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound serves as yet another example where the battle between individuality and orthodoxy, apparent in the conflict between Prometheus and Zeus, is introduced as one of the central issues of the play.
As Zeus “ascended to the throne that was his father’s,” he intended to “blot out the [unhappy breed of mankind].” (74) “Against these plans stood none save [Prometheus]: He dared. He rescued men from shattering destruction that would have carried them to Hades’ house,” though quite aware of the troubles that his actions would inevitably ensue. (74, 75) In doing so, in “sinning against the immortals,” that is, in going against the status quo, “giving honor, [instead], to the creatures of the day,” he is condemned to torture on a rock, “a bitterness to suffer, and a pain to pitiful eyes.” (100, 74) The fact that Prometheus selflessly “gave to mortal man precedence over [himself] in pity” is, indeed, admirable, and might even suggest that he is a symbol of Jesus Christ. However, the protagonist is flawed by his excessively “vain tongue” and “stoutness of heart.” (72, 77)
Thus, Aeschylus also introduces the theme of immoderation as the cause of one’s demise. Prometheus, rebuffing the warnings of the other immortals to “bring [his] proud heart to know a true discretion in the face of ruin,” doggedly refuses to yield to the commands of Zeus. (103, 104) His fortitude is commendable, but his excessive arrogance is not and it is this “obstinacy that has brought him to this self-willed calamitous anchorage.” (101) Prometheus is not, however, the only victim of immoderation. Zeus, because of his hedonistic pursuits, is prophesized to “make a marriage which one day he will rue? a marriage that shall drive him from his power and from the throne, out of the sight of all.” (93, 99) The ancient Greeks believed in the importance of moderation, reason, and order. By creating a scenario in which a violation of these principles would lead to one’s downfall, Aeschylus reveals the rationale behind the Greeks’ belief.
As in The Book of Job, the justice of the superior power, Zeus, is questioned in Prometheus Bound. The chief god is characterized as an oppressive dictator, who is “so hard of heart that he finds joy in” the torture of Prometheus, and is likewise indifferent to the torment of Io, who only suffers because of Zeus’s lustful desires. (71, 86-87) A self-seeking tyrant, Zeus has brought “what was great before” his reign to “nothingness,” so as to not be threatened by the possibility of an overthrow. (71) The customs established under Zeus’s regime are those which “seem good to Zeus himself” those which “satisfy his [own] heart.” (75, 71) Thus, “the customs by which Zeus rules?have no law to them,” indeed? for “the law,” as defined by Aristotle, “is reason free from passion.” When Zeus persecutes Prometheus merely for his “human-loving disposition,” it is evident that he does so simply because of his prejudice towards the human race, and not because of any rational law. (65)
It is through the clash between Zeus and Prometheus that the imperfections of both characters are exposed. By presenting their flaws in this way, Aeschylus warns his audience of the consequences of tyranny and immoderation. Aeschylus also cautions that unconformity, however noble the cause may be, will unavoidably result in hardship. Thus, Prometheus Bound, because of its allegorical themes and central conflict, serves as a guide for both civil and governmental audiences.
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