The play concerns the punishment of Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from heaven and gave it to mortals. Zeus is omnipotent but not a sympathetic character. He acts through two underlings, Strength and Force, who lead Prometheus to a barren and desolate plain, where he is to be pinned to a rock. Aside from Zeus, the play also speaks of Moira (Destiny) and Ananke (Necessity). In this respect, Aeschylus reflects the influence of Homer: Any wrongdoing must be punished.
In Aeschylus’s plays, it is often the Erinyes, or Furies, who pursue the wrongdoer, crying out for blood. They represent the primal spirit of vengeance. Even so, our sympathies in this play are with the titan, Prometheus. His wrongdoing was to steal fire and give it to mortals. We are the beneficiaries of his crime.
While chained to the rock, Prometheus is visited by the daughters of Ocean, Ocean himself, Io, and Hermes. The Oceanids explain that Zeus rules with new laws and is answerable to none, while sympathizing with Prometheus’s suffering. Ocean, a fellow titan, represents the spirit of compromise. The gods have a new ruler, he explains, so Prometheus should learn to know himself and accommodate the new ways. Io’s arrival signals a shift in the play’s direction. Like Prometheus, she suffers at the hands of the gods, loved by Zeus and driven mad by Hera. Her fate and that of Prometheus are linked: He prophesies her eventual release, and from her line of descendants will come Heracles, who will release Prometheus.
The Io episode is interwoven with a long digression in which the wanderings of Io are described. This is an example of the mythic geography that fascinated the Greeks. The final important scene involves Hermes, the messenger of the gods, who comes to order Prometheus to divulge the details of his prophecy to Io, a prophecy foretelling a threat to Zeus’s rule.
1. Prometheus will not bend to the will of Zeus.
2. He dismisses Hermes as a lackey and declares defiantly, “I would not exchange my misfortune for your servitude.”
3. Hermes promises that Zeus will send an eagle to tear out Prometheus’s liver every day.
4. The play ends with Prometheus hurling defiance. His last words, as he is swallowed by howling winds and waves, are, “I suffer unjustly.”
(Courtesy: Professor Jeremy McInerney)