Prometheus, Io, and Oceanides: Implicit Parody of Story-Seeking

face of a prisoner

Classical scholars haven’t sufficiently appreciated the importance of communicative standpoint in Prometheus Bound, a classical Athenian tragedy historically attributed to Aeschylus. In that tragedy, Prometheus’s encounters with Io and the Oceanides includes parody of sensational story-seeking. Scholars have generically mis-understood that aspect of the play while engaging in heated disputes about the relevant passages’ literary merit. One scholar declared:

The following dialogue ({Prometheus Bound, ll.} 613-642) is in West’s opinion “a particularly good specimen of this author’s fumbling.” …West complains that he {Prometheus} has promised to tell her {Io} everything; but she has asked to tell her what is in store for her, not to tell her about himself. Prometheus warns that this will be distressing. West imagines the audience will have thought “At last! What shilly-shallying!”; but was the audience quite so unimaginative?

The issue is not imagination, but common communicative practice. The scholar continued:

At this point the Oceanides interrupt before Prometheus tells her of her wanderings in the future to ask Io to tell her of her wanderings in the past. West hears the ghost of Aeschylus murmuring, “How can anyone think I wrote this stuff?” I should have thought that anyone who was accustomed to the techniques of early epic and tragic poetry would feel that the poet has managed the transitions from one narrative to another in a perfectly acceptable fashion, and would not talk down to them from the viewpoint of an altogether irrelevant modern realism. In fact they serve a poetic purpose, being well calculated to keep the audience in a state of suspense.^

The point seems to us not to keep the audience in a state of suspense, but to criticize sensational story-seeking through parody. Prometheus Bound is deeply concerned with second-personal communication with persons suffering in punishment.

Prometheus Bound has peculiar formal characteristics. Compared to most tragic choruses, the Oceanides engage in relatively little song (lyric and anapestic passages) in Prometheus Bound. Only about 13% of the total (Greek) lines in Prometheus Bound are choral song. That’s much less than the corresponding median figure of 42% for Aeschylus’s (securely attributed) tragedies. Prometheus Bound by this measure is similar to Sophocles’s tragedies. The latter have a median choral-song line share of 16%. For the two Euripidian tragedies with a similar choral structure to earlier tragedies, choral odes average about 21% of total lines.^

Parody wouldn’t necessarily be inappropriate in a tragedy by Aeschylus. Aeschylus’s tragedies often use complex verbal forms and images distant from Athenians’ ordinary conversational language. Aristophanes’s Frogs mocks Aeschylus’s weighty style in the agon between Aeschylus and Euripides. Perhaps that mocking of Aeschylus’s weighty style, along with Prometheus Bound’s subject matter and generic classification as tragedy, has made it difficult for readers to notice para-comedic aspects of Prometheus Bound.

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