Prometheus Bound: a Tragedy of Communicative Action

face of a prisoner

The fifth-century Athenian tragedy Prometheus Bound can be divided into three segments. The binding of Prometheus, which is action represented on stage, defines the first segment. The second segment consists of characters approaching Prometheus and speaking with him. Zeus’s attack on Prometheus by means of thunder, wind, and storm makes up the third segment. The first and third segments together amount to only 9% of the lines of the play. Prometheus Bound scarcely represents action other than communication.

Describing Prometheus Bound as scarcely representing action would be anachronistic and misleading. Speaking at city-organized gatherings – legislative sessions, court sessions, festivals – were common, important acts for male Athenian citizens in fifth-century Athens. Education of young men sought to produce good speakers. With a good speech, a man could win friends and social status, or avoid a costly, adverse court judgment.

In historical context, Prometheus Bound is a tragedy of communicative action. Movement between different communicative standpoints and styles is the main plot in Prometheus Bound. A significant aspect of that plot is movement from silence to speech. In the first segment of the drama, Prometheus is silent as he is bound. Prometheus begins to speak in the second segment, and others come to speak with him. In the third segment, Prometheus is punished even more harshly. But Prometheus is not then silent. He speaks throughout his increased agony of punishment.

In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus speaks with sharp, rapid, and psychologically unmotivated changes in form, tone, and scope. Prometheus’s first words are high-heroic speech. They grandly address cosmic elements — Light, Ocean, Earth, Sun — and call on them to focus on him. Prometheus then behaves like an ordinary mortal. Chanting, he cries and groans in pain. Switching to speech, he speaks confusedly. He then sings of his specific sense impressions of the moment and chants, “I’m afraid!”

The plot of the Prometheus myth was already well-known to Athenian festival participants. While a matter of some scholarly controversy, festival participants plausibly expected the eagle to attack Prometheus in accordance with the known Promethean myth.^ ^ Instead, the Oceanides appear. These timid, young, female gods sing to Prometheus, “Don’t be afraid.” Heroes, especially tragic ones, usually aren’t offered such comfort immediately after their first words on stage. The idea of the “tragic hero” is mainly a modern critical invention with little relevance to the ancient Greek understanding of tragedy.^ In any case, Prometheus is not a conventional tragic hero.

Shortly after the Oceanides comfort Prometheus, Prometheus presents himself as one who will conquer Zeus. The Oceanides speak of Zeus’s tyrannical power and unbending will. Prometheus responds by asserting, with masculine bravado, that he is stronger than Zeus:

I’ll have my day.
It will come, that day.
when this Immortal King of the Blest
will come to me,
will call for me,
who suffer here in chains,
in agony,

He will not charm me with
honeyed words of sweet
Persuasion, nor will I bend to the
hammer-blows of his
threats, not till he
sets me free from these cruel chains and
pays me satisfaction for my

Prometheus, in agony, imagines Zeus attempting to charm him with “honeyed words of sweet Persuasion.” That image figures the Oceanides’ approach much more directly than Zeus’s. Under Zeus’s orders, hammer blows of Hephaestos have just put Prometheus into agony. Prometheus in turn threatens Zeus. Prometheus’s words don’t contribute to coherent characterization of Prometheus. They also don’t have a plausible context for action. Prometheus’s words put in play force, persuasion, right, and compensation as concepts for communicative concern.

Prometheus’s choices of allies, while also not well-motivated, effectively set out additional themes of friendship and justice. Prometheus, a Titan, initially offers his fellow Titans “good advice.” But the Titans “scorned my cunning strategy.” So Prometheus offers his services to Zeus. Zeus is an Olympian fighting with his fellow Olympians against the Titans. Zeus and the Olympians, with the help of the Titan Prometheus, defeat the Titans. Zeus then distributes victors’ privileges to the Olympian gods. Zeus offers nothing to humans and resolves to stamp them out. Prometheus, a god, acts in defense of humans. One might imagine that Prometheus felt a profound attraction to underdogs, or perhaps just humans. That’s mere speculation. Moreover, that sort of speculation didn’t much occupy the ancient Greeks. For the ancient Greeks, the key question was not Prometheus’s character. The key question was how one should act toward him in light of claims of friendship and right.

Prometheus presents multiple, non-psychological levels of self-perception. His self-perception spans from cosmic nature to ordinary human relations:

here I hang,
a toy for winds to
play with, a source of
joy to my

As “a toy for winds to play with,” Prometheus is an insignificant entity from a cosmic perspective. As “a source of joy to my enemies,” particular men are responding with pleasure at the sight of Prometheus’s agony. Juxtaposing these views doesn’t make for psychologically coherent speech. Prometheus sees himself from the outside. He doesn’t express the depths of his personal, psychological state.

Analyses of character in Prometheus Bound have yielded incoherent figures. One scholar notes in the language of the drama reciprocity:

the constant recurrence of key concepts and terms, now applied by Prometheus to Zeus or his supporters, now shown by the other characters, or acknowledged by Prometheus, to be equally applicable to himself.^

Another scholar states that Prometheus is “deliberately represented as an unstable compound of mortal sufferer and immortal prophet.”^ The presumption of coherent characterization makes Prometheus Bound into a nightmare:

we are at the nightmare stage of this universe, in which the true nature of any character, at any level, is hopelessly elusive.^

One might see a strain of Zeus in Prometheus, and perhaps also of Prometheus in Zeus.^ Yet that’s not how fifth-century Athenians would have seen Prometheus Bound. Characterization was only of secondary importance for Prometheus Bound in fifth-century Athens. That’s also true of ancient representations of Prometheus more generally.

Communicative action in Prometheus Bound moves between the communicative acts of Hephaistos and the Oceanides. Hephaestos describes himself as kin and friend to Prometheus. Hephaistos, in close bodily contact with Prometheus, presents conflicting second-personal claims:

I’m not the one doing this, I want you to know.
This is no more my will than it is yours.

Only this man himself could blame me.^

This conflict between second-personal claims ends after the Oceanides’ third-personal declaration of solidarity:

How dare you tell me to be a coward?
I’ll suffer with him,
I’ll be at this side,
no matter what comes.^

Zeus then strikes with a thunderbolt and sinks Prometheus into the earth, beyond the realm of ordinary second-personal communication. Between these communications of Hephaistos and the Oceanides are a variety of other standpoints and styles of communication with Prometheus.

Communicative action within Prometheus Bound is extraordinary. Athenians’ standpoints and styles in communication depended on whether they were at a city function or within the household, on the relative status of parties to the speech or conversation, and on the objectives of the speakers. Athenians spoke little about specific punishments. A person being punished is in a politically determined, degrading position. How to speak with such persons presented a poetic problem. Specific choices in communicative standpoints and styles in communicating with a prisoner necessarily were significant choices of action. Those communicative actions are the action of Prometheus Bound.

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