As Prometheus Bound opens, Kratos and Bia, the servants of Zeus, escort an imprisoned Prometheus and a reluctant Hephaistos to the top of the Scythian mountains, the very edge of Greek civilization. Kratos is the will of Zeus, and he lives to carry out the king’s orders. He is the personification of Zeus’s unyielding power, and he cannot be swayed from his course. Bia is also beholden to Zeus, and is the embodiment of Zeus’s violence. Kratos orders Hephaistos to “bind the criminal” to the face of the mountain. Prometheus has stolen fire, Hephaistos’s “flower,” and given it to humankind. “This is the crime for which he must now pay,” Kratos says, so Prometheus can “learn / to love the tyranny of Zeus / and quit his friendship with the human race.”
Hephaistos does not want to bind Prometheus. Prometheus is his “kin,” Hephaistos says, and he doesn’t have the “courage” to treat a god in such a way. However, “Necessity compels [him] to it,” and he is forced to chain Prometheus to the rock face. Hephaistos is “compelled / by the same power that holds [Prometheus] captive,” and he has little will to resist. “No mortal voice or form will bring you solace,” Hephaistos says to Prometheus as he begins to bind him. He will be left alone to suffer in the elements. Hephaistos tells Prometheus that his “rescuer is not yet born,” but his punishment is “the fruit of [his] philanthropy.” Prometheus has granted “mortals honor above their due,” and he must pay the price to Zeus. Thus, Prometheus will remain chained to the mountain, “upright, unsleeping, and never bend a knee,” until Zeus sees fit to free him.
Kratos berates Hephaistos for his “foolish pity.” No amount of sympathy will help Prometheus now, he says. Hephaistos curses his “skill” and connection to fire and wishes it was someone else’s burden. “There are no carefree gods, except for Zeus,” Kratos reminds Hephaistos. “He rules us all, so he alone is free.” Hephaistos understands, but he is still torn, and he apologizes as he finishes binding Prometheus. As Kratos and Bia turn to leave with Hephaistos, Kratos turns to Prometheus to mock him again.
Left alone, Prometheus “cannot accept [his] lot.” He has given humankind fire and taught them “every art and skill, / with endless benefit,” and now he is forced to live on the mountain with nothing but misery headed his way. Prometheus hears a noise in the distance. “Whatever it is,” Prometheus says, “I fear it.”
Suddenly, the play’s chorus, the daughters of Okeanos, arrive in a “winged chariot.” They are sympathetic of Prometheus’s plight, and have come to offer their compassion. “What god, what creature, / would be so hard of heart / as to delight in this?” the women ask. Prometheus tells them that it was indeed Zeus who ordered his misery and confinement, and the women are eager to hear his story. Prometheus tells the women how he had initially sided with Kronos and the Titans in the early days of the Battle of the Titans. His mother, Themis, has gifted Prometheus with foresight, and he knew that the battle would be won by those with “superior guile, not might.” However, Kronos and the others refused to listen to Prometheus, preferring to rely on their strength and force instead. Prometheus then joined forces with Zeus, who defeated the Titans and banished them to Tartaros. Afterward, Zeus had planned to “expunge” the human race in his new role as king, but Prometheus saved them from being “scattered into Hades,” by giving them fire and “blind hopes to live as their companions.”
Soon, Okeanos himself appears on the back of a winged horse. He has come to help Prometheus and is prepared to appeal to Zeus on Prometheus’s behalf. He warns Prometheus not to speak ill of Zeus; he may hear him and unleash even more misery. Prometheus is grateful for his friendship, but he begs him to go home and avoid being punished himself. He reminds Okeanos of the punishment of Atlas, who is made to bear “the weight of heaven and earth” upon his shoulders, and the fallen serpentine monster, Typhon, whom Zeus buried deep beneath the mountain of Aetna. Okeanos reluctantly agrees and heads in the direction of home. Prometheus resumes his story for the chorus: he also gave the humans architecture, science, literature, mathematics, and medicine. In short, he says, “all human arts were founded by Prometheus.”
As Prometheus tells his story, Io arrives unexpectedly. “What land is this?” Io asks. She has been turned into a cow by Zeus and made to wander the land aimlessly, pursued relentlessly by a biting gadfly. She doesn’t know who Prometheus is, but she is hoping that he can tell her when her suffering will end. He tells her that he is Prometheus, the god who has given fire to man, and he tells her that her misery will endure for the rest of her days. Using his foresight, Prometheus tells Io of all the hardships she will suffer during her wandering, and he warns her of the trouble she is headed for. He tells her to keep to the “shoreline,” and to avoid the savage beings she meets along the way. She will wander through all of Europe and arrive in Asia, where she will give birth to a child, whose descendant will release Prometheus from his chains and usurp Zeus’s power. Io shrieks as the gadfly begins its biting, forcing her to resume her wandering.
As Io exits, Hermes, Zeus’s son and the messenger of the gods, arrives. Zeus has heard Prometheus talking, and he wants to know what Prometheus knows. Hermes orders Prometheus to tell him about Zeus’s fated marriage and son, but he refuses to oblige. Hermes claims it is “arrogance” that silences Prometheus. He says that if Prometheus stays silent, he will befall a “threefold tidal wave of misery.” He will remain on the mountain until Zeus strikes it down, burying Prometheus in the process. Then Zeus’s “winged hound, a scarlet eagle,” will feast upon Prometheus’s liver each day, until some other god willingly takes his place. Prometheus is still unyielding. “I’ll say it plainly,” Prometheus proclaims. “I hate all the gods / for repaying right with wrong and good with evil.” As Hermes leaves Prometheus alone with the chorus, Prometheus can feel the misery coming his way. “Oh holy Mother Earth,” Prometheus cries, “oh sky whose light revolves for all, / you see me. You see / the wrongs I suffer.”