As the title of Aeschylus’s play suggests, the Titan Prometheus is bound to the side of a mountain by Zeus’s servants, Kratos and Bia. Shackled by chains and fear, Prometheus is made to endure endless suffering. He is exposed to the elements as he waits for Zeus’s thunderbolt to strike him down, at which time a ravenous eagle will peck at his “blackened liver.” Each night, Prometheus’s liver will regenerate only to be shredded again the next day, and this will continue until Zeus decides to spare him or until Prometheus’s savior is born in “ten generations, and another three.” Even in the face of this immense suffering, however, it is Prometheus’s confinement that is most torturous. For Prometheus, there is no chance of escape, and since he is immortal, he cannot even hope to die. “There are no carefree gods, except for Zeus,” Kratos says. “He rules us all, so he alone is free.” But while many of Aeschylus’s characters are indeed confined, both physically and by other means, Kratos’s comment is not entirely true. Despite his confinement, Prometheus’s will cannot be broken, and it is through his example that Aeschylus argues that psychological confinement is just as powerful as physical confinement.
Prometheus is not the only character in Prometheus Bound who is physically confined. Several other characters endure this fate as well, each punished by the powerful wrath of Zeus. When Typhon, a massive serpentine monster, challenged Zeus for control of the cosmos, Zeus struck him down with thunder and lighting. Now, Typhon is but “a sprawling, helpless form” “pressed down, close by the narrows of the sea,” far “beneath the roots of Aetna.” In other words, he is buried deep beneath Mount Etna, a volcano off the coast of Sicily, with no hope of escape. After Io, a mortal princess and Zeus’s lover, is transformed into a cow by Zeus to hide her from his jealous wife, Io is held captive by the “hideous mock of [her] appearance.” Her mind as well as her shape is “distorted,” and she is “ashamed” of what she has become. She sets out alone, imprisoned by her unsightly form, to “wander” the “very limits of the world.” While Typhon’s confinement is more literal and Io’s is more psychological, they are both imprisoned by Zeus, just as Kronos and the other Titans were banished to Tartaros, the dungeon of the underworld, and Atlas is forced to hold up heaven and earth for all of eternity. Like Prometheus, nearly every character is confined in some way, robbed of their freedom by an all-powerful Zeus.
Even those who are not physically confined by Zeus are still not wholly free, which implies that freedom is more than just the absence of imprisonment. When Hephaistos is forced by Kratos to bind Prometheus to the mountain, he does not want to do it. “Not of my own will but compelled,” Hephaistos says to Prometheus, “by the same power that holds you captive.” That is, Hephaistos is not held physically captive by Zeus, but he is still bound by him. After Hephaistos leaves, Okeanos (the Titan god of oceans and streams) comes to Prometheus, his old friend, to save him. “Don’t try to hold me back,” Okeanos says to Prometheus, “my will is set.” But Okeanos eventually comes to recognize that his will is not his own, and he is forced to leave Prometheus bound to the mountain or risk Zeus’s wrath himself. Even those who punish Prometheus, Kratos and Bia, are not free. They are but the servants of Zeus. Bia, or Force, is Zeus’s unyielding violence; and Kratos, or Might, is Zeus’s will. Both exist only to do Zeus’s bidding, and they are not free to act on their own volition, even if they were so inclined. Their sole purpose is to deliver punishment as handed down by Zeus.
Hermes, Zeus’s son and messenger, is likewise under Zeus’s control. According to Prometheus, Hermes is “the mouthpiece of the gods” and Zeus’s “lackey.” He is but “the carrier pigeon of our new commander in chief,” Prometheus says, and when Hermes arrives to get information of Zeus’s fate from Prometheus’s famous “forethought,” Prometheus refuses to talk. “I would not exchange my own misfortune for your slavery,” Prometheus says to Hermes. Regardless of the torment Zeus can rain down on Prometheus, he “won’t bend,” and being bound to the mountain is not enough to break his will. Despite his physical confinement, Prometheus is mentally free—he won’t be beholden to Zeus and his power.
Freedom and Confinement ThemeTracker
Freedom and Confinement Quotes in Prometheus Bound
We have arrived at the far limit of the world.
These are the Scythian mountains, desolate and vast.
Hephaistos, you must carry out the Father’s will
and bind the criminal to this steep looming rock
with chains of adamant, unbreakable.
It was your flower he stole, the bright and dancing fire,
and gave its wonderworking power to mortals.
This is the crime for which he now must pay
the price to all the gods, that he may learn
to love the tyranny of Zeus
and quit his friendship with the human race.
I can’t accept my lot—
neither in silence, nor in speech:
that I was yoked in chains
for bringing gifts to mortal men.
I hunted out and stole the secret spring
of fire, and hid it in a fennel stalk,
to teach them every art and skill,
with endless benefit. For this offense
I now must pay the penalty: to live
nailed to this rock beneath the open sky.
And yet, though I am tortured now
and bound immovably,
the Lord of the Immortals will one day
have need of me
to show him the new plot
that dooms his scepter and his pride.
No honeyed words, or threats, will sway me
to tell him what I know,
until he frees me from my chains
and grants me what he owes me for this outrage.
To know my brother Atlas stands,
at the gates of evening, bearing upon his shoulders
the weight of heaven and earth, too vast
for his encircling arms, gives me no comfort.
With grief as well I saw the earthborn dweller
in Cilicia’s cave, the hundred-headed monster
Typhon, conquered, his fury violently subdued,
who once braved all the gods with gruesome jaws,
hissing out terror, eyes ablaze, aiming to crush
the sovereign tyranny of Zeus. But flying
down against him came Zeus’ weapon, the sleepless,
fire-breathing thunderbolt, which cast him
out of his triumphant boast, for he was struck
in the very middle of his power, and all his strength
turned into ash. And now, a sprawling, helpless form,
he lies pressed down, close by the narrows of the sea,
beneath the roots of Aetna.
What did I do, son of Kronos, what fault did you find in me
that you would yoke me to such pain, driving me mad with fear
of a gadfly’s sting?
Destroy me with fire,
bury me under the earth,
throw me as food to the monsters of the sea,
but Lord, hear my prayers, do not grudge me the favor I ask.
Surely my endless wandering has taught me enough.
I can’t find a way to escape my troubles.
Do you hear the lament of the cow-horned maiden?
How can I not comply?
In clear words you will learn
all that you want to know.
Though just to speak of it—
the god-sent storm, and then
this hideous mock of my appearance—
makes me ashamed.
Into my maiden chamber, visions came
by night, and came again, secret
visitors that spoke to me
with smooth and urging voices:
“Oh maiden greatly blessed,
why are you still a virgin,
when you could be the bride of the supreme?
Zeus is in love with you, the dart of passion
has set him on fire, he wants to share his pleasure with you.
Don’t spurn the god’s bed, child, but go to Lerna,
to the deep meadow where your father’s flocks graze,
so Zeus’s eye may find relief from longing.”
However, one of the maidens will be charmed
by love to spare her bed companion.
Faced with the choice, and with her purpose blunted,
she will prefer to be called coward than murderess,
and it is she who will give birth in Argos
to a race of kings. It would take many words
to tell it clearly. But from this seed
shall spring a hero, famous for his bow,
who will release me from this suffering.
Such was the prophecy my ancient mother,
the Titan Themis, revealed to me.
Pompously spoken, as befits
a mouthpiece of the gods.
You’re young, the lot of you, and young in power,
and think your fortress is secure from sorrow.
But I’ve already seen two tyrants fall
and see the third, our present ruler,
falling soon, more suddenly
and much more shamefully than they.
Or do you think I’ll cringe
before these upstart gods, and tremble?
I’m farther from that than you can imagine.
So scurry back again the way you came.
You will receive no answer to your question.