Prometheus, the title character and protagonist of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, is made to suffer for the entirety of the play. At the beginning, Prometheus is chained to the side of a mountain by Kratos and Bia, the servants of Zeus, and this is only the start of his misery. He will remain chained to the rock until the thunder and lightning that is Zeus’s wrath bring the mountain down around him, burying him in darkness. Then, “Zeus’s winged hound, a scarlet eagle,” will shred Prometheus’s body and “feast upon [his] blackened liver” day after day. Prometheus knows he will suffer for “ten generations, then another three,” until the mighty descendant of Io, a mortal princess and Zeus’s lover, is eventually born and frees him. Many others are also forced to live in misery in Aeschylus’s play, but it nonetheless shows that where there is great suffering, there is often great compassion as well. The sympathy of others is of great comfort to those who suffer in the play, but comfort alone is not enough to keep them going. Through the depiction of misery in Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus convincingly argues that, while compassion is helpful, it is “blind hope” alone that will keep one going through perpetual suffering.
While Aeschylus’s play focuses on Prometheus’s suffering, he is not the only character who suffers. “Misfortune is a migrant bird that settles,” Prometheus says, “now here, now there, on each of us in turn”; this reflects the widespread suffering of the human condition. When Zeus defeated Kronos and the other Titans after the Battle of the Titans, he banished them “beneath the earth, / beneath the House of Hades, / down to the endless depths of Tartaros.” Kronos and the other gods are not simply banished to the underworld but to the dungeon of the underworld. They were sent to the basement of hell, so to speak, where their suffering is no doubt much greater. After the fall of the Titans, Atlas, a Titan and the brother of Prometheus, is likewise made to suffer and must bear “the weight of heaven and earth” upon his shoulders. Zeus has punished Atlas with a burden “too vast for his encircling arms,” and he is forced to endure this misery for all eternity. Io too is made to suffer after Zeus transforms her into a heifer and turns her out to be perpetually pursued by a biting gadfly. “Pain, hunger, and deadly fear are my only friends,” Io tells Prometheus of her forced existence. She even considers throwing herself from the top of the Scythian mountains to “free [herself] of all this horror.” Like Prometheus and, Aeschylus implies, humans in general, there is no end in sight for Io’s suffering.
In the face of this widespread suffering, however, there is also great compassion, and Prometheus is showered with the kindness and sympathy of others. As Prometheus is being punished for stealing fire and giving it to humankind, Hephaistos, the god of fire and forge, is ordered by Zeus to chain Prometheus to the mountain. As he binds a silent Prometheus to the rock, Hephaistos expresses great sympathy. “Oh pitiful Prometheus, forgive me!” he cries. Despite being tasked with binding him, Hephaistos shows his friend and “kin” love and compassion. While Prometheus is chained to the mountain, he is visited by his old friend, Okeanos, the Titan god of the oceans and rivers. Okeanos is prepared to go to Zeus and appeal to him on Prometheus’s behalf. Despite the obvious risk involved, Okeanos displays compassion and is willing to go to great lengths to ease his friend’s suffering. The play’s chorus—made up entirely of Okeanos’s daughters—refuses to leave Prometheus alone as he suffers on the mountain. “This is a tyrant’s act, cruel and remorseless,” the women say to Prometheus. They stay with him throughout the course of the play, even after Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, warns them to leave. The chorus’s compassion cannot be swayed no matter the risk to their own safety.
Regardless of the kindness and compassion of others, these comforts are not enough to get Prometheus through the endless suffering that lies before him, just as fire and reason alone were not enough for the human race. In addition to giving humankind fire and reason to protect them from Zeus, who “intended to expunge their race” and grow another in their place “more to his liking,” Prometheus also gave humankind “blind hope.” Without the hope for something better, suffering—with or without the compassion of others—is unbearable. Like the hope he gifts to humankind, Prometheus survives on the hope that his suffering too will end. His forethought tells him that from the “womb” of Io will “spring a hero, famous for his bow,” and this hero will “release [him] from [his] suffering.” While the sympathy of others is certainly a comfort to Prometheus, he is kept alive by his hope for this savior. The play implies that such hope is necessary for anyone to endure deep suffering, no matter how much compassion might appear along the way.
Suffering, Compassion, and Hope ThemeTracker
Suffering, Compassion, and Hope Quotes in Prometheus Bound
Thus at all times one torment or another
will plague you. Your rescuer is not yet born.
This is the fruit of your philanthropy.
A god, you scorned the anger of the gods
by granting mortals honor above their due.
For that, you will keep vigil on this rock,
upright, unsleeping, and never bend a knee.
And many a groan will pass your lips, and sighing,
and bitter lamentation, all in vain.
Zeus’ vengeance is implacable. His power is new,
and everyone with newborn power is harsh.
Go play the rebel now, go plunder the gods’ treasure
and give it to your creatures of a day.
What portion of your pain can mortals spare you?
The gods who named you the Forethinker were mistaken.
You’ll need forethought beyond your reckoning
to wriggle your way out of this device.
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.
Chorus: Did you perhaps go further than you told us?
Prometheus: I gave men power to stop foreseeing their death.
Chorus: What cure did you prescribe for this disease?
Prometheus: I sowed blind hopes to live as their companions.
Chorus: Truly you brought great benefit to mortals.
Prometheus: I gave them fire.
Chorus: Bright fire! Do the ephemerals have it now?
Prometheus: And from it they will learn much craft and skill.
I transgressed willfully, I won’t deny it.
By helping mortals I drew suffering on myself,
and did so of my own will, freely.
Yet never did I think that by such punishment
I would be made to parch suspended in midair,
clamped to this barren solitary rock.
But don’t lament over my present woes.
Descend from your high carriage, stand beneath me,
that you may hear what is to come
and know the whole of it.
For my sake, please, come down and share my sorrow.
Misfortune is a migrant bird that settles,
now here, now there, on each of us in turn.
Listen instead to what I have to tell
of human misery. How I gave shrewdness
to their childish minds, and taught them how to reason.
It’s no reproach to humans when I say this,
but to make clear the benefit I brought them.
From the beginning they could see, but seeing
was useless to them, and hearing, they heard nothing.
Like dreams with shifting shapes, their long lives
ran their course in meaningless confusion.
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.”
[…] Immediately my shape and mind
became distorted, my head grew horns, and I,
chased by the gadfly, fled with frantic leaps
to that sweet stream, Cerchnea, good to drink from,
and Lerna’s spring. But my appointed cowherd
was earthborn Argos, terrible in his wrath.
He followed me, he watched my steps,
peering with his countless eyes.
Then an unhoped-for sudden death destroyed him.
But I continued, driven by the god-sent scourge,
the gadfly, from land to land.
First, from this spot, turn toward the rising sun,
and cross the untilled plains until you reach
the Scythian nomads, whose wicker houses
are built on top of wagons with well-wrought wheels,
a warlike tribe armed with far-reaching bows.
Do not go near them, rather keep to the surf line
of the groaning sea, and travel on.
Off to your left there live the ironworking
Chalybes, of whom you must be wary,
for they are savage and do not
bid strangers welcome.
The Amazons will guide you on your way,
and they will do so gladly. Then,
just by the narrow portals of the lake,
you’ll reach the isthmus of Cimerria.
You must move on from there and with a bold heart
cross the channel of Maiotis. Forever after
mortals will remember this your crossing,
and call it Bosporus, the Cow’s Ford.
With Europe at your back, you will arrive in Asia.
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.
But all your vehemence rests on a weak foundation,
mere cleverness, a scheme. What good is obstinate will
untamed by sound thought and good measure?
Consider the storm that will rise up against you
if you refuse to heed my words,
a threefold tidal wave of misery,
impossible to escape. For first,
the Father will destroy this jagged cliff
with thunder and lightning, and bury you,
still gripped by its embrace, inside it.
Then, after an enormous span of time,
you will come back again into the light,
and Zeus’s winged hound, a scarlet eagle,
will carve your body into ragged shreds
of flesh. He will return, day in, day out,
as an unbidden guest, to feast upon
your blackened liver.