Prometheus Unbound

Prometheus Unbound Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792 in West Sussex, England. His parents were wealthy landowners and Shelley spent much of his early childhood outdoors in the English countryside. When he was ten years old, he was sent to Eton College to be educated. A studious and solitary child, Shelley was bullied relentlessly by his classmates during his time at Eton. He enrolled at Oxford University in 1810 where he developed his interest in writing and literature, despite rarely attending lectures. During his time at Oxford, Shelley began to experiment with writing novels and poetry and also to develop an interest in politics. He was expelled from Oxford in 1811 for writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism,” which was highly critical of the Church. After his expulsion, which caused a rift between Shelley and his father, Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook, a sixteen-year old girl who had become infatuated with him. Their marriage was unhappy however, and Shelley continued to court relationships with other women throughout this period. Shelley also began to spend time with William Godwin, a political writer whom Shelley considered his mentor and who had been married to the famous feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft before her death. Shelley left Harriet and their daughter, Ianthe, in 1814 while Harriet was pregnant with their second child and entered a relationship with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary, whom Shelley eventually married in 1816 after Harriet committed suicide. Percy and Mary Shelley travelled widely in Europe, spending time with Shelley’s friend, the famous poet Lord Byron, who was also the lover of Mary’s sister, Claire. Due to the fallout with his family, Shelley was often very poor and, although he was a prolific writer, his poetry was not a commercial success during his lifetime. His marriage to Mary was tumultuous and Shelley continued to have affairs throughout. The couple had two children, both of whom died in infancy, and an adopted daughter who also died very young. Shelley died in 1822 at age twenty-nine, when his boat sank in stormy weather off the Italian coast.
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Historical Context of Prometheus Unbound

Romanticism was a direct reaction to the effects of new technology and industrialization, which was increasing at an unprecedented rate throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was also a reaction against the general societal interest in rationality, reason, and empirical observation of the natural world, with a view to harnessing nature for industrial production. This period, which spanned most of the eighteenth century in Europe, was known as the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason and was a period of intense scientific and technological development that paved the way for modern industry and capitalism. Romanticism, as a literary movement, began towards the end of the eighteenth century with the work of writers such as William Blake, who criticized the damaging effects of industrialization on rural areas. With increased industrialization in cities, many people moved away from the countryside to work in factories in urban centers. Quality of life in these cities was very poor and unsanitary, and the Romantics felt that people would be happier and healthier if they spent more time in nature. Shelley and the Romantics were suspicious of Enlightenment attitudes towards scientific exploration and felt that the Enlightenment’s focus on empirical observation of nature, rather than appreciation of nature, led to destructive tendencies among people who sought to use nature for profit or production without understanding the consequences of this behavior on the natural world. The Romantics were also radical thinkers in terms of their views on religion and politics. Shelley was an atheist and despised established institutions such as the Church, the Monarchy, and the institution of marriage. Shelley and the Romantics were inspired by the French Revolution, which took place between 1789 and 1799, in which the French monarchy were overthrown and executed because of their negligent attitudes toward the poor. Although the French Revolution devolved into tyranny, with a peasant mob executing thousands of people during the Reign of Terror, the Romantics were inspired by the political philosophy of individual freedom and rebellion against corrupt establishments that was central to revolutionary thought.

Other Books Related to Prometheus Unbound

Prometheus Unbound is an example of an epic poem. Epic poetry borrowed themes from classical, Greek epics, such as The Iliad or The Odyssey by Homer, which focus on subjects like fate, heroism, conflict between mortals and deities, military combat, and journeys into other realms. Classical epics were rooted in Greek mythology and featured classical gods and heroes, while Christian epics such as The Divine Comedy, written in 1472 by Dante Alighieri, blend epic themes with Christian belief and theology. Prometheus Unbound makes use of Christian allegory throughout, though the story of Prometheus was originally written down by Greek authors such as Hesiod and the playwright Aeschylus. Shelley’s poem is specifically based on a fragment from a lost play by Aeschylus. Shelley was heavily influenced by John Milton’s characterization of Satan in his epic poem Paradise Lost, as can been seen in Shelley’s in the depiction of Prometheus as a rebellious hero who refuses to bow to a supreme authority. In this sense, Shelley is similar to Romantic poets such as William Blake, who depicted the Christian God as a tyrant and Satan as a spirit of knowledge and freedom in his 1793 illustrated poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Shelley was also directly influenced by, and directly influential on, the works of his friend Lord Byron. Byron used a Promethean Romantic hero character so often in his own poems like Child Harold’s Pilgrimage or Don Juan that this type of character came to be referred to as the “Byronic hero.” In his use of nature imagery and insinuations of nature worship, Shelley is also reminiscent of fellow Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Shelley’s work was also influential on later, Victorian poets such as the Pre-Raphaelite group, which includes poets like William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The Pre-Raphaelites were interested in depicting a pre-Renaissance, medieval world in their work because, like Shelley, they felt that the emphasis on rationalism and the scientific developments of the Enlightenment period had produced a detrimental effect on society and on man’s relationship with nature. Prometheus Unbound also inspired political writers such as Karl Marx and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as novelists like Leo Tolstoy, with its message of equality, liberty, and alleviation of suffering for the poor.
Key Facts about Prometheus Unbound
  • Full Title: Prometheus Unbound
  • When Written: 1818
  • Where Written: Italy
  • When Published: 1820
  • Literary Period: Romanticism
  • Genre: Epic poetry
  • Setting: A mountain and a valley in the Indian Caucuses, the underground realm of the Demogorgon, and Heaven.
  • Climax: Prometheus, a Titan who has been bound to a mountain for all eternity by the tyrant Jupiter as punishment for giving humanity fire, is freed by Hercules, fulfilling a prophecy which predicts the end of Jupiter’s authoritarian reign over Earth and which frees humanity from the bonds of ignorance, suffering, and mortality.
  • Antagonist: Jupiter

Extra Credit for Prometheus Unbound

Julian and Maddalo. In 1818, the same year that he wrote Prometheus Unbound, Shelley spent a great deal of time in Italy with his close friend and fellow author Lord Byron. The pair discussed the social, political, and aesthetic subjects which feature in Prometheus Unbound, as well as in Byron’s own epic poems. Shelley chronicled these discussions with Byron in his poem Julian and Maddalo, about two friends who explore Venice while discussing social causes.

Ireland. Shelley visited Ireland in 1812, when Ireland was under British rule, and was horrified by the poor living conditions he saw. He wrote a pamphlet entitled “An Address to the Irish People,” which he sold at a low price and distributed by throwing copies of it from his balcony. This was seen as an act of extreme rebellion by the British government, who were interested in uniting Ireland under British rule, and gained Shelley a reputation as an anti-establishment figure.