Prometheus is bound to a mountaintop in the Indian Caucasus. Panthea and Ione, two sea nymphs, are seated at his feet. It is dark but near dawn. Prometheus addresses Jupiter as the “Monarch of Gods and Daemons, and all Spirits but One” and calls for him to look upon the earth, over which he is the supreme ruler and which he has made “multitudinous with his slaves.”
Prometheus is a character from classical mythology. In classical myth, Prometheus was chained to a mountaintop for all eternity for giving humanity fire; an act that went against the will of the gods. Prometheus addresses Jupiter because Jupiter is omnipotent over all beings in the universe except Prometheus himself.
Despite Jupiter’s power, Prometheus claims his own “empire” is more beautiful than the view that Jupiter has from his “unenvied throne,” which Prometheus could have shared if he had “deigned to” instead of being “nailed” to the mountainside. Although he is in pain, Prometheus “endures.” He describes his suffering when the freezing winter cold eats into him, when “Heaven’s winged hound” mauls him, and when the Earthquakes and the storms shake him.
Prometheus only has power over himself and, even then, only over his own mind since his body is chained to the mountain by Jupiter. However, he does not envy Jupiter’s power and would not accept this sort of power even if it was offered to him. Despite his terrible suffering, Prometheus “endures” and stands by his decision to oppose Jupiter.
Despite this, Prometheus still enjoys watching the Hours pass, as he knows that one of these hours will contain the moment in which Jupiter will “kiss the blood” from Prometheus’s feet before he is pursued “undefended through wide Heaven” by some terrible force. Prometheus no longer hates Jupiter, and instead pities him, because has been made “wise” by his suffering. He now cannot remember the curse he once uttered against Jupiter.
Prometheus is confident that Jupiter will suffer negative consequences because he has abused his power. When this happens, Prometheus knows Jupiter will beg for his forgiveness. Prometheus pities Jupiter because he knows that Jupiter will inevitably be punished for his actions. Prometheus has become more compassionate and forgiving through his suffering as he does not want others to suffer the way that he does.
Although Prometheus feels that all hate is “dead within” him, he asks the elements—the air, the mountains, the springs, and the whirlwinds—if they remember the curse he spoke against Jupiter, which terrified them and made them fall silent when Prometheus spoke.
Prometheus has become so compassionate during his torture that he has even forgotten the curse that he spoke against Jupiter when he was first chained to the mountain. The elements are personified in Shelley’s poem and are capable of feeling and speaking. This reflects Shelley’s interest in pantheism (the belief that the whole universe contains God) and his interest in classical and pagan mythology in which natural forces were often given personalities.
The mountains reply that Prometheus’s curse made them “tremble” as never before. The springs reply that they had never carried such a terrible sound to the sea before and that a “pilot asleep on the howling sea” spontaneously went mad and died as soon as the curse ran into the ocean. The air says that his cry caused the day to go dark, and the whirlwinds reply that they fell silent when they heard it, “though silence is a hell” to them. The Earth then states that the hills and the oceans cried “Misery!” when the curse was spoken and that the “pale nations” heard it too.
The fact that the elements fell silent when they heard Prometheus’s curse suggests that he is more powerful than these mighty natural forces. Prometheus is a Titan (a classical deity whose mother is the Earth) and, therefore, is an extremely powerful being. Prometheus represents freedom for the natural elements and mankind, the inhabitants of the “pale nations,” and that is why they cry “Misery!” when he is captured. Prometheus also speaks his curse in anger and hatred, and this spreads anger and hatred on earth because, in Shelley’s poem, Prometheus’s actions affect the whole of humanity. This is based in Christ’s message that hurting one person is the same as hurting the whole of humanity and demonstrates Shelley’s combination of classicism and Christianity in his poem.
Prometheus cannot hear the elements’ responses and asks if they have forgotten him: he who “made his agony the barrier” between them and their “else all-conquering foe” who would have trampled the world like a “fiend-drawn charioteer.” The Earth tells him that the elements “dare not” speak up, and Prometheus begins to hear a strange whisper, which “tingles” through him the way that “lightning tingles, hovering ere it strikes.” The Earth tells him that these are the voices of the dead and that he cannot understand them because he is immortal. The Earth “dares not” translate for him into the language of “life” lest the ruler of Heaven should punish her.
Prometheus is the only “barrier” between the world and the total omnipotent rule of Jupiter. Prometheus’s description of Jupiter as a “fiend-drawn charioteer” suggests that he is driving the world in a bad direction and foreshadows Shelley’s personification of the Hours as wild charioteers who drive time along and make humanity slaves to the passage of time. The Earth insinuates that everything in the world has been metaphorically dead since Jupiter took control, as she no longer speaks in the language of “life.” This suggests that nothing on the planet or in nature speaks this language anymore. Jupiter’s reign, therefore, spreads death, as he does not permit the language of life to be used.
Prometheus asks the Earth, whose voice he does not recognize, who she is, and the Earth explains that she is his mother. She describes Prometheus’s birth and the joy this brought her, how the downtrodden people of the Earth “uplifted their prostrate brows” when they heard him speak and how the “almighty Tyrant” “grew pale.” When Jupiter bound Prometheus to the mountain, the Earth was racked with grief and unleashed “strange tempests.” Plague and famine flourished, and the air became contaminated “with the contagion of a mother’s hate.” Still, she remembers Prometheus’s curse and secretly repeats it as a mantra of hope which she “dares not speak” out loud.
In classical mythology the Earth, or the goddess Gaia, is the mother of the Titans. Prometheus, who gave humanity fire and knowledge, represents hope for mankind and allowed them to rise above ignorance and confusion. Prometheus’s gift of knowledge to humanity is perceived as a threat by Jupiter, as knowledge allows humans to think for themselves and potentially question his authority. Jupiter’s imprisonment of Prometheus has caused a rift between humanity and nature so that they can no longer exist harmoniously but must struggle to survive alongside each other. Prometheus’s curse and defiance of Jupiter gives the Earth hope that Jupiter will fall, and that harmony will exist again between man and nature.
Prometheus begs to hear the curse. The Earth calls up the Phantasm of Jupiter from the shadow world to repeat it so that Jupiter himself cannot punish anything on earth for speaking the words. Ione and Panthea tremble with fear as the Phantasm approaches: “clothed in dark purple” with a “scepter of pale gold” in his hand.
The Earth’s fear that Jupiter will punish her suggests that Jupiter is a cruel ruler. This is reinforced by the fact that Ione and Panthea are afraid of the Phantasm of Jupiter. Jupiter’s costume aligns him with worldly powers, such as the Pope, who is the head of the Catholic Church and carries a golden staff and wears decorative robes.
The Phantasm of Jupiter is forced to speak the curse. The curse invites Jupiter to unleash all his torments on Prometheus, who is the “only being” that Jupiter “will not subdue.” Prometheus vows to dedicate himself to “sleepless agony” while Jupiter “must reign on high” and hopes that his “sufferers curse” will haunt Jupiter and cause his power to become a “crown of pain.” He hopes that one day Jupiter’s external appearance will show the reality of his internal character and that, finally, Jupiter will fall.
Prometheus’s curse defies Jupiter’s power and suggests that nothing Jupiter can do will subdue Prometheus—Prometheus is determined to oppose Jupiter’s reign even if he is the only being to do so. Prometheus is an example of a Romantic hero because he is willing to alienate himself from the rest of society rather than conform to something that he feels is morally wrong. Romantic poets like Shelley valued individual heroism as a powerful force against authority and corruption. In his curse, Prometheus hopes that Jupiter’s actions and misuse of his power will come back to haunt him.
When he hears the curse, Prometheus laments that he once wished pain upon Jupiter, as he no longer wishes any “living thing to suffer.” The Earth cries out that Prometheus is vanquished, but Ione contradicts her and says that it is nothing “but some passing spasm.” She points out that there is a spirit traveling towards them through the dawn. Panthea recognizes the “world-wandering herald,” Mercury, and that the Furies, “Jove’s tempest-walking hounds,” follow behind.
Prometheus’s suffering has made him more empathetic and compassionate; he no longer wishes any being to suffer because he has experienced firsthand how awful it is. Although the Earth think this shows weakness, it really shows strength, as Prometheus has found the strength and compassion to forgive Jupiter despite Jupiter’s cruelty. Meanwhile, Jupiter, who is omnipotent and does not understand Prometheus’s compassion, thinks forgiveness is a sign of weakness and sends Mercury to try and bargain with Prometheus while he is vulnerable.
Mercury holds back the Furies while he begs Prometheus to accept a compromise with Jupiter in order to win his freedom. Prometheus refuses and claims that “evil minds change good to their own nature.” He says that he gave Jupiter his power, and that Jupiter has repaid him by punishing and torturing him and by letting his “thought-executing ministers” oppress humanity.
Mercury demonstrates that he is a weak character because does not like seeing Prometheus suffer at Jupiter’s hands but is too afraid to oppose Jupiter and continues to act as his messenger. Mercury tries to convince Prometheus that compromising with Jupiter is a moral thing to do, but Prometheus feels that “evil” people delude themselves into thinking that their actions are good when really their actions are selfish. Jupiter is “thought-executing,” as he does not allow freedom of thought or knowledge among mankind.
Defeated, Mercury retreats and the Furies swarm Prometheus, mocking and taunting him. Although Prometheus is horrified by the Furies, he pities them because they are evil and can know nothing good. Prometheus invites them to torture him as he knows that he is “king over” himself and “rules” the pain which they administer. More Furies arrive and one of them tries to frighten Prometheus with a vision of Hell. Another Fury stops this since Prometheus “yet defies the deepest powers of Hell.” The Furies then taunt Prometheus for giving man knowledge, which “kindled within him a thirst which outran” and filled him with desire that “consumes him.”
Prometheus can withstand the Furies’ torture because he has fully accepted his own decision to let himself be tortured and feels that it is both the right thing to do and worth the sacrifice of himself. This gives Prometheus immense self-control and allows him to even pity the Furies, who, unlike him, do not control their own feelings or behavior but are slaves to evil and to Jupiter. The Furies are afraid to tell Prometheus what is in hell because they fear that, once he knows, he will cease to be afraid of it. This suggests that hell has no real power, and that its power comes from individual’s imagination. The Furies refer to knowledge among mankind as a destructive force, which causes man more harm than good because it is being used irresponsibly. This is supported by the symbol of fire as knowledge, because fire has the capacity to be both a useful and a dangerous element.
The Furies show Prometheus that one man “of gentle worth” did visit humanity, but that his message “outlived him” and became poisoned. They show Prometheus cities spewing smoke and crying out in despair and claim that they hear the gentle man’s ghost “wailing” for the message he gave out, which only a few people now worship “in dread.” They show this man bleeding and a hopeful nation transformed into a violent, murderous regime. Panthea and Ione also see these images, when they glance up from where they are hiding, and at one point see a “youth with patient looks nailed to a crucifix.” Prometheus weeps for this man and cries that he will not speak his name as “it hath become a curse.”
The Furies refer to Jesus Christ and suggest that his teachings about compassion and love have been misused by the Church. Shelley was an atheist and felt that the Church was an extremely corrupt institution; however, he deeply admired Christ’s message of forgiveness and compassion and felt that Christ would be horrified by the ways in which the Church had used and distorted this message to gain power for themselves and to frighten and control the populace. The “youth” whom Ione and Panthea see is Christ, who is being crucified. The “hopeful nation” refers to France in the early stages of the French Revolution, which took place in 1780s and 90s, and which Shelley was politically influenced by. Shelley supported anti-establishment rebellion but was disappointed by the outcome of the French Revolution. Although it began as a rebellion against the French monarchy, who had been starving the French people, and sought liberty and equality for all, it turned violent and descended into a “murderous regime.”
The Furies tell Prometheus that worse things than violence lurk within men’s minds, and that humanity exists in a state of “hypocrisy and custom”; they do not care for each other and “the powerful lack all goodness,” while the “wise lack love.”
Shelley disliked the strict forms of etiquette and social custom which ruled Enlightenment society and which, he felt, placed restrictions on people’s self-expression and prevented them from being honest about their emotions. In Shelley’s mind, this lack of emotional honesty and understanding leads to confusion and suffering, which consequently leads to a general lack of understanding and compassion among people. Romanticism as a movement prioritized emotional expression and non-conformity over the Enlightenment values of social order and rational objectivity.
The Furies vanish, and Prometheus repeats his mantra of defiance. He states that the visions with which the Furies tortured him have only increased his determination to endure. The Earth sends good spirits to comfort Prometheus, and they tell him of a prophecy of love and hope that “begins and ends in” him. Ione sees two doves, and she and Panthea weep over their song. The spirits tell Prometheus that, in the prophecy they bear, he will “kill the horseman grim.” The spirits vanish, and Prometheus laments his destined role as the “savior” of mankind. Panthea reminds him that he is loved, by herself and Ione, and by his wife, Asia, whom Panthea then departs to visit.
While Jupiter intends to break Prometheus’s spirit by torturing him, this actually makes Prometheus more determined to resist Jupiter, as he understands that Jupiter uses cruel, tyrannical measures to maintain power. This confirms Prometheus’s belief that someone must stand against Jupiter, even if this means suffering for his defiance. The prophecy “begins and ends” in Prometheus because it relies entirely on him, and his continued resistance. The idea that Prometheus will kill “the horseman grim” suggests that Prometheus will kill death, which, under Jupiter’s reign, humanity is subject to. Prometheus’s title as “savior” links him to the figure of Christ who, in Christianity, triumphed over death through love and compassion for humankind.