Shelley’s Prometheus symbolizes resistance against authoritarian forces, even if that resistance leads to punishment or isolation. Shelley himself was a non-conformist and a radical thinker who was disgusted by the rigid social conventions and class systems of the nineteenth century, which he felt kept the poor enslaved and placed restrictions on the human mind, body, and spirit. Shelley despised conventions such as marriage and institutions like the Christian Church and the Monarchy. He believed that individuals must be free to think, act, and make decisions for themselves and that social institutions placed obstacles in the way of this, disrupting the natural course of life and deliberately misguiding people in order to achieve their own corrupt aims. In Prometheus Unbound, Jupiter represents a culmination of these forces that Shelley viewed as oppressive, while the poet’s depiction of Prometheus celebrates the unwavering spirit of the individual who refuses to bow to corrupt powers.
Shelley demonstrates his own personal resistance to archaic and corrupt sources of power through his use of imagery in Prometheus Unbound. For example, he uses Jupiter’s reign to symbolize the powerful institutions that the poet felt prevented social reform—reform that, in his mind, was desperately needed to alleviate suffering among the populace. Jupiter is notably referred to as a “Monarch” and described as carrying a “sceptre of pale gold.” This associates Jupiter with the worldly powers that Shelley opposed, such as the Church and the Monarchy; the “pale sceptre” is a symbol of kingly power and also an item carried by the Pope, who is head of the Catholic Church.
Jupiter also symbolizes the restrictive social conventions in Britain during the Enlightenment period. Shelley felt that repressive social customs, which discouraged emotional expression and, instead, encouraged social order and rationality, were slowing the advancement of society and indirectly supporting outdated establishments like the Church and Monarchy. This is reflected in the poem when the Furies visit Prometheus in Act 1 and tell him that under Jupiter’s corrupt reign, men are ruled by “hypocrisy and custom” rather than honesty and virtue. Shelley uses the image of Prometheus reining in Jupiter, “as one who checks a wild-eyed charioteer,” to suggest that powerful institutions need to be reined in by resistance from individuals among the populace. This image is later repeated by the image of the Hours as “wild-eyed charioteers,” as the Hours are the slaves of Jupiter who, in turn, make humanity slaves to the passage of time and mortality. By including such imagery in his poem, Shelley hoped to inspire a spirit of resistance and nonconformity among his readers.
By undermining the will of Jupiter and giving humanity fire, Prometheus has challenged the established authority and, as a result, is punished. Shelley frames this behavior as heroic and ultimately successful, despite the pain it causes Prometheus. Prometheus is heralded as a “champion” of humankind because he is willing to sacrifice his own comfort in order to stand up to power and challenge Jupiter’s “supreme” reign. Romanticism as a movement valued individual resistance to authority and felt that it was more noble to be ostracized from society than to compromise one’s morals or ideals in order to conform or be accepted. This individualism is further reflected in Prometheus’s refusal to reach a compromise with Jupiter when this option is offered to him by the messenger Mercury. In his Preface to Prometheus Unbound Shelley notes that he deviates from the classical subject matter, the Aeschylus text, on this point because in Aeschylus’s version of the story, Jupiter (Zeus) and Prometheus reach a compromise and Prometheus accepts Jupiter’s partial rule over the Earth. Shelley’s Romantic hero, by contrast, is uncompromising and will not bow to Jupiter’s oppressive authority regardless of the torment he faces as a result, inviting Jupiter instead to “pour forth the cup of pain.” Prometheus’s refusal to support Jupiter’s reign, which he feels is detrimental to humanity, suggests that it is more heroic to actively support justice and morality for all than to make compromises with corrupt authority for the sake of comfort and personal gain.
Although Prometheus is tortured, he feels pity for Jupiter and refuses to repeat the curse that he had addressed to Jupiter when he was first chained to the mountain. This represents Shelley’s belief in passive resistance as a tool for social change rather than violent acts of revolution. Similarly, Prometheus maintains that he is “king” over himself even as the Furies torture him. This reflects Shelley’s belief in an individual’s duty to control themselves, even if provoked, and not to give into the temptation of attacking their enemy in a way which compromises their own morals. Although Prometheus did initially curse Jupiter, he now pities him because he is evil and, therefore, can only feel negative emotions which “gape like a hell within.” Prometheus, meanwhile, despite his torture, can feel “peace” in his own mind because he has stood by his principles and not abandoned a course which he believes to be moral. This demonstrates Shelley’s belief in the individual as a force that can threaten powerful institutions.
Shelley uses the metaphor of resistance gathering “flake by flake” to form an avalanche to suggest that if enough individuals choose to resist corrupt sources of power, then eventually a collective change will be made. Indeed, the poet’s imagery demonstrating the power of individual resistance has echoed throughout many of history’s social justice movements, including the American Civil Rights Movement. By highlighting Prometheus’s dignity, in his refusal to curse Jupiter, and his determination to resist Jupiter without sinking to Jupiter’s level of cruelty, Shelley builds a case for passive resistance as a noble and heroic form of social action.
Authority and Resistance ThemeTracker
Authority and Resistance Quotes in Prometheus Unbound
I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind. The moral interest of the fable which is so powerfully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus, would be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high language, and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.
The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgement, a more poetical character than Satan because, in addition to courage and majesty and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which in the Hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling, it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.
We owe the great writers of the golden age of our literature to that fervid awakening of the public mind which shook to dust the oldest and most oppressive form of the Christian Religion. We owe Milton to the progress and development of the same spirit; the sacred Milton was, let it ever be remembered, a Republican and a bold enquirer into morals and religion. The great writers of our own age are, we have reason to suppose, the companions and forerunners of some unimagined change in our social condition or the opinions which cement it. The cloud of mind is discharging its collected lightning, and the equilibrium between institutions and opinions is now restoring, or is about to be restored.
Monarch of Gods and Daemons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling Worlds.
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves […]
Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours
And moments—aye divided thy keen pangs
Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,
Scorn and despair,—these are mine empire:—
More glorious far than that which thou surveyest
From thine unenvied throne […]
And yet to me welcome is Day and Night,
Whether one breaks the hoar frost of the morn,
Or starry, dim, and slow, the other climbs
The leaden-coloured East; for then they lead
Their wingless, crawling Hours, one among whom
—As some dark Priest hales the reluctant victim—
Shall drag thee, cruel King, to kiss the blood
From these pale feet, which then might trample thee
If they disdained not such a prostrate slave.—
Disdain? Ah no! I pity thee.—What Ruin
Will hunt thee undefended through the wide Heaven!
How will thy soul, cloven to its depth with terror,
Gape like a Hell within! I speak in grief
Not exultation, for I hate no more
As then, ere misery made me wise.—The Curse
Once breathed on thee I would recall. […]
[…] Ye Mountains,
Whose many-voiced Echoes, through the mist
Of cataracts, flung the thunder of that spell!
Ye icy Springs, stagnant with wrinkling frost,
Which vibrated to hear me, and then crept
Shuddering through India! Thou serenest Air,
Through which the Sun walks burning without beams!
And ye swift Whirlwinds, who on poised wings
Hung mute and moveless o’er yon hushed abyss,
As thunder louder than your own made rock
The orbed world! If then my words had power
—Though I am changed so that aught evil wish
Is dead within, although no memory be
Of what is hate—let them not lose it now!
What was that curse? for ye all heard me speak.
When thou didst from her bosom, like a cloud
Of glory, arise, a spirit of keen joy!
And at thy voice her pining sons uplifted
Their prostrate brows from the polluting dust
And our almighty Tyrant with fierce dread
Grew pale—until his thunder chained thee here.—
Then—see those million worlds which burn and roll
Around us: their inhabitants beheld
My sphered light wane in wide Heaven; the sea
Was lifted by strange tempest, and new fire
From earthquake-rifted mountains of bright snow
Shook its portentous hair beneath Heaven’s frown;
Lightning and Inundation vexed the plains;
Blue thistles bloomed in cities; foodless toads
Within voluptuous chambers panting crawled;
When Plague had fallen on man and beast and worm,
And Famine,—and black blight on herb and tree,
And in the corn and vines and meadow-grass
Teemed ineradicable poisonous weeds
Draining their growth, for my wan breast was dry
With grief,—and the thin air, my breath, was stained
With the contagion of a mother’s hate
Breathed on her child’s destroyer […]
Aye, do thy worst. Thou art Omnipotent.
O’er all things but thyself I gave thee power,
And my own will. Be thy swift mischiefs sent
To blast mankind, from yon etherial tower.
Let thy malignant spirit move
In darkness over those I love:
On me and mine I imprecate
The utmost torture of thy hate
And thus devote to sleepless agony
This undeclining head while thou must reign on high.
I curse thee! let a sufferer’s curse
Clasp thee, his torturer, like remorse,
Till thine Infinity shall be
A robe of envenomed agony;
And thine Omnipotence a crown of pain
To cling like burning gold round thy dissolving brain.
Awful Sufferer! To thee unwilling, most unwillingly
I come, by the great Father's will driven down
To execute a doom of new revenge.
Alas! I pity thee, and hate myself
That I can do no more.—Aye from thy sight
Returning, for a season. Heaven seems Hell,
So thy worn form pursues me night and day,
Smiling reproach. Wise art thou, firm and good,
But vainly wouldst stand forth alone in strife
Against the Omnipotent […]
[…] Nature’s sacred watchwords—they
Were borne aloft in bright emblazonry.
The nations thronged around, and cried aloud
As with one voice, “Truth, liberty and love!”
Suddenly fierce confusion fell from Heaven
Among them—there was strife, deceit and fear;
Tyrants rushed in, and did divide the spoil.
This was the shadow of the truth I saw.
[…] Hark! the rushing snow!
The sun-awakened avalanche! whose mass,
Thrice sifted by the storm, had gathered there
Flake after flake, in Heaven-defying minds
As thought by thought is piled, till some great truth
Is loosened, and the nations echo round
Shaken to their roots: as do the mountains now.
Resist not the weakness—
Such strength is in meekness—
That the Eternal, the Immortal,
Must unloose through life’s portal
The snake-like Doom coiled underneath his throne
By that alone!
Who reigns? There was the Heaven and Earth at first
And Light and Love;—then Saturn, from whose throne
Time fell, an envious shadow; such the state
Of the earth’s primal spirits beneath his sway
As the calm joy of flowers and living leaves
Before the wind or sun has withered them
And semivital worms; but he refused
The birthright of their being, knowledge, power,
The skill which wields the elements, the thought
Which pierces this dim Universe like light,
Self-empire and the majesty of love,
For thirst of which they fainted. Then Prometheus
Gave wisdom, which is strength, to Jupiter
And with this Law alone: “Let man be free,”
Clothed him with the dominion of wide Heaven.
First famine and then toil and then disease,
Strife, wounds, and ghastly death unseen before,
Fell; and the unseasonable seasons drove,
With alternating shafts of frost and fire,
Their shelterless, pale tribes to mountain caves;
And in their desert hearts fierce wants he sent
And mad disquietudes, and shadows idle
Of unreal good, which levied mutual war,
So ruining the lair w herein they raged.
Prometheus saw, and waked the legioned hopes
Which sleep within folded Elysian flowers,
Nepenthe, Moly, Amaranth, fadeless bloom
That they might hide with thin and rainbow wings
The shape of Death; and Love he sent to bind
The disunited tendrils of that vine
Which bears the wine of life, the hum an heart;
And he tamed fire, which like some beast of prey
Most terrible, but lovely, played beneath
The frown of man […]
He gave man speech, and speech created thought,
Which is the measure of the Universe;
And Science struck the thrones of Earth and Heaven,
Which shook but fell not; and the harmonious mind
Poured itself forth in all-prophetic song,
And music lifted up the listening spirit
Until it walked, exempt from mortal care,
Godlike, o'er the clear billows of sweet sound;
And human hands first mimicked and then mocked
With moulded limbs more lovely than its own
The human form , till marble grew divine,
And others, gazing, drank the love men see
Reflected in their race—behold, and perish.—
He told the hidden power of herbs and springs,
And Disease drank and slept—Death grew like sleep.—
Such the alleviations of his state
Prometheus gave to man—for which he hangs
Withering in destined pain—but who rains down
Evil, the immedicable plague, which while
Man looks on his creation like a God
And sees that it is glorious, drives him on,
The wreck of his own will, the scorn of Earth,
The outcast, the abandoned, the alone?—
Not Jove: while yet his frown shook Heaven, aye when
His adversary' from adamantine' chains
Cursed him, he trembled like a slave. Declare
Who is his master? Is he too a slave?
Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change?—To these
All things are subject but eternal Love.
So much I asked before, and my heart gave
The response thou hast given; and of such truths
Each to itself must be the oracle.—
One more demand . . . and do thou answer me
As my own soul would answer, did it know
That which I ask.—Prometheus shall arise
Henceforth the Sun of this rejoicing world:
When shall the destined hour arrive?
The rocks are cloven, and through the purple night I see
Cars drawn by rainbow-winged steeds
Which trample the dim winds—in each there stands
A wild-eyed charioteer, urging their flight.
Some look behind, as fiends pursued them there
And yet I see no shapes but the keen stars:
Others with burning eyes lean forth, and drink
With eager lips the wind of their own speed
As if the thing they loved fled on before
And now—even now' they clasped it; their bright locks
Stream like a comet’s flashing hair: they all
Rejoice! henceforth I am omnipotent.
All else has been subdued to me—alone
The soul of man, like unextinguished fire,
Yet burns towards Heaven with fierce reproach and doubt
And lamentation and reluctant prayer,
Hurling up insurrection, which might make
Our antique empire insecure, though built
On eldest faith, and Hell's coeval, fear.
And though my curses through the pendulous air
Like snow on herbless peaks, fall flake by flake
And cling to it—though under my wrath’s night
It climb the crags of life, step after step,
Which wound it, as ice wounds unsandalled feet,
It yet remains supreme o'er misery,
Aspiring . . . unrepressed; yet soon to fall:
Thrones, altars, judgement-seats and prisons; wherein
And beside which, by wretched men were borne
Sceptres, tiaras, swords and chains, and tomes
Of reasoned wrong glozed on by ignorance,
Were like those monstrous and barbaric shapes,
The ghosts of a no more remembered fame,
Which from their unworn obelisks look forth
In triumph o’er the palaces and tombs
Of those who were their conquerors, mouldering round.
Those imaged to the pride of Kings and Priests
A dark yet mighty faith, a power as wide
As is the world it wasted, and are now
But an astonishment; even so the tools
And emblems of its last captivity
Amid the dwellings of the peopled Earth,
Stand, not o’erthrown, but unregarded now.
We come from the mind
Of human kind
Which was late so dusk and obscene and blind;
Now tis an Ocean
Of clear emotion,
A Heaven of serene and mighty motion.
From that deep Abyss
Of wonder and bliss
Whose caverns are chrystal palaces;
From those skiey towers
Where Thought’s crowned Powers
Sit watching your dance, ye happy Hours!
Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom and Endurance,—
These are the seals of that most firm assurance
Which bars the pit over Destruction’s strength;
And if, with infirm hand, Eternity,
Mother of many acts and hours, should free
The serpent that would clasp her with his length,—
These are the spells by which to reassume
An empire o’er the disentangled Doom.
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than Death or Night
To defy Power which seems Omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change nor falter nor repent:
This, like thy glory, Titan! is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.