Despite his rejection of conventional religion, Shelley fuses the classical story of Prometheus with Christian allegory, referring particularly to the teachings of Christ and his message that love and forgiveness—rather than worldly powers—are the true strengths of humanity. Although Shelley felt that Christ’s teachings had been distorted by the Church, he does reference Jesus and use Christian imagery to support his central thesis in Prometheus Unbound: that love is stronger than—and will ultimately triumph over—hate.
The Furies, monsters from the world of the dead who are sent to torture Prometheus, mock his dedication to the freedom of mankind by informing him that “one” man (Jesus) has already attempted to teach humanity about love and forgiveness but that people have rejected this message. Clearing referencing Jesus, the Furies tell Prometheus that “one came forth of gentle worth, smiling on the sanguine earth.” Although Jesus’s “words outlived him,” his message has not been used for good but has been corrupted by men “like swift poison, withering up truth, peace and pity.” This refers to the way in which the Christian Church has deviated from Jesus’s teachings and, instead, uses Jesus’s name to gain power for themselves. The Furies view humanity’s treatment of Jesus and rejection of his message as proof that humanity is damned and that Prometheus’s endeavor to resist Jupiter is in vain because, even if Jupiter were to fall from power, humanity is too corrupt to be saved.
The Furies taunt Prometheus about this to try and break his spirit. Although Prometheus still refuses to bow to Jupiter, he is saddened by the story of Jesus and weeps for Jesus’s “mild and gentle ghost,” who wails “for the faith he kindled.” This suggests that Shelley was sympathetic towards the teachings of Jesus and felt that, based on his characterization in the New Testament, Jesus would dislike the actions of the Church which are carried out in his name. Jesus is presented as a tragic figure in the poem and Christianity as a philosophy that has strayed very far from its central message of forgiveness and compassion.
Despite Shelley’s rejection of orthodox religion, there are many similarities between Christ and Shelley’s hero Prometheus. Prometheus is described as the “saviour” of mankind, just as Jesus is referred to as man’s saviour in the Bible. Prometheus, like Christ, undergoes a sacrificial torture because he has tried to help humanity. Prometheus is also described as the “sun” of mankind, suggesting that he will triumph over darkness. It is common in Christianity for Jesus to be associated with sunrise as a force which chases out darkness, which is associated with evil. It is also predicted that Prometheus will “quell the horseman grim, woundless though in heart or in limb.” This prophecy suggests that Prometheus will kill death (the horseman) and this will end humanity’s servitude to time and mortality. This is reminiscent of Christ’s triumph over death through his own sacrificial death in the New Testament. Finally, Prometheus, like Christ, overcomes his enemies through forgiveness and love. The Hours and Jupiter are overthrown by the Spirit of Love, which everything in Shelley’s poem is “subject to.” While Prometheus’s curse has frightened Jupiter, it is Prometheus’s pity and forgiveness towards Jupiter which breaks the curse and ends Jupiter’s reign, just as it is Christ’s love which triumphs over death in the New Testament.
Christ’s passive strength in the face of immense suffering is emulated by Shelley in the figure of Prometheus and is a crucial aspect of Prometheus’s heroism, highlighting Shelley’s belief that it is more valiant to vanquish one’s enemies with compassion and forgiveness than with hatred and revenge. This message is further echoed when Panthea, a sea nymph and Asia’s sister, and Asia follow their dream down to the lair of the Demogorgon and, swooning, are urged to “resist not the weakness” for “such strength there is in meekness.” This echoes Christ’s teaching that the meek will inherit the earth for they have true, emotional and spiritual power as opposed to worldly power.
Although Prometheus had cursed Jupiter when he was first chained to the mountain, during the course of his torment Prometheus has forgotten his curse. While the elements of the world “meditate” on Prometheus’s threats to Jupiter “as a treasured spell” which implies their eventual liberation, it is actually Prometheus’s refusal to renew his curse which strips Jupiter of his power. After Prometheus has stated that he no longer curses, but instead pities Jupiter, Panthea and Asia share a dream which confirms the prophecy that Prometheus will triumph over Jupiter and unleashes the Demogorgon—“the doom” which sits “coiled” under Jupiter’s throne—and which topples Jupiter from power. Shelley’s emphasis on forgiveness as heroism has parallels in the portrayal of Christ as the savior of mankind. However, Shelley’s replacement of Christ with Prometheus suggests that, while he supports the message of forgiveness which Christianity contains, he feels that this message has become too corrupt to be salvaged and therefore, a new, radical form of moral belief must take its place.
Christianity and Forgiveness ThemeTracker
Christianity and Forgiveness Quotes in Prometheus Unbound
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.
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.
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.
Dost thou boast the clear knowledge thou waken’dst for man?
Then was kindled within him a thirst which outran
Those perishing waters: a thirst of fierce fever,
Hope, love, doubt, desire—which consume him forever.
One came forth, of gentle worth,
Smiling on the sanguine earth;
His words outlived him, like swift poison
Withering up truth, peace and pity.
Though Ruin now Love’s shadow be,
Following him destroyingly
On Death's white and winged steed,
Which the fleetest cannot flee—
Trampling down both flower and weed,
Man and beast and foul and fair,
Like a tempest through the air;
Thou shalt quell this Horseman grim,
Woundless though in heart or limb.—
[…] 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 […]
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?
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.