Study Guide

Prometheus Bound

By Aeschylus

Prometheus Bound Introduction

Talk about taking one for the team--and not even his own team. According to Greek myth, Prometheus brought fire down from Mt. Olympus and gave it to humans. Great, right? For us, yes. Not so great for Prometheus. As punishment for Prometheus's infraction, Zeus (the Greek gods' head honcho) cast Prometheus into a pit of darkness with the promise that he'd get out in, oh, a few millennia—in order to have his liver eaten daily by vultures.

Awesome! But at least he got some great literature out of it. Generations of writers, philosophers, and political revolutionaries have been inspired by this story of rebellion. In contemporary times, Prometheus has become a symbol for progress in science and technology. His name is on an element of the periodic table, and there's a statue of him outside the General Electric building in Rockefeller Center, New York City. (Check out the fire in the statue's right hand.)

According to ancient tradition, Prometheus Bound was written by Aeschylus, one of the three great Athenian tragic poets (along with Sophocles and Euripides). Today? Scholars aren't so sure. See, there are some subtle stylistic differences between this play and other plays by Aeschylus, like the Oresteia trilogy. Plus, it seems to refer to some other plays that were written after Aeschylus's death. Oops.

Minor differences aside, though, the play is clearly influenced by Aeschylus's writing. One theory suggests that the play was written by Aeschylus's son Euphorion. Or, it could have been written by some unknown Aeschylus fanboy.

No matter who wrote the play, most scholars agree that it was probably first performed sometime around 430 BCE and that it came with a sequel, Prometheus Unbound. Unfortunately, the sequel hasn't survived from antiquity—though that didn't stop the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley from writing his own play by that name in the 19th century.

As a result, Prometheus Bound is a bit of a weird play. Though it's full of dramatic action, it's very clearly only a piece of a larger story, like The Two Towers or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. That may sound frustrating, but only getting a piece of the tale lets us use our own imaginations to end the story, just like Shelley did.

And that's a pretty cool tradition.

What is Prometheus Bound About and Why Should I Care?

Ridley Scott's 2012 film Prometheus begins with a figure painfully dissolving into the waters of a planet that looks a lot like Earth. The Internet speculated wildly about what, exactly, this guy was doing—but a lot of people thought that he was sacrificing himself to provide the DNA that would eventually become humans.

We humans love the idea that one powerful man (or woman, or alien) would sacrifice himself to bring life and hope to humanity. (Duh: they're doing it for us.) Nearly every culture has some version. The ancient Greeks had Prometheus.

But Prometheus Bound is something more: its guy isn't just sacrificing himself for love of humanity. He's standing up to the man, and we think that makes Prometheus Bound a little different than just a story about a mad scientist, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, subtitled The Modern Prometheus; or the 2005 biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, inventor of the atomic bomb, called American Prometheus.

Prometheus Bound is about revolution. It's about the individual's struggle against unjust power, the little guy standing up to the bully, the individual overthrowing the system. Yeah, he gets trampled in the process. But there's hope: in the end, Prometheus Bound promises us, the good guys will win. Justice will reign. Zeus will topple from his throne.

And how'd he get there in the first place? The same way most tyrants and despots, do: through fear, intimidation, and sheer gall. The shadowy figure of Zeus helps make this 2,500 hundred-year-old play feel fresh and relevant: despots and tyrants aren't a relic of history. They're alive and well among us—ruling countries, terrorizing their families, or controlling the schoolyard.

And Prometheus wants us to fight back.

Prometheus Bound Resources


Prometheus HTML'd
This website provides a complete translation of Aeschylus's play. One cool thing: it uses the Greek names of the characters Power (Kratos) and Violence (Bia).

Words Matter
This website provides another translation of Aeschylus's play. This time, Power is called Strength, and Violence is called Force.

Movie or TV Productions

Don't Look in the Box
Here's an animated retelling of the story of Prometheus and Pandora from Hesiod's epic poem the Theogony—one of Prometheus Bound's sources.

It Sounds Better in French
Also known as Prométhée, The Legend of Prometheus (1908) is an early French film adaptation of the Greek legend.

Historical Documents

Don't Bother Me, I'm Composing
This ancient sculpture depicts the alleged author of Prometheus Bound. He looks… extremely serious.

Black Lung Manuscript
This image shows a tattered copy of Aeschylus's comic play The Net-Pullers. Pretty cool that plays like Prometheus Bound were preserved throughout the millennia, even it does look like it's been afflicted with a terrible disease.


Putting High Schools to Shame
In 2006, Trinity High School put on Prometheus Bound. Yep, while everyone else in the country was doing Grease and South Pacific.

Yay, Subtitles
Okay, this is pretty cool: a professional theater company doing Prometheus Bound. In ancient Greek.

Clay Davis Teaches the Classics
State Senator Clay Davis from HBO's The Wire shows off his knowledge of Aeschylus—such as it is. (Hint: ESS-kuh-luss.)


Io and Prometheus Duet
Io and Prometheus share a tender moment in Panayoti Karousos, an opera about Prometheus by a Greek-Canadian composer.

A Little Light Music
Daniel Cornelius rocks out with an instrumental guitar track inspired by Aeschylus's play.


Anyone Hungry?
Prometheus having his liver eaten by an eagle, painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Love it.

Nope, Still Not Eating
Ancient Greek black figure pot showing Prometheus… getting his liver eaten by an eagle.