a Presentation in 10 Literary Elements
Here is our in-depth exploration of "Prometheus Unbound" by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
As always, we'll follow our step-by-step method, which involves looking closely at 10 literary elements: genre, circumstances of publication and performance, sources of inspiration, the title, plot and structure, characters, settings, themes, symbols, and narrative techniques.
To truly understand "Prometheus Unbound," it's important to consider the historical and cultural context of the time it was written. You can refer to your textbook, watch the videos on the Romantic Period, and read the article "The Romantic Age" to get a better grasp of the cultural backdrop.
"Prometheus Unbound" is a remarkable example of Lyrical Drama, that blends the structure of drama with the depth of lyric poetry. Lyrical Drama is a term used for a dramatic poem that combines elements of both drama and lyric poetry. While the play has a dramatic structure with acts and characters, it is the lyrical elements that truly shine. The characters in "Prometheus Unbound" express their innermost thoughts and feelings in poetic and emotive language, making the play a rich and immersive exploration of human emotions and the human spirit's quest for freedom.
Circumstances of Publication/Performance:
"Prometheus Unbound" was penned by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1819. This period in Shelley's life was marked by personal challenges (1) and significant social unrest (2)
Despite completing the play in 1819, "Prometheus Unbound" was not published until 1820. Shelley likely took the time to refine and revise the play. This allowed Shelley to carefully craft the language and themes. Shelley's play is considered a closet drama, meaning it was not intended to be produced on the stage. In the tradition of Romantic poetry, Shelley wrote for the imagination, intending his play's stage to reside in the imaginations of his readers. However, the play is filled with suspense, mystery, and other dramatic effects that suggest it may have initially been conceived as a performable drama.
Sources of Inspiration:
Prometheus Unbound draws from various sources of inspiration:
Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound: Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright, authored 'Prometheus Bound' around 450 BC. Percy Bysshe Shelley, greatly influenced by Aeschylus's portrayal of Prometheus and the profound themes of rebellion, suffering, and divine justice explored in the ancient masterpiece, drew upon it. However, Shelley not only altered the title but also crafted a distinct ending, departing from Aeschylus's narrative.
Plato's Dialogues: particularly the idea of ideal forms and the search for truth and beauty.
John Milton's Paradise Lost: especially its themes of rebellion, fallen angels, and the struggle for freedom.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: in particular the consequences of human ambition, which were central to Shelley's own work.
William Godwin's Political Justice: Shelley's father-in-law, William Godwin, was a prominent philosopher and political writer whose ideas about social reform and individualism greatly influenced Shelley's thinking.
Shelley's friendship with Lord Byron, another renowned Romantic poet, led to intellectual exchanges and mutual influence in their respective works.
Beyond the Prometheus myth, Shelley drew from a wide array of Greek myths and legends to infuse his poetry with timeless and universal themes. The Myth of Prometheus: Prometheus was a Titan who challenged the authority of the Olympian gods, most notably Zeus, by stealing fire from the heavens and bestowing it upon humanity. This bold act of defiance was an act of empowerment, as fire symbolized not only illumination but also the power of knowledge, innovation, and civilization. Shelley saw in Prometheus a powerful allegory for the struggle against oppression and the relentless pursuit of enlightenment, themes that resonated deeply with the intellectual and social currents of his time. In Shelley's interpretation, Prometheus's gift of fire to humanity represented not just physical illumination but also the illumination of the mind. The act of stealing fire was a metaphor for the acquisition of knowledge, science, and enlightenment—elements that would ultimately serve as catalysts for societal and intellectual progress. Shelley believed that the quest for knowledge and the liberation of the human spirit from ignorance and oppression were central to the human experience, and he harnessed the Prometheus myth to amplify these themes in his work.
Nature and the Romantic Landscape:
The natural world, as celebrated by poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats, served as a wellspring of inspiration for Shelley's own descriptions of nature's grandeur and its connection to the human spirit.
The revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity that emerged during the French Revolution deeply impacted Shelley's political and philosophical beliefs, as seen in his writings.
Explanation of the Title:
The title encapsulates the heart of Shelley's poetic drama, carrying layers of meaning that resonate with the central themes of the play:
The title signifies the liberation of Prometheus, the central character of the play. Prometheus, in Greek mythology, was famously bound to a rock as punishment for defying Zeus by stealing fire and sharing it with humanity. "Unbound" suggests the breaking free of these chains, marking Prometheus's release from his agonizing torment. This act of liberation is not merely physical but also metaphysical, as it represents the emancipation of the human spirit from the constraints of oppressive forces.
Plot and Structure:
Act 1 - The Chains of Prometheus:
The play opens with Prometheus, the Titan, bound to a desolate rock, punished for defying Jupiter, the ruler of the gods. Shelley skillfully paints a vivid picture of Prometheus's suffering. The act sets the stage for the central conflict: Prometheus's enduring defiance against the tyrannical rule of Jupiter.
Act 2 - The Liberation:
In Act 2, Prometheus is liberated from his torment. Prometheus is unbound from the chains that have held him captive. It introduces Asia, Prometheus's beloved, and their reunion symbolizes the awakening of the human spirit.
Act 3 - The Transformation:
Act 3 explores the profound changes that begin to sweep across the world following Prometheus's release. It introduces Demogorgon, a mysterious and powerful figure who plays a pivotal role in the transformation. Shelley describes the metamorphosis of nature, portraying the Earth's renewal and the breaking of Jupiter's oppressive rule. This act invites the audience to contemplate the idea that liberation and change can lead to a world of beauty and harmony.
Act 4 - The Triumph of Love:
Act 4 reaches its climax with the overthrow of Jupiter, marking the ultimate triumph of love and liberty. The act is filled with breathtaking scenes of cosmic battles and divine interventions. Prometheus's union with Asia symbolizes the fusion of human intellect and the universal spirit of love. The play concludes with a vision of a new era where humanity lives in harmony with the natural world, free from tyranny.
"Prometheus Unbound" follows a classical five-act structure, but it is commonly divided into four acts. Each act serves as a distinct phase in Prometheus's journey from suffering and captivity to liberation and transformation. Shelley's poetic dialogues and monologues add depth to the characters and their emotional struggles. The play's structure reflects the Romantic emphasis on individual and collective liberation, with each act contributing to the overall theme of breaking free from oppressive forces.
Prometheus is the central character and the protagonist of the play. He symbolizes unyielding human determination and the enduring spirit of rebellion against tyranny. Through Prometheus, Shelley conveys the idea that the human spirit is indomitable and that the pursuit of freedom and enlightenment is worth any sacrifice. Prometheus's character evolves throughout the play as he is released from his chains and becomes a symbol of hope and transformation.
Jupiter is the antagonist in the play and serves as the tyrannical ruler of the gods. He represents oppressive authority, abuse of power, and the embodiment of a corrupt system. Shelley's portrayal of Jupiter diverges from the traditional depiction, emphasizing his cruelty and tyranny. Jupiter's character embodies the oppressive forces that seek to stifle human progress and keep humanity in ignorance and bondage. His conflict with Prometheus represents the struggle between individual liberty and authoritarian rule, making Jupiter a potent symbol of the status quo that must be challenged for positive change to occur. Throughout the play, Jupiter's character undergoes a transformation as well, reflecting the broader theme of the potential for redemption and change, even among those who have wielded great power.
The dynamic between Prometheus and Jupiter forms the core of the play's dramatic tension. Prometheus represents moral integrity and resilience while Jupiter, on the other hand, represents the forces of oppression, control, and the fear of change. His attempts to maintain his dominion over both gods and mortals create conflict and turmoil. The clash between Prometheus and Jupiter serves as a metaphor for the broader societal struggle against tyranny and the yearning for freedom and enlightenment. The resolution of their conflict is central to the play's message of hope and transformation, illustrating that oppressive authority can be overcome by the power of human determination and collective action.
Setting in Time and Place:
The setting of Prometheus Unbound is a mythological world, inhabited by gods, Titans, and mythical beings. It provides the stage upon which the struggle for freedom and enlightenment takes center stage. "Prometheus Unbound" is set in the Caucasus mountains, specifically the Indian Caucasus. The play begins in the Indian Caucasus, where the Titan Prometheus is bound to a rock face and surrounded by the Oceanides Panthea and Ione. The choice of the Caucasus as the setting is inspired by the classical mythological tradition, where Prometheus was also bound to the Caucasus mountains.
Freedom and Liberation:
The theme of freedom and liberation is at the core of the narrative. Prometheus, who dared to defy the tyrant Jupiter (representing oppressive authority), becomes a symbol of the indomitable human spirit's quest for freedom. His eventual release from bondage represents the triumph of individual and collective liberation.
The Power of Knowledge and Enlightenment:
Prometheus's act of stealing fire from the gods is symbolic of the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment. Shelley underscores the idea that knowledge is a force that can illuminate minds and transform societies. Prometheus's gift of fire to humanity represents the acquisition of knowledge and the potential for intellectual and moral progress.
Nature and the Human Spirit:
Shelley's deep connection to nature, a hallmark of Romantic literature, is evident in the play. Nature is portrayed as a powerful force that responds to the changing human spirit. As Prometheus is unbound and liberated, nature undergoes a transformation, symbolizing the intimate connection between humanity and the natural world.
Love and Empathy:
The play explores the transformative power of love and empathy. Prometheus's reunion with his beloved Asia signifies the awakening of the human spirit and the capacity for love to drive positive change. Love, in this context, becomes a force that can transcend suffering and adversity.
The Struggle Against Tyranny:
The conflict between Prometheus and Jupiter symbolizes the broader struggle against oppressive authority. Shelley's portrayal of Jupiter as a cruel and tyrannical ruler reflects the Romantic belief in the need to challenge unjust systems and institutions to achieve a better world.
Redemption and Transformation:
Several characters in the play undergo transformations, including Jupiter himself. This theme underscores the possibility of redemption and change, even among those who have wielded great power. It suggests that the human spirit has the capacity to evolve and transcend its flaws.
Fire is a central symbol of knowledge, enlightenment, and the power to transform.
The chains that bind Prometheus at the beginning of the play symbolize oppression and bondage. They represent the forces that seek to stifle individual and collective freedom. As Prometheus is unbound, the chains are broken, signifying the triumph of liberation and the release from oppressive authority.
The eagle that torments Prometheus is a symbol of Jupiter's cruelty and tyranny. It represents the oppressive forces that seek to punish and suppress those who challenge the status quo. The eagle's defeat and departure from the play signal the weakening of Jupiter's authority and the impending transformation of the world.
As Prometheus is liberated, the Earth is described as "clothed with green" and "crowned with flowers," symbolizing the renewal of nature and the harmonious relationship between humanity and the natural world.
Point of View and Narrative Techniques:
The play is written in the third person, with a narrative voice that provides descriptions and commentary on the events and characters.
Shelley employs various narrative techniques to create a sense of wonder and imagination: vivid descriptions of natural landscapes, celestial events, and cosmic battles to transport the audience to a mythological world. These contribute to the play's visual and emotional impact.
(1) Financial Instability: Shelley faced ongoing financial difficulties and debts, partly due to his rebellious and unconventional lifestyle.
Exile from England: Shelley went into self-imposed exile from England due to his radical political beliefs, leading to a sense of alienation and displacement.
Family Troubles: His tumultuous marriage with Harriet Westbrook ended, and he faced legal battles for custody of his children.
Health Issues: Shelley and his wife, Mary Shelley, both experienced health problems during this period, including illnesses and the loss of their infant daughter.
(2) Significant Social Unrest Episodes in 1819:
Peterloo Massacre: On August 16, 1819, in Manchester, England, a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration turned violent when cavalry charged into the crowd, resulting in casualties. The massacre shocked the nation and fueled calls for change.
The Six Acts: In response to social unrest, the British government passed a series of repressive laws known as the Six Acts in 1819, aimed at curbing radical activities, restricting free speech, and limiting political gatherings.
Cato Street Conspiracy: A failed plot to assassinate government ministers and overthrow the British government was uncovered in 1820. It revealed the depth of political unrest and dissatisfaction with the establishment.
LnT an interesting article on where the play was written: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=pfbid037WtGGyTaegLo4c2vTPFjJ2sLyRdYNGNpEYYu5o9PZFPuwsq2y8EvNaqdU1y1wri9l&id=100064809038008