Thursday, September 17, 2009

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus and Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bryce Shelley

Prometheus Bound is part of the central canon of ancient drama. The play, in short, describes the now somewhat familiar story of Prometheus, a titan who stole fire from the Gods, to give to man, thereby symbolically giving men wisdom, skill, handicraft, and free will. As a punishment, Zeus has Hephaestus chain Prometheus to a rock and sends an eagle to come every day and tear out the Titan's liver and eat it - being a god, it of course regenerates every night, leaving him in a continuous, eternal cycle of pain. Prometheus, on the other hand, is a prophetic character, and knows something about Zeus - namely, he knows how Zeus could, eventually be supplanted, just as he supplanted his father. Originally, the play was probably part of a trilogy, continuing with Prometheus's eventual freeing at the hands of Hercules, and with his return to Jove's good graces by telling him how to avoid being dethroned. The latter two plays have been lost. All three are attributed to Aeschylus, although many modern scholars apparently think this is a mistake, and that they were written later.

It was the loss of the latter two plays that, thousands of years later, gave rise to Prometheus Unbound, a chamber play (ie, one not intended to be staged and performed) by the great Romantic poet Percy Bryce Shelley. Shelley and many of the Romantics identified strongly with Prometheus, in his role as antihero and spirit of rebellion and revolution - Byron and Goethe, for instance, both wrote poems about him. Shelley, essentially, wrote what we would now call a spinoff of the ancient play - but instead of taking the road of piety that was apparently in the original, his Promethean is a brave rebel against God, cursing the heavens solemnly as he suffers the torment Zeus has appointed, knowing that one day Zeus will fall and the world will return to a free state where there is no tyrannical higher power.

To read these one after each other is an experience. The ancient play is fierce and wild in a way that osme of the other Greek plays are not - it does not tidily wrap up a moral, but leaves the reader at the end asking themselves if obedience and piety are better morals than courage and love. The Prometheus of the old play is the very figure of fierce, antiestablishment dignity, and it is easy to see why he would have appealed to the likes of Byron and Goethe, men who believed that freedom and love were the highest laws of human existence. The play DOES feel dated - it's kind of slow, and honestly, not much really HAPPENS in it. He gets chained to the rock, and then he talks. And talks. And talks. I found myself reading the play more as oratory than as drama. Some of this is intrinsic to ancient drama, however (I believe one of Aeschylus' big innovations in drama was in having more than one character on stage. No, really. Fascinating to think plays didn't use to, isn't it? They just talekd to the chorus, that's it). I'm no classical scholar, if I was, I could probably appreciate it more - in my ignorance, the language was beautiful, but it got a bit pedantic.

Shelley is not perfect either - he is NOT exactly a novel writer. The play reads like somethign a poet would wrote, rather than a prose writer - it doesn't worry about the plot as much as it worries about ideas and ideals. There are long speeches in fact where I would forget who was talking. That being said, Shelley's characters have a vividity and epic sweep that made me feel, ironically, as if they were on stage (ironic, since it was written to be read in a boudoir, not performed on stage - this would be one whacked out play on stage). And the language! The language is where you're thankful it was written by Shelley. Take this, for instance, a poem spoken by the moon to the earth:

[The feeling of love is] As in the soft and sweet eclipse,
When soul meets soul on lovers' lips,
High hearts are calm, and brightest eyes are dull;
So when thy shadow falls on me,
Then am I mute and still, by thee
Covered; of thy love, Orb most beautiful,
Full, oh, too full!

Or, my favorite line, and one that I won't forget soon, sung to Prometheus by his lover:

My soul is an enchanted boat,
Which, like a sleeping swan, doth float
Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing;
And thine doth like an angel sit
Beside a helm conducting it

The language is powerful, and rich, and is as much of a character as the people in the play, speaking, changing, fading back and growing strident with all the vigor of a master poet. This is a play that ought to be sung.


Amanda said...

Do you think the experience was better having read the two of these one right after another?

Unknown said...

Yes, definitely. There is a feeling I get from some books, particularly very old ones, that there are things written into them that are sleeping and tucked away hidden - it's too easy to miss these things if you're not smart, like me. Shelley's work teased out the ideas of the old play for me in ways that made the old play more profound.

Julie said...

I like what you said:
The language is where you're thankful it was written by Shelley.
I truly appreciate words and language and the excerpts you've shared are beautiful!

Unknown said...

Julie - Thanks! I love the romantic poets :)

Rebecca Reid said...

I think that's a great idea to read them back to back like that! I'll have to keep that in mind for my upcoming really old classics challenge which is going to have a "read the old and then a new retelling" option to it....

Unknown said...

Ms Reid - Yes, it'd be a great one for that (well, if Shelley is modern enough :D). Although, you could ALSO read the Odyssey, and Ulysses :D... if you have a LOT of time on your hands...