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Masterpieces of Greek Literature (1902)/Aeschylus

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Aeschylus was born at Athens, 525 B. C. He had part in the battle of Marathon, 490 B. C. as he tells us on his tombstone, and doubtless also in the battle of Salamis, 480 B. C. He is called the Father of Greek Tragedy, since before him only one actor was employed, who, wearing various masks, held converse with the leader of the chorus. No true dramatic action was possible until the second actor was introduced. Of the ninety plays of Aeschylus, only seven have come down to us; of these the most magnificent and the most difficult to understand is the Agamemnon, which Robert Browning translated. Aeschylus died at Gela in Sicily in 456 B. C.

The story on which the Prometheus Bound is based is told in the play itself. The audience had no play-bills or information other than that which the drama supplied. Prometheus belonged to the older race of gods,—he was a Titan,—but he took the part of Zeus (Jupiter) in the latter's contest with his father Cronos (Saturn), and assisted in establishing the new dynasty. By aiding men, however, especially in conveying to them the gift of fire, which should prove for them the mother of every art, he incurred the enmity of Zeus, and is to be severely punished.

The scene of the play is laid in Scythia, near the waters of Ocean.

The Dramatis Personae are skilfully chosen: Strength and Force, as the roughest of Zeus's servants, bring Prometheus to the scene of his sufferings. Hephaestus (Vulcan), the god of fire and the patron of all work in metals, the Tubal Cain of the Greeks, binds the Titan to the rocks. The Ocean Nymphs hear the sound of the hammer on the fetters, and come out of curiosity, but full of sympathy. They are sisters of Prometheus's bride, Hesione. No others could have formed the chorus so well, since the brothers of Prometheus had been hurled into Tartarus, and the higher gods of Olympus were at enmity with the Titan, and his place of punishment had been chosen far from the dwellings of mortals. Oceanus (Ocean) himself enters not long after his daughters, and advises Prometheus to bow before the sovereignty of Zeus. He is an excellent foil to the chief character, since he agrees with him in his feeling, but adapts himself to circumstances. Io is the only mortal introduced in the play, and a "motive" is given for her coming: she is wandering, tormented by the oestrus, along the shore. She, too, is a foil to Prometheus, since her sufferings come indirectly from Zeus, but she yields helplessly, in a manner contrasted with the Titan's stubborn resistance. She is further connected with the story, since her descendant Heracles (Hercules) is to release Prometheus. Prometheus's sympathy for Io in her sufferings draws from him a distinct prediction of the overthrow of Zeus and his dynasty, and this brings upon the scene Hermes (Mercury), the messenger of the gods, who threatens suffering still more dire, if Prometheus will not tell how this disaster may be averted. The Titan defies Zeus, and the play ends with thunder, lightning, and earthquake.

This play was the Prometheus Bound. Another (no longer extant) followed,—Prometheus Unbound,—in which the Titans, who had been freed from Tartarus, served as chorus, and Heracles (Hercules) at the bidding of Zeus released Prometheus. How the reconciliation between Zeus and Prometheus could be brought about without humiliation to the king of the gods, is not easy to see. In the play before us, Zeus is represented as a wilful and unjust tyrant. How these ways were justified to men in the second play, we do not know. Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, in which he makes Prometheus a martyr, is wholly fanciful.

The character of Prometheus was before Milton's mind as he depicted Satan, and by the Greek title Prometheus Desmōtes (Bound) was suggested the title of Milton's Samson Agonistes.

The play was presented in the great open-air theatre of Dionysus, at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, about 470 B. C. In the time of Aeschylus the action seems to have been not on a raised stage, but in a circular "orchestra" or dancing-place. The scenery and theatrical machinery were simple. The actors wore masks, and in general Aeschylus employed but two actors for each play. In this play, one actor may have taken the parts of Strength, Oceanus, Io, and Hermes, while the actor who took the part of Hephaestus may have slipped around behind the rocks to speak the verses of Prometheus. This would require a lay figure for the Titan, but would explain how the "adamantine wedge" could be driven through his breast, and would provide a mechanical reason for the silence of Prometheus during the first scene. The dramatic reason for this silence is that the Titan will not demean himself to bandy words with his tormentors. Force is a "mute," a supernumerary.

In 1833, Elizabeth Barrett (Mrs. Browning) published anonymously a translation of the Prometheus,—"completed in thirteen days," she wrote in 1845 to Mr. Browning,—"the iambics thrown into blank verse, the lyrics into rhymed octosyllabics and the like." This work was afterwards suppressed, but Miss Barrett in 1845 thoroughly revised it, and published her new translation in 1850. Another slight revision was made and published in 1856. Mr. Browning wrote that Mrs. Browning was "self-taught in almost every respect," and her Greek scholarship naturally was not that of a philologist of to-day. Of a few words and phrases she failed to catch the exact meaning, and in several instances she thus lost the full connection of thought. But her poetic genius more than atoned for her lack of technical scholarship, and her translation (which follows) is accepted as a true work of art.