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Shelley's 'Prometheus Unbound': A Critical Review

Simran Singh is a student at Griffith University studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing and art history.


Prometheus Unbound

Author: Percy Bysshe Shelley

Publisher: The Perfect Library

ISBN: 1419143239

Price: $15.71/112/pb

Who Was Percy Bysshe Shelley?

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a lyricist, poet and writer whose life works sought to exemplify the polarizing extremes—ecstasy and despair—in English Romanticism. He refused to publish works due to his radical, social and political views, in fear of prosecution. Nonetheless, popularity found him after his death and he became a member of a close circle of poets and writers such as his own second wife, Mary Shelley (the author of Frankenstein), Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron John Keats and Thomas Love Peacock.

Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus to bestow its wisdom onto humanity.

Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus to bestow its wisdom onto humanity.

Descriptions of Prometheus Unbound

Prometheus Unbound, first published in 1820, is a lyrical drama based on the myth of Prometheus. After Prometheus gifted humanity with fire, Jupiter, also known as the Greek god Zeus, punished him by chaining him to a rock. The play takes place 3,000 years after his punishment. Every day, Jupiter’s eagle pecks out his liver, which grows back over and over again due to his immortality. Afraid of humanity surpassing and overthrowing the gods with their knowledge, Zeus reigns over the humans with an oppressive terror.

Shelley’s lyrical drama is split into four acts where the sea nymphs, Panthea and Ione, and the sisters of Prometheus’ wife Asia, speak to Prometheus under the cover of night. There, Prometheus defiantly declares he would rather be chained to a rock than reign like a dictator in Olympus. A curse spilt from Prometheus’ lips before Jupiter left him to suffer, and since he could not recall what it was, he asks the elements and nymphs around him to jog his memory.

Scorn and despair-- these are mine empire

— Percy Bysshe Shelley

My Assessment

While reading Prometheus Unbound, I could not help but see the parallels Shelley presented between Prometheus’ personal rebellion and the rebellious spirit seen in Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Both star anti-heroes which challenge the status quo and explore themes of humanity, free will and knowledge. Both figures are punished for bestowing fire and knowledge onto humanity who, thanks to this gift, could explore, think, grow and prosper.

Both actions are seen as radical and disobedient in opposition to the patriarchal figure of God and Zeus. Shelley expresses social and politically radical, paganistic, and philosophical thought which undermined the position of the church during his time. His work is a closet drama, writing for the imagination of the readers, filled with suspense, mystery and other dramatic components. By focusing on Prometheus being the anti-hero, the play sympathises with his position by illuminating his agony:

Behold with sleepless eyes I regard this Earth

Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou

Requitest for knee-worship, pray and praise,

And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,

With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley

Lyrical Devices and Creative Characterisation

The work itself is a masterpiece, consisting of invented lyrical patterns, while also including the 14-syllable line, the Spenserian stanza, Pindaric ode, couplets, and variations of the Greek choral effects. Within the play, poetry overshadows the play’s drama. The language is dense, vivid and evocative but can come off as difficult to read due to its rich language. If the reader becomes bogged down by the rich language, they might lose interest in the text.

Prometheus' characterisation is unique in a revolutionary way, as he calls for the downfall of Zeus, which is not a story told often. Usually, history and mythology position themselves as looking at social classes from a higher class perspective. Rather, this time it's the underdog, the anti-hero who has his voice heard the most, along with the elements oppressed under Zeus' rule.

It is also riveting to see the elements respond and interact with Prometheus. It is quite interesting to see the inclusion of phantasm, as seen through the phantasm of Zeus. It was a creative way of portraying the king of the gods as something barely tangible, and far removed from the audience, just as higher class members of society or celebrities seem far removed from our everyday life. Rather than have Zeus introduce who he is, the maddened ramblings and curses of Prometheus paint an eloquent picture of the tyrant. For those who are a fan of Greek mythology, this play is a must-read.

© 2020 Simran Singh