How do Aeschylus and Tony Harrison adapt the myth of Prometheus in order to appeal to their contemporary audiences?

Charlotte Simpson

The myth of Prometheus has shown a remarkable ability to inspire cultural works across two and a half Millennia. One of the most famous portrayals of the Prometheus myth is that of Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound, the first and only surviving part of his trilogy on this theme. The interweaving of literature, contextual history and civilisation are exceptionally skilful and widely acclaimed. It is therefore interesting to compare a 5th century adaptation of the myth with a modern one and to examine how the vastly different cultural and historical context of a twentieth century writer are realised in each.

When defining myth for the purposes of this essay, it is worth bearing in mind Roland Barthes who extends the traditional definition of a myth and suggests that our reception of myth is heavily coloured by the manner in which it is represented to us: What the world supplies to myth is a historical reality, defined… by the way in which men have produced or used it’.1Given this extension, it is even more crucial to relate each interpretation of the myth to the circumstance of its composition. It is arguable that the overwhelming majority of differences between the respective works are the result of contextual circumstance. The inclusion of contemporaneous references extends the ability of the audience to relate to the play, a crucial factor in the success of each work. In evaluating the effectiveness of each text, it is therefore vital that each adaptation of the myth of Prometheus is related to the historical and social context of the playwright.

The recent social and political history of the Athens in which Aeschylus wrote and performed his play greatly influenced both the playwright and his audience. The fifth Century BCE had seen the emergence of Athenian democracy. This was not a smooth process: as Simon Goldhill writes, the creation of Athenian democracy was ‘quite unlike that of its patron goddess Athene: rather than springing forth fully armed, democracy developed slowly and with considerable wrangling, bitterness and bloodshed.’2 The establishment of such a revolutionary system of governance began with legal reforms by an archon (ruler) name Solon in 594 BCE. With his departure from Athens immediately after establishing his reforms, however, the governance of the city regressed into various oppressive tyrannies. The next major change was the redistribution of the Athenian population into 10 new tribes so that a greater number of people could share in political administration. Yet it was not here that the full Athenian democracy was formed, as there were still two divided classes of wealth. However, the concept was alive and the Athenians fought to defend it, along with the whole of the Greek mainland, during the Graeco-Persian Wars (490-479 BCE). These events would still be very vivid to the audience watching Aeschylus’ performance. By the 5th century BCE, regarded by modern scholars as the ‘Golden Age of Greek Drama’, the theatre was at the heart of Athenian cultural life and was a major contributor to civic pride, especially during such periods of political and military unrest. The audience of the theatrical performances at the civic festival of Dionysus were primarily the adult citizens of Athens; with reference here only to the men of Athens, as they alone were the official citizens of Athens. Their ability to vote in the Assembly and the expectation upon them to take part in all civic affairs meant that they would have all been well informed of the political setting and unrest of the times in which the play was performed. At this time in particular Athens was famous for its hatred of tyranny, which had developed during its recent history. The battle of the Greeks against Xerxes would have also highlighted the struggle of democracy versus tyranny and this is a theme which features strongly in Prometheus Bound.

Aeschylus’ portrayal of the tyrannical character of Zeus and the acute contrast he makes between him and the democratic prototype Prometheus would have been very noticeable to his fifth Century audience. Zeus’ absence from the stage in both physical form and voice contribute largely to the perception of him that is developed throughout the play. It allows the personified attributes of Zeus to be represented by his servants; Kratos (Might) and Bia (Force). These carry out the instructions of Zeus, emphasising for the audience these facets of his nature and authoritarian rule.

κεανός: οὔκουν ἔμοιγε χρώμενος διδασκάλῳ
Oikeanos: Don’t – at least if you’ll let me instruct you

πρὸς κέντρα κῶλον ἐκτενεῖς, ὁρῶν ὅτι
Kick against the goad, for you must see

τραχὺς μόναρχος οὐδ᾽ ὑπεύθυνος κρατεῖ
That a harsh monarch wields power without control 3

Aeschylus’ choice to emphasise Might and Force as such intimidating and violent aspects of Zeus’ persona and rule, instead of less oppressive characteristics, is extremely unconventional. It is crucial, however, in his criticism of oligarchic rule controlled through fear, force and punishment, concepts which Zeus clearly represents in Prometheus Bound.

This portrayal of Zeus is therefore strikingly different from the traditional highly-respectedπατηρ Ζευς
, especially considering other works of Aeschylus, such as The Suppliants. Although Aeschylus was perceived as quite a pious man, the ‘Zeus of [his] Prometheus has no redeeming feature’4. It is thought that the sequels in the trilogy, which have since been lost, could have balanced or corrected this portrayal but this still does not detract from the deliberate construction of an acutely tyrannical Zeus in Prometheus Bound. Through this, Zeus is associated with the Athenian perception of a dictator, the most pertinent example of which for Aeschylus’ audience would have been the recently repelled Xerxes. By dramatically subverting the traditional Zeus character, he clearly identifies the character of Prometheus as a rebellious figure against the higher powers of tyranny and authoritarian regimes of all kinds. Given the recent struggle of Athens against such a regime, this allows the audience to identify with Prometheus and suggests that he is at least partially representative of Athenian citizenry. This is a flattering comparison: Prometheus is a Titan (a mighty, awe-inspiring figure) who risks divine retribution to aid mankind; namely being bound to a rock with his immortal liver devoured daily by an eagle.

Προμηθεύς: <ὤμοι.> 
Prometheus: Ahhh!

Eρμς: ὤμοι; τόδε Ζεὺς τοὔπος οὐκ ἐπίσταται.
Hermes: ‘Ahhh!’ is a word Zeus doesn’t understand 5

A clear contrast is here drawn between the vengeful and cold-hearted actions of the tyrannical Zeus and the pathetic agonies of the humanised, freedom-seeking Prometheus. The oppression and harshness affiliated with tyranny is linked by Aeschylus to democracy by encouraging the audience’s empathy for Prometheus in his struggle for justice. Aeschylus makes Prometheus’ sufferings the focal point of the play as he is left on stage bound to his rock throughout its entirety.

Προμηθεύς: ….. ἐσορᾷς μ᾽ ὡς ἔκδικα πάσχω. 
Prometheus: Look on me, how unjustly I suffer! 6

The intensely dramatic sufferings of Prometheus’ character are then used to add a second symbolic layer to the character. He comes to resemble a more general representation of mankind and the concept of their unjust sufferings.

Helpless in his struggles and influenced by an unapproachable higher power, Prometheus reflects the widely-held Greek belief in both human fallibility and an overarching fate. Although Prometheus is a Titan and not a human himself, Aeschylus brilliantly uses the pathos of his suffering to create empathy for the character amongst his audience, humanising the character and allowing the poet to use him for more general comment on the human condition.

Another intensely pathetic character is Io, who was first brought into the myth of Prometheus by Aeschylus. The story of her seduction by Zeus and persecution by Hera was widely known amongst Greek audiences and Aeschylus uses this to reinforce the themes of oppression and injustice. By drawing attention to the punishment of Io, who is ‘forced to exercise, running overly long courses, hated by Hera’ for ‘warm[ing] Zeus’ heart with love’7, Aeschylus is able to highlight further the extent of the injustice of Zeus’ tyrannical behaviour. Aeschylus then manipulates the story so that these two unfortunate characters become linked by fate and share a relationship of mutual help. Prometheus helps Io’s suffering with his gift of prophesy and Hercules, Io’s descendant of many generations becomes Prometheus’ liberator. Whilst using these two characters to represent the pathetic nature and vulnerability of the human condition in comparison with that of Zeus, Aeschylus also combines them into a powerful symbol of freedom-seeking humanity. The suggestion is both that the salvation of such oppressed figures lies in their cooperation against the oppressive few, and that tyrants such as Zeus have much to fear from united opposition amongst their subjects.

In Hesiod’s earlier account of the Prometheus myth he explains how Prometheus steals the previously divine element of fire and begins to bridge the gap between the immortal and mortal worlds. In Hogan’s commentary on Aeschylus’ text he mentions that ‘the theft of the divine confuses the boundaries [between the divine and human orders] by transferring immortal power to mortals’. 8 The ability that Prometheus gives humans to break free from their primitive state of existence gives them the potential and power to achieve better things; a similar empowerment to that achieved by the Athenian people through democracy. Equally, however, Aeschylus is quick to remind the Athenian people of the suffering that must be endured to be revolutionary and affect positive change:

Προμηθεύς: πρὸς τοῖσδε μέντοι πῦρ ἐγώ σφιν ὤπασα.
Prometheus: Moreover, I also bestowed fire upon them.

Χορός: καὶ νῦν φλογωπὸν πῦρ ἔχουσ᾽ ἐφήμεροι;
Chorus Leader: So short lived creatures now have blazing fire?

Προμηθεύς: ἀφ᾽ οὗ γε πολλὰς ἐκμαθήσονται τέχνας.
Prometheus: Yes, and from it they will learn many skills.

Χορός: τοιοῖσδε δή σε Ζεὺς ἐπ᾽ αἰτιάμασιν— 
Chorus Leader: Are such, then, the grounds on which Zeus….

Προμηθεύς: αἰκίζεταί τε κοὐδαμῇ χαλᾷ κακῶν.
Prometheus: Foully mistreats me, and in no way relaxes his abuses. 9

Prometheus’ theft of fire questioned and challenged the limits of the human condition in relation to those of the divine. This questioning is again related to the questioning of rulers and their decrees by a restless subject.

It is possible then to equate the fire with power in Prometheus Bound which threatens Zeus newly acquired position to the power of the people – the power which fuels rebellion and opposition his tyrannical rule:

Κράτος : τὸ σὸν γὰρ ἄνθος, παντέχνου πυρὸς σέλας,
Power: For it was for your glory, fire’s blaze, basis

θνητοῖσι κλέψας ὤπασεν.
Of every craft, that he stole and gave to mortals. 10

At the end of the summer of 479BCE most of Athens’ cultural glory was destroyed (by fire, ironically) by the Persian occupation of the city and all that was left was a city of ruins. The fifth century audience of Prometheus had experienced both the best and the worst that fire and its technology could bring to their city. Thus he uses the fire a symbol of the fuel for thought, a reason for reflection over the recent Persian Wars and the transition from tyrannical rule to democratic rule in Athens. Being the first state in Greece to do undergo this transition, Athens was extremely proud of its radical system of governance. In this way Aeschylus’ tragedy enables its audience to celebrate the new prosperity and power of fifth Century Athens, whilst also celebrating its democratic ideals.

Aeschylus also uses fire as symbol of intellectual enlightenment. Athens had recently undergone an intellectual revolution, partly enabled by the liberal values of its democracy. Intellectual and philosophical disciplines had taken on increased importance; attempts to rationalise views of man’s existence, development and purpose were taught in the city by natural philosophers, such as Anaximander. This concept of intellectual awakening is made explicit by Aeschylus:

Προμηθέύς: …τἀν βροτοῖς δὲ πήματα
Prometheus: But listen to me tell of human’s sufferings

ἀκούσαθ᾽, ὥς σφας νηπίους ὄντας τὸ πρὶν
How I made them, mere infants before,

ἔννους ἔθηκα καὶ φρενῶν ἐπηβόλους.
Intelligent and possessed of minds 11

The use of νηπίους (‘infants’ or ‘those who cannot yet speak’) is particularly telling: the Athenian population is now able to express itself with more of an intellectual maturity. It also fuels civic pride, by inferring that Athens has progressed beyond the infantile position of more traditional states. Thus Aeschylus, through his character of Prometheus, brings literal and symbolic enlightenment to mankind with fire, in the same way that democracy brought such maturity to Athens.

Just as the Prometheus myth prompted Athenian poets and philosophers to think more positively about political and intellectual revolution, Aeschylus’ portrayal of Prometheus as a political rebel greatly inspired later artists and poets, like Tony Harrison, to use this as a background on which to set their own celebration of rebellion and revolution. Like the Greeks and romantics before him, Harrison reworked the Prometheus myth in the context of his own time and culture.

Its audience however was never very large and after its showing on UK Channel 4 in 1998 it seemed to disappear from public view. After reading the film script, I endeavoured to find a showing of the film, in the British Film Institute archives. It is thought that the reason why his film has been so little watched is because ‘it draws epic inferences from a very specific and controversial political event, albeit the landmark conflicts in British post war socio-economic history’12. It is for this reason only likely to be viewed only by those with a particular interest. His use of the myth therefore is also symbolic of these themes as he employs it as a background and foundation to his drama. More importantly, it is what the figure of Prometheus has grown to represent and stand for that has been so acutely worked into Tony Harrison’s text, and it is this which engages viewers and readers alike.

As one might expect from a film, setting is extremely important in Harrison’s work. In the opening scene of the film, one is taken to the cooling towers of Ferrybridge power station and the mining community of Kirkby. This area, near where Harrison grew up, was hit particularly hard by the political unrest of the 1970s and 1980s, when successive Conservative governments under Heath and Thatcher were engaged in a set of political struggles with the National Union of Miners. These disputes resulted in some of the most violent and destructive strikes in modern British history. By locating the opening scene of the film against such a symbolic backdrop, Harrison immediately brings the themes of technological progress and its potential consequences to the front of the audiences’ mind.

This use of setting is continued as the film follows the journey of the golden Prometheus statue across Europe. Harrison manipulates this journey to include profound visual images of Eastern Europe: the Dresden bombings; the Holocaust; the industrially ravaged landscapes and carbon factories of the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary; and the forests of Romania and Bulgaria. Harrison uses such backdrops, of which Dresden and Auschwitz were the most poignant, to highlight the need for reflection on the consequences of technological advancement. The revolutions of technology therefore become his Promethean fire, bringing suffering as a result. His Prometheus, however, is represented on a number of scales: humanity as whole, through the horrors of war, genocide and environmental damage; local communities, represented by the miners of Kirkby; and individuals, such as Mam and Old Man. As Dougherty comments, this is ‘a devastating critique of the uses to which the Titan’s gift of fire have been put in that doleful century of way, division and untold disappointments for all who hoped for the liberation of mankind’.13 Thus while Aeschylus’ focus falls on the possibilities that the gift of fire opened up for mankind, Harrison links mechanisation and other scientific advancements to war, sickness, environmental damage and personal tragedy. Harrison makes this change in emphasis explicit in his script:

Hermes: But if Aeschylus had lived today
He’d have to write a different play
He’d change the his verses once he’d seen a
Burnt off flame at Elefsina,
The chimneys pouring smoke above
The ancient site he used to love. 14

Hermes is a crucial character in Harrison’s work. With Zeus again absent from the action, Hermes takes on the role of outlining his character to the audience. Thus, when he describes these events as ‘Zeus approved’ and ‘endorsed’, the negative profile attached to those in power is transmitted to the audience. This is reinforced when Hermes further says that Zeus is pleased that Prometheus’ gift has turned out so badly for humankind and that he has no plans to eradicate the human race since it is so adept at punishing itself, with smog, pollution and cancer:

Hermes: “So Armageddon’s put on hold
Till Zeus is bored or man too bold.” 15

In addition to this reflective role, Hermes himself embodies the middle class so resented by the Old Man and Mam. The pronounced middle class accent of Michael Feast underscores the antagonistic relationship between his Hermes character and the workers, as indeed does his haughty language. Thus the upper parts of the class system are represented via the Olympic pantheon: Zeus as the remote ruling class; Hermes as the ambassador of Zeus and representative of the middle class. In a parallel with Aeschylus’ work, neither character is portrayed positively.

Rather than Prometheus representing humankind against the gods, as in Aeschylus’ play, Tony Harrison uses workers as the symbols of common humanity in a struggle against higher powers. More directly still, the Old Man becomes a Promethean hero figure. A former Yorkshire coal miner, afflicted by cancer in his old age, he is a symbol of the sufferings engendered by the industrial and technological changes of the mid twentieth Century. He refuses to surrender to the rule of the gods, cancer or capitalist rule and his smoking becomes a sign of the exercising and exploitation of personal liberties against Hermes, who ultimately becomes his capitalist master. Their dialogue in the dilapidated and burnt down cinema house forms the backbone of the film and is the medium through which the travels of the golden Promethean statue are communicated to the audience.

In addition to the prominent protagonists of Hermes and the Grandfather, the largely silent character of Mam, the mother of the young boy, is also very poignant and contributes to the illustration of human suffering. Initially driven from her home by domestic unrest, she spends much of the film trying to regain a husband stolen from her by the middle class figure of Hermes. During these sufferings her parallels with Aeschylus’ Io become more and more explicit. Eventually, as Io does in Greek myth, her human appearance changes to that of a Friesian cow due to her exposure to chemicals and carbon. By the time of her capture by Kratos and Bia, her degeneration is complete, and she only makes the noise of a distressed animal. The extent of her suffering reaches its climax at her death scene at the cattle slaughterhouse. This scene is significant in that it highlights both the inhuman treatment of animals and the destruction of the environment and also the inevitability of capitalism, as she re-enters the system as a product for sale. There is an interesting contrast evident between Aeschylus’ Io and Mam of Harrison’s film. Aeschylus’ Io has a human voice to express her thoughts and feelings but Mam does not have a large speaking role in the film and does not once speak in poetry. In this way, she becomes symbolic of the muted working class – unable to express herself in any meaningful way – and she is eventually overwhelmed by the capitalist society in which she lives.

Aside from his comments on class war and the dangers of progress, Harrison uses his film to comment on poetry and its power. This is partly done via his conscious decision to employ some metered speech in his script. It is noticeable through Hermes’ voiced opinion that he believes that only the Gods, with the higher degree of power, should be able to employ this device. Harrison also uses Hermes to satirically comment on the ability poetry has, similar to the Promethean fire to test and criticise acts that fuel the rebellion and revolution of the lower classes.

Hermes: “Poets have taught mankind to breach
The boundaries Zeus put round speech
And the fire Prometheus stole
Created man’s poetic soul.”16

Thus Harrison’s Hermes links poetry to Prometheus’ symbolic transgression across these boundaries. This allusion is in many ways self-referencing: Harrison has used metered speech, which his audience would associate with high culture, in his own comment on the social issues of twentieth Century England.

Thus Aeschylus and Harrison present us with considerably different adaptations of the Prometheus myth. In the newfound political and intellectual freedom of fifth Century Athens, Aeschylus relates those in power to the recently deposed oligarchic rule. He also plays on his audience’s memories of recent tyrants in his demonization of Zeus, represented through Might and Force, two of his most oppressive characteristics.

His Prometheus, just one of the subjects of Zeus’ oppression, is a deeply pathetic character, symbolising the recent struggles of the Athenian people to establish their radical system of governance. He specifically draws the parallel between the vengeful and cold-hearted actions of the tyrannical Zeus and the pathetic agonies of the humanised, freedom-seeking Prometheus. In a wider sense, Aeschylus’ audience would have seen a comment on tyranny and democracy here as well – tyranny connected with oppression and harshness; democracy linked with empathy and the struggle for justice.

The Promethean Fire in Prometheus Bound is established as the mechanism of progress of evolution and ingenuity but is also implicitly linked with both the concept of the power of the people and intellectual enlightenment. Harrison, meanwhile, addresses the social issues of progress on both a local and an international scale. From the pathetic figure of the Old Man, via the mining community of Kirkby, irreparably damaged by the collapse of British mining industry, and finally through major international events, Harrison draws attention to the many negative consequences of progress and technological advancement. His use of character is as symbolic as that of Aeschylus but his principle themes of domination and subjection are set firmly in a twentieth Century context of class and industrial progress within a capitalist society. His film is both an exploration of the potential of culture for social comment and a voice for his strong views on the social issues of the late twentieth Century. Thus each author’s reworking of the myth is ultimately controlled by their respective contexts greatly effects the appeal to their respective audiences: Aeschylus in the optimistic civic pride of fifth Century Athens, and Harrison in the self-reflective criticism of late twentieth Century Europe.


BARROW, Robin. Athenian Democracy. Hong Kong, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd,1992.
BARTHES, Roland Mythologies, trans. A Lavers, New York; The Noonday Press. 1972.
DOUGHERTY, Carol. Prometheus, Oxon, Routledege, 2006
GIBBON, Jennifer. Athenian Society Hong Kong, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd,1993.
GOLDHILL, Simon. Reading Greek Tragedy, Cambridge University Press ,1986
HARRISON, Tony. Prometheus, London, Faber and Faber Limited,1998.
HALL, Edith. Tony Harrison’s Prometheus:A View From the Left, Arion 12, 51-89, 2004
HERINGTON, John. Aeschylus , USA, Yale University, 1986.
HOGAN, James C. A commentary on the Complete Greek TragediesAeschylus,Chicago,University of Chicago press,1984.
KELLEHER, Joe. Tony Harrison, Plymouth, Northcote House Publishers Ltd., 1996.
PODLECKI, A J. Aeschylus Prometheus Bound, Great Britain, Antony Rowe, 2005.
SOMMERSTEIN, Alan H. Greek Drama and Dramatists, London, Routledge, 2002.
VELLACOT, Philip. Aeschylus Prometheus Bound and Other Plays, London, Penguin Books Ltd,1961

Aeschylus (collection of critical essays- Prometheia by George Thomson), Edited by Marsh H. McCall,Jr., New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 1972.
Greek Tragedy Vol II- (Dramatic Structure in the Persae and Prometheus of Aeschylus by S.Ireland 1973), Edited by Ian McAuslan and Peter Walcott, New York, Oxford University Press Inc, 1993.
Greek Tragedy Vol II- (The Theodicy of Aeschylus: Justice and Tyranny in the Oresteia by David Cohen 1986), Edited by Ian McAuslan and Peter Walcott, New York, Oxford University Press Inc, 1993.

1 R. Barthes. Mythologies, trans. A Lavers, New York; The Noonday Press. 1972.

2 S.Goldhill. Reading Greek Tragedy, Cambridge University Press ,1986

3A J. Podlecki. Aeschylus Prometheus Bound, Great Britain, Antony Rowe, 2005, Line 324.
All subsequent translations are taken from this edition.

4 Farnell, L.R. ‘The Paradox of the Prometheus Vinctus’ – Journal of Hellenistic Studies 53: 40-50 as referred to in A J. Podlecki. Aeschylus Prometheus Bound, Great Britain, Antony Rowe, 2005

5 Line 980

6 Line 1090

7Line 590-592

8 Hogan, J C. A commentary on the Complete Greek TragediesAeschylus, Chicago, The University of Chicago press, 1984. p 277-278

9 Lines 252-258

10 Lines 7-8

11 Lines 442-443

12 E.hall Tony Harrison’s Prometheus:A View From the Left, Arion 12, 51-89, 2004

13 C. Dougherty. Prometheus, Oxon, Routledege, 2006

14 T. Harrison. Prometheus, London, Faber and Faber Limited,1998. p 27.

15 T. Harrison. Prometheus, London, Faber and Faber Limited,1998, p 31.

16 T. Harrison. Prometheus, London, Faber and Faber Limited,1998, p 44

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