Suffering on Hope: Comparing Prometheus and Io
“Let him hurl his twin-forked lightning bolts down on my head.. let him make the wildly surging sea waves mingle with the pathways of the heavenly stars… he cannot make me die,” says Prometheus after his suffering gives him the hope to withstand Zeus (Aeschylus 83). In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus portrays the effects of suffering on a person’s hope through the two characters of Prometheus and Io. The diverging reactions of these characters challenge us to decide whether a positive or a negative reaction to extreme suffering is the wiser choice.
Prometheus suffers dramatically, both physically and mentally, as he is punished by Zeus, a tyrant, for his love and kindness to humans. Since Prometheus disobeyed Zeus’ law, he is forced to suffer from physical pain as he is “chained here, nailed on this cliff above a deep ravine, where [he] remain” (Aeschylus 54). Prometheus writhes in pain, but he can not move, which represents his physical suffering. He also suffers mentally, as he is unable to put his gift of foresight to use, being bound to a cliff. His sufferings cause a great amount of pain, however Prometheus continues to struggle under Zeus’ wrath, showing his resolve to not submit to Zeus. Furthermore, Prometheus’ suffering affects his hope by giving him more feeling and optimism than before because he realizes that the longer he withstands Zeus and weathers the storm, not telling Zeus the secret of who is going to take over his throne, the sooner Zeus will fall from power. With a more faithful attitude, he says he “can see the day approaching when [Zeus’] mind will soften, once that secret [he] described has led to his collapse” (55). Prometheus’ belief that Zeus’ mind will eventually soften demonstrates that he gains more hope because now he believes that sooner or later Zeus will let him go, whereas in the past he did not. Although Prometheus is suffering, it causes him to be more optimistic and not submit to Zeus. This depicts that suffering has a significant effect on Prometheus’ hope because his misery helps him realize that if he remains hopeful, Zeus will collapse and he can ultimately be free. Prometheus’ story provides a lesson to the common man that sometimes suffering can be useful, as it helps people learn and can result in a positive consequence such as in Prometheus’ case, more hope. Meanwhile, another character is being tormented.
Io is also forced to suffer, only this time under Hera’s wrath; however, Io begins to lose hope because she can not bear the pain she is going through. Zeus’ lust for Io causes her to be in misery, as Hera turns Io into a cow. When explaining her story to Prometheus, Io says, “ [Hera] is oppressing [her]… setting a fearful stinging fly to chase a helpless girl…” (67). Io did not do anything wrong, but has to suffer involuntarily, as she is continuously stung by a gadfly and is forced to roam around paths that never end. This illustrates the significant amount of pain she has to bear. Moreover, Io begins to doubt her hope of deliverance. She does not want to continue being tormented in the future, as Prometheus told her she would, and she can no longer stand the pain she is in now as she says, “I would prefer to die once and for all than suffer such afflictions every day” (72-73). Io makes this statement as if she has given up on life. Instead of fighting the pain, Io would rather die because she no longer believes that her physical body or mind will be free. Furthermore, Io’s statement that she would rather die than to continue to be in agony is used to indicate that suffering has driven her too far. It is significant in representing the effects of suffering on her hope because it reveals that she has no faith left, as she can not tolerate a lifetime of pain.
Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound illustrates how the sufferings of Prometheus and Io affect their hope. Both Prometheus and Io suffer physically and emotionally, however Prometheus is able to use his suffering to help himself become more hopeful, which gives him belief that he can withstand Zeus and eventually be free. Io, is also in great agony; however, in a contrast to Prometheus, her suffering has a negative effect on her hope, causing her to lose all of her faith because she believes that she will never be free from the pain or suffering she is going through, even in the future. Both stories provide the wisdom of positive and negative effects of suffering on a person’s hope in a manner that is understandable, and perhaps useful, to those approaching Aeschylus’ work.
The Responsibility of Choice
Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound centers on the struggle between Prometheus and Zeus. Prometheus is an intelligent god who is concerned with the welfare of others. Zeus is a tyrant who acts rashly according to his emotion. The two figures clash when Prometheus, a loyal friend of mankind, bestows gifts upon humans to make them more independent. Zeus feels that this threatens his power and determines to put a stop to it. When Zeus punishes Prometheus, a battle between force and intelligence ensues in which the rational mind will ultimately prevail.Zeus’ actions are based purely on a desire for power. At one time, Prometheus had been a good friend of his, helping him to overthrow Kronos and take his seat atop Mount Olympus. Yet, when Zeus feels that Prometheus is threatening his personal power, he erases any memory of their friendship. By human standards Zeus may be considered amoral because he is disloyal and self-serving. His evilness can be better supported, however, by the fact that he does not logically think through his behavior; his deeds are based purely on emotion. He never thinks ahead to see the ultimate effect his actions will have; he merely does what he believes will benefit the most at the moment. Because Zeus has no reasoning behind his acts, they may be deemed unfair.Prometheus, unlike Zeus, is an intelligent god. He values loyalty in friendship because he realizes that relationships are give and take: if he helps someone, they will be more likely to give him aid when he needs it. Prometheus pities man because he has been given no way to fend for himself. In order to make mankind a more independent and credible race, Prometheus endows him with many gifts. It is the gift of fire and blind hope that causes Zeus to become angry with him. As the play opens, Zeus’ servants Might and Violence along with Hephaestus nail Prometheus to a cliff in the Caucuses where he will serve his punishment. Although the sentence is harsh, Prometheus has no regrets. He believes that his actions were good and just and will make the world better in the end.With their gift of blind hope humans can no longer foresee doom, but Prometheus, a god, is aware of the future. During his time on the cliff, he receives many visitors who pity him and all others who are subject to Zeus’ cruelty. One of these visitors is Io, a young maiden cast out because of Zeus’ lust for her. She was transformed into a cow and now must wander the earth. By the time she reaches Prometheus, she has given up all hope; she is miserable and discouraged. Prometheus is able to encourage her though with a promise of an overthrow of Zeus through her own descendents. It is Io’s son who will free Prometheus so that he may help in the dethronement of the highest god. Zeus’ downfall will come through his own lineage and mankind. This is a promise of Prometheus’, Io’s, and all mankind’s freedom.Man’s freedom will be won through a battle of wits; his physical strength is no match for that of Zeus. The gift of fire has enabled humans to become individuals. Up to this point, Zeus has been ruling as a master rules slaves—people who do not think for themselves. As man learns to reason and make decisions, he also learns defiance. He holds Zeus’ overbearing personality in contempt. He is not a child who needs instruction in every move; he is an adult ready to discover things for himself.With freedom comes responsibility. Man is now accountable for his actions. He is no longer a carefree being; when he does something wrong, he may be punished by man or god. There can be no claim of ignorance or variability in his dealings. This freedom is a burden of consciousness.Man has taken a step closer to godhood with this new consciousness. Not only does man act, he acts knowing what the consequences of those actions may be. It is no longer enough to think one is doing the right thing for the moment: one must consider future ramifications and merit. Man cannot live for his own pleasure; he must live for the good of other men.Is this new social responsibility worth the freedom of choice? If one wishes to be an individual, the answer can only be yes. It is true that living in a role where Fate guides one’s life is easy and often painless, but it is also binding. One cannot decide to think for him or herself nor can one decide if he or she likes the path his or her life has decided to take. A life without choice is imprisonment. There is no need to think and reason. Each one simply wanders aimlessly, like Io, through the world. With a reasoning intellect, one can dream and set goals; one can have something to live for.Zeus had a difficult time regulating his own ability to make choices. He was a jealous god, wary of competition from any being. Although he had the full resources of the intellect, he chose not to employ them, opting instead for using only brute force to control others. Instead of taking time to resolve problems with reason he rid himself of them in one fell swoop. He chose the easy way which eventually led to his destruction. Man should learn from the god’s mistake: intelligence will always win out over might. Although one may have the option to take care of things swiftly, he or she should always consider all options and future costs. This is the responsibility of free will. Zeus was unable to bear the responsibility; can man do better?
Themes Spawned from the Conflict between Prometheus and Zeus
Prometheus Bound serves as an allegory radiant in theme. Yet, while the symbolism employed by Aeschylus is fairly ubiquitous, and while some scholars argue that the paramount issues of Aeschylus’s play lie in both Prometheus’s services to mankind and in Io’s wanderings and future progeny, it is in the relationship between Prometheus and Zeus that the most notable concepts are manifested. It is through the interaction between the so-called “master of the universe” and the human-loving “superhuman” that such striking themes as individuality, justice, and moderation (or lack, thereof) can be well illustrated. (62)The struggle between individuality and conformity has been used prevalently in literature. Examples include Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the protagonist is pressured to decide between what his own conscience deems as just and what the masses view as acceptable. The Book of Job provides a biblical instance in which this same theme is introduced in the relationship between the ill-fated Job and his Comforters. Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound serves as yet another example where the battle between individuality and orthodoxy, apparent in the conflict between Prometheus and Zeus, is introduced as one of the central issues of the play.As Zeus “ascended to the throne that was his father’s,” he intended to “blot out the [unhappy breed of mankind].” (74) “Against these plans stood none save [Prometheus]: He dared. He rescued men from shattering destruction that would have carried them to Hades’ house,” though quite aware of the troubles that his actions would inevitably ensue. (74, 75) In doing so, in “sinning against the immortals,” that is, in going against the status quo, “giving honor, [instead], to the creatures of the day,” he is condemned to torture on a rock, “a bitterness to suffer, and a pain to pitiful eyes.” (100, 74) The fact that Prometheus selflessly “gave to mortal man precedence over [himself] in pity” is, indeed, admirable, and might even suggest that he is a symbol of Jesus Christ. However, the protagonist is flawed by his excessively “vain tongue” and “stoutness of heart.” (72, 77)Thus, Aeschylus also introduces the theme of immoderation as the cause of one’s demise. Prometheus, rebuffing the warnings of the other immortals to “bring [his] proud heart to know a true discretion in the face of ruin,” doggedly refuses to yield to the commands of Zeus. (103, 104) His fortitude is commendable, but his excessive arrogance is not and it is this “obstinacy that has brought him to this self-willed calamitous anchorage.” (101) Prometheus is not, however, the only victim of immoderation. Zeus, because of his hedonistic pursuits, is prophesized to “make a marriage which one day he will rue a marriage that shall drive him from his power and from the throne, out of the sight of all.” (93, 99) The ancient Greeks believed in the importance of moderation, reason, and order. By creating a scenario in which a violation of these principles would lead to one’s downfall, Aeschylus reveals the rationale behind the Greeks’ belief.As in The Book of Job, the justice of the superior power, Zeus, is questioned in Prometheus Bound. The chief god is characterized as an oppressive dictator, who is “so hard of heart that he finds joy in” the torture of Prometheus, and is likewise indifferent to the torment of Io, who only suffers because of Zeus’s lustful desires. (71, 86-87) A self-seeking tyrant, Zeus has brought “what was great before” his reign to “nothingness,” so as to not be threatened by the possibility of an overthrow. (71) The customs established under Zeus’s regime are those which “seem good to Zeus himself” those which “satisfy his [own] heart.” (75, 71) Thus, “the customs by which Zeus ruleshave no law to them,” indeed for “the law,” as defined by Aristotle, “is reason free from passion.” When Zeus persecutes Prometheus merely for his “human-loving disposition,” it is evident that he does so simply because of his prejudice towards the human race, and not because of any rational law. (65)It is through the clash between Zeus and Prometheus that the imperfections of both characters are exposed. By presenting their flaws in this way, Aeschylus warns his audience of the consequences of tyranny and immoderation. Aeschylus also cautions that unconformity, however noble the cause may be, will unavoidably result in hardship. Thus, Prometheus Bound, because of its allegorical themes and central conflict, serves as a guide for both civil and governmental audiences.