English 240: Ancient Literature

Questions on Aeschylus' Prometheus bound

Alfred J. Drake. Hours: Cyber Cafe Tu/Th. 12-1 | ajdrake@ajdrake.com

Prometheus Bound

1. Aristotle says that tragedians should arrange their plot's incidents logically to produce the proper tragic emotions--pity and fear--which in turn result in "catharsis," variously understood as purgation of the audience's emotions or as intellectual clarification concerning some vital tragic issue. Does Aeschylus' play seem to fit this pattern? If not, how would you describe the structure and emotional impact of Prometheus Bound?

2. What role do you ascribe to the Chorus, which in this case consist of the Daughters of Oceanus? Are their statements consistent? What views do they set forth, and what significancedo they have for Prometheus?

3. What view of Zeus do you take away from this play? Do you accept it at face value? Why or why not? How, if at all, does Prometheus' relationship with Zeus affect your view of that god?

4. What sort of relationship did Prometheus have with Zeus prior to their estrangement? Why did Zeus take Prometheus' concern for humanity as a threat?

5. On what basis does Prometheus advance the hope that he will be liberated? And by the end of the play, do you think that the tone is one of despair or expectation? Explain.

6. Prometheus is a god (whose name, taken etymologically, means "foresight"), but in what sense might his predicament be a comment on the human condition, on humanity's relation to the gods?

7. Just before the play's middle, Io enters the scene. Why is her story significant in light of Prometheus' situation? What does she have in common with him, and what does her life have to do with his prospects for liberation?

8. Friedrich Nietzsche, the nineteenth century philosopher and classicist, wrote that Prometheus Bound deals with power confronting its own limitations, with an irruption of the Dionysian into Zeus' desire for absolute power and orderl on Olympus and on earth. Add your own comments to that view.

Other Study Questions on Unassigned Works by Aeschylus...


1. Why does the Watchman speak to us first -- what expectations and interests might his words arouse, as if to put us "on the lookout" for certain themes?

2. Before the welcoming scene when Agamemnon returns, the Chorus members speak or sing at some length. What function does their extended presence serve i the play? What expectations does it raise? How does it advance the plot? Explain prior events?

3. Would you say that the Chorus' perspective in Agamemnon is consistent, or otherwise? What view/s, for instance, does it advance concerning the status of women? of Agamemnon's rule and participation in the Trojan War? of the present situation at home?

4. What tensions become manifest when the Chorus and Clytemnestra interact? Do they respect her? Fear her? Who are the Agamemnon Chorus, anyway, and how does their presence make Aeschylus' play flow differently than, say, a Shakespearian tragedy?

5. In what manner does Clytemnestra welcome Agamemnon upon his arrival? Why does she make the gestures she does, and use the tone she does? How is the tapestry scene important to any understanding of the play's subsequent events?

6. What perspective on the Trojan War does the Herald offer? How would you connect his comments to the play's major themes?

7. Agamemnon is murdered offstage at line 1371. How would you characterize Clytemnestra's speech when she first recounts her deed from lines 1391-1604? How does she further defend her actions to the Chorus, and what do her description and self-defense reveal about her status as a tragic hero?

8. Following the murder of Agamemnon, what seems to be the specific cause of the Chorus' anger from 1432 onwards? How do they reproach Clytemnestra from 1432-1604?

9. From 1072-1354, the prophetess Cassandra exchanges words with the Chorus. How does Cassandra explain the events about to unfold in the palace? To what extent does the Chorus take the measure of the prophecies she utters?

10. Further questions on Cassandra: What is her relationship to Apollo, and what special sorrow does she bear as a prophetess? How might you compare/contrast her plight to that of Clytemnestra? What attitude does Cassandra take towards her own death?

11. Aegisthus enters the picture from lines 1605-end. What is his role in the murder? What future role does the play forecast for him? Who holds the power flowing from the killing of Agamemnon, as far as you can tell from the play's conclusion? Explain.

Libation Bearers

12. What is the composition of the Chorus in this second play? Does this Chorus mark a shift in perspective from the first play? If so, how? For example, does their perspective alter your view of Clytemnestra, if it does?

13. What is the bond between Electra and Orestes, aside from the simple fact that they are brother and sister? How do their initial situations compare?

14. What is Orestes' relationship with Apollo? What has the Oracle of Apollo ordered him to do? What is Orestes' dilemma, and to what extent does he understand that his deeds will come at a great price? (see lines 270ff.)

15. As for the snake prophecy, what is its significance considering the history of the House of Atreus?

16. From 555ff, in what way is the strategy of Orestes, as you see it, comparable to that employed by his mother Clytemnestra in her killing of Agamemnon? How is his behavior not strictly "heroic," at least in the sense that a hero like Agamemnon might give to that term?

17. From line 600ff, how does the Chorus view Clytemnestra and women generally? Does this view mark a shift in perspective from the first play, or is it similar? Explain.

18. How does Orestes demonstrate the justice of his actions and explain them to the Chorus? What does he expect after he has killed Clytemnestra? Do you find his arguments convincing at this point in the play?


19. From 1-66, the Pythia (Priestess of Apollo at Delphi) prays and comments on her sighting of the Furies. How does this speech set the tone for our interpretation of the events to follow, and why might it be significant that the Pythia does not name the Furies?

20. From 97-139, Clytemnestra rouses the Furies. How does she describe her situation in Hades, and what is her complaint against the Furies?

21. From 144-202, The Furies and Apollo trade accusations. What is the main charge leveled by the Furies against Apollo? How does he respond--what does he argue is unjust about the Furies' judgment concerning Orestes?

22. From 253-73, and 304-407, how do the Furies view their own prerogatives and their relationship with humans and the gods? What is their concept of justice? What is ironic about their claims of power and permanence?

23. From 408-49, how does Athena place both Orestes and the Furies on the same level? What is her concept of justice? What pivotal statements do the Furies make as they listen to her?

24. From 456-65, how does Orestes describe his plight? What does he apparently want at this point, and why?

25. From 484-505, Athena announces her plan of action. How do her remarks reveal that she is in a "double bind" (a situation where trouble seems to lie on either side of one's decision) similar to the ones in which Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes have already found themselves?

26. From 506-71, what do the Furies threaten will happen if Orestes wins his case? And what prescription for order do the Furies offer?

27. From 630-84, Apollo makes his case for Orestes' acquittal. How strong do you find his arguments? Is his tactic of using Athena as his main exhibit effective? How good are the Furies as "lawyers" in their counterarguments against Apollo? Explain.

28. From 692-725, to what extent do Athena's remarks accord with the assessment of the situation already offered by the Furies? How does Athena define the powers of the Court of the Areopagus?

29. Consider the gender implications of Athena's remarks from 692-725--why is the mention of the Amazons significant? From 750-56, Athena explains that she will "honour the male, in all things but marriage." Does her casting of a tie-breaking vote in Orestes' favor amount to the surrender of the female principle to the male principle in this trilogy?

30. From 791-913, the Furies at first complain that they have lost, and then come round to seeing things Athena's way. Follow this interchange between the Furies and Athena closely. How does she convince them? What does she offer, and how does she shape their continuing responses to suit her rhetorical needs?

31. The trilogy ends on a triumphal note, with a spectacle consisting in singing and dancing. Ultimately, how have Athena, the jurors, and the other interested parties in the play dealt with the Furies' demands? Have the Furies changed? What relationship between the City and the Furies (along with the violence they have long stood for) has been sanctioned?