Prometheus.---The Prometheus-trilogy consisted of three plays: Prometheus the Fire-bringer, Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound. The two last necessarily came in that order; the Fire-bringer is probably the first, though recently it has been held by some scholars to be the last, of the trilogy. That Prometheus sinned against Zeus, by stealing fire from heaven; that he was punished by fearful tortures for ages; that he finally was reconciled to Zeus and set free,--all this was the ancient tale indisoutably. Those who hold the Fire-bringer (Purforos) to be the final play, conjecture that it dealt with the establishment of the worship of Prometheus under that title, which is known to have. existed at Athens. But the other order is on all grounds more probable; it keeps the natural sequence---crime, punishment, reconciliation, which is also the sequence in the Oresteia. And if the reconciliation was achieved in the second play, no scheme of action sufficing for the third drama seems even plausible.1
However that may be, the play that survives is a poem of unsurpassed force and impressiveness. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the development of drama, there seems at first sight little scope in the story for the normal human interest of a tragedy, since the actors are all divine, except Io, who is a distracted wanderer, victim of Zeus' cruelty; and between the opening where Prometheus is nailed to the Scythian rock, and the close where the earthquake engulfs the rock, the hero and the chorus, action in the ordinary sense is ipso facto impossible. This is just the opportunity for the poet's bold inventiveness and fine imagination. The tortured sufferer is visited by the Oceanic Nymphs, who float in, borne by an (imaginary) winged car, to console; Oceanus (riding a griffin, doubtless also imaginary) follows, kind but timid, to advise submission; then appears Io, victim of Zeus' love and Hera's jealousy, to whom Prometheus prophesies her future wanderings and his own fate; lastly Hermes, insolent messenger of the gods, who tries in vain to extort Prometheus' secret knowledge of the future. Oceanus, the well-meaning palavering old mentor, and Hermes, the blustering and futile jack-in-office, gods though they be, are vigorous, audacious and very human character-sketches; the soft entrance of the consoling nymphs is unspeakably beautiful; and the prophecy of Io's wanderings is a striking example of that new keen interest in the world outside which was felt by the Greeks of the 5th century, as it was felt by the Elizabethan English in a very similar epoch of national spirit and enterprise two thousand years later. Thus, though dramatic action is by the nature of the case impossible for the hero, the visitors provide real drama.
Another important point in the development of tragedy is what we may call the ``balanced issue.'' The question in Suppliants is the protection of the threatened fugitives; in Persae the humiliation of overweening pride. So far the sympathy of the audience is not doubtful or divided. In the Septein there is an approach to conflict of feeling; the banished brother has a personal grievance, though guilty of the impious crime of attacking his own country. The sympathy must be for the defender Eteocles; but it is at least somewhat qualified by his injustice to his brother. In Prometheus the issue is more nearly balanced. The hero is both a victim and a rebel. He is punished for his benefits to man; but though Zeus is tyrannous and ungrateful, the hero's reckless defiance is shocking to Greek feeling. As the play goes on, this is subtly and delicately indicated by the attitude of the chorus. They enter overflowing with pity. They are slowly chilled and alienated by the hero's violence and impiety; but they nobly decline, at the last crisis, the mean advice of Hermes to desert Prometheus and save themselves; and in the final crash they share his fate.