Review: Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus

I received a review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books through Edelweiss.  As my regular readers know, I am a big fan of their line of classics.  For more information on their titles visit their website: http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/.

My Review:
PrometheusI have to admit that when I found out that the translator of this ancient classic drama is not himself a classicist and does not know Ancient Greek I was rather skeptical.  After reading the introduction to the work, however, I began to come around to the idea that Joel Agee was capable of giving us a modern rendition of this play while making it accessible to a 21st century audience.  Agee describes his process of consulting older, literal translations as well as consulting experts in Ancient Greek philology.  The result is an impressive translation of one of the oldest Greek dramas in existence.

Prometheus is a Titan and in Zeus’ fight against the generation of Titans, Prometheus knows that Zeus will reign supreme and so Prometheus wisely takes the side of the god of thunder.  Yet, after his defense of Zeus, Prometheus betrays him by stealing fire for mankind.  As his name in Greek tells us, Prometheus is literally “forethought,” he knows what will happen before anyone else.  So we might wonder why Prometheus chose to steal fire from Zeus and gift it to humans if he understands perfectly well that his punishment from Zeus will be long-lasting and most severe.

When the play opens Prometheus is being chained to a rock by Hephaistos for his crimes against Zeus.  Zeus is about to destroy man and create a new race of beings when Prometheus gives these pathetic humans the gift of fire.  Fire allows them many things, including warmth, food, light, and civilization.  Prometheus becomes the champion of civilized societies, artists and those who fight against any form of tyranny.

One of the most interesting aspects of this play is the fact that Zeus himself is not a character and never speaks a word.  Zeus’ thugs, or henchmen, which include Kratos (Power), Bia (Force), Hephaistos and Hermes speak on his behalf.  The Chorus in the play is a group of water-nymphs, the Oceanids, who are horrified at and sympathetic to Prometheus’ sufferings.  The other female in the play, which I have always found to be an interesting choice, is Io who also explains her path of suffering which is caused by Zeus.  Io and Prometheus commiserate with one another and Prometheus, even though he is tortured, still manages to give Io hope about her own situation and her release from torment.  It is Io’s progeny who will ultimately be responsible for freeing Prometheus.

Prometheus Bound is not the most action oriented of the early Greek dramas yet, it is one of the more thought-provoking: Is Prometheus the champion of mankind who opposes all manner of tyranny or is he a dangerous revolutionary who challenges the authority that is necessary to maintain order and justice?

Thanks to the New York Review of Books Classics series for providing us with another great translation of a classic.

About The Authors:
Aeschylus (525 BC–456 BC), the first of ancient Greece’s major dramatists, is considered the father of Greek tragedy. He is said to have been the author of as many as ninety plays, of which seven survive.

Joel Agee is a writer and translator. He has received several prizes, including the Berlin Prize of the American Academy in Berlin in 2008 and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for his translation of Heinrich von Kleist’s verse play Penthesilea. He is the author of two memoirs—Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany and, more recently, In the House of My Fear. His translation of Prometheus Bound was produced at the Getty Villa in 2013. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books

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