Prometheus Unbound: by Shelley - Summary and Analysis

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      Prometheus Unbound is generally considered to be Shelley's masterpiece. In it the splendour of his imagination may be read in almost every line. Prometheus had been the benefactor of humanity in giving to man the secret of making fire and the knowledge of all the arts which fire makes possible. Prometheus angered Zeus, for with fire men began to rival the gods in power and wisdom. Zeus punished Prometheus by having him chained to a precipice in thee Caucasus. Shelley's play is a sequel to Aeschylus play, Prometheus Bound. The central idea of the play is that man is able to will his own destiny. The way to end evil is not by countering it with violence but by suffusing the collective spirit of humanity with love. Asia is the active principle of love. Demogorgon (Necessity) is awakened to action by the power of love. Demogorgon casts Jupiter down to destruction. Prometheus is liberated by Hercules. In union with Asia, Prometheus (Free, creative human mind) starts the new Promethean age of perfection.

      Prometheus, the human vindicator of love, justice, and liberty and Jove, the creator of all evil by his selfish rule, are the two chief characters of this play Prometheus is the mind of man idealized, the spirit of our race, and Jove is the incarnation of all that thwarts its free development. Thus cotinterposed, they represent the fundamental antithesis of good and evil, liberty and despotism, love and hate. Prometheus resists Jove to the utmost, endures all torments, physical or moral, that the tyrant plagues him with, secure in his own strength and calmly expectant of an hour which shall hurl Jove from heaven, and leave the Spirit of good triumphant. That hour arrives; Jove disappears; the burden of the world and men is suddenly removed: a new age of peace and freedom and illimitable energy begins; the whole universe partakes in the emancipation; the Spirit of Earth no longer groans in pain, but sings alternate songs with her sister orb, the Moon; Prometheus is reunited in indissoluble bonds to his old love Asia. The essential thought of Shelley's creed was that the universe is permeated, vitalized, made real by a Spirit of Nature; but which is always conceived as more than life: as that which gives its actuality of Life, and lastly as Love and Beauty. To adore this Spirit, to clasp it with affection, and to blend with it, is, he thought, the true object of man. With Asia lies the consummation of human destinies. Love was the only law Shelley recognized. Unterrified by the grim realities of pain and crime revealed in Nature and Society; he held fast to the belief that, if we could but pierce to the core of things, if we could but be what we might be, the world and man would both attain to their perfection in eternal love. What resolution through some transcendental harmony was expected by Shelley for the palpable discords in the structure of the universe, one hardly knows.

Prometheus Unbound is generally considered to be Shelley's masterpiece
Prometheus Unbound

Critical Analysis
      The Promethean legend is seen as the contest of good versus evil. Prometheus unbound is a lyrical drama. Its sensuous imagery is symbolic of mental processes. The poem's claim to lasting fame rests upon the soaring, idealistic lyricism, specially in the stanzaic tributes to the free creative spirit of man. Shelley employs a wide variety of stanzas with easy grace. It shows Shelley's soaring aspiration for the liberation of mankind from the tyranny of institutions. Prometheus is the incarnation of liberated mankind and Zeus is the symbol of cruel institution. Asia is love. Reign of love ultimately prevails and "thrones, altars, judgement seats and prisons" are things of the past, It is a combination of the lyric and the drama. Series of lyrics both sustain and embellish the action. The poem has a sweep and a soar that sometimes stagger the imagination. In its theme and treatment, it is romantic and testifies to Shelley's revolutionary idealism.

      Introduction: In Prometheus Unbound, written in 1818-1819, Shelley attempted to make one great poem of the world. It is the most ambitious poem of the Romantic Movement, and one of the most ambitious that was ever written. Both the epic and the dramatic form were extinct when the Romantic Movement began. Moreover, they were not adequate to express all the romantic ideas and emotions in a complete and coherent manner. Shelley wrote this piece in the form of a lyrical drama, because all other forms were clearly impossible. His purpose was to express his sense of the present evil conditions of the universe, to represent a sudden change in that condition, and finally to sing the glory of the universe thus transformed.

      Structure of the Poem: Prometheus Unbound is in most ways "a beautifully exact and skillfully devised piece of work." The structure is carefully wrought, though there is but little action in it. In Act I, Prometheus is found bound to a precipice. Mercury is sent to Prometheus to extract the secret out of him. In spite of Mercury's harassment and tortures, he remains firm and does not yield himself to his enemies. Then come the healing Spirits who abide in "the dim caves of human thoughts" and sing songs of the good that is in human life to comfort Prometheus. In Act II, there is even less action. In the first scene of Act III is the crisis; but there is no action. Most of the action takes place in Act III—the fall of Jupiter, the rescue of Prometheus by Hercules, and the wonderful change that has taken place in the world. Act IV is nothing but a series of magnificent songs. The drama in fact finishes with Act III, yet Act IV is necessary to Shelley's design for expressing the rapture of the delivered universe. In spite of less action in the piece, there is enough movement in it. The characters are constantly moving about in chariots led by voices and echoes. The drama again is studded with songs, but they cannot make a drama unless they are held together. What holds together the separate parts of the poem is the unity of emotion, born of the poet's idealism.

      Theme of the Play: In Shelley's treatment, Prometheus represents, not a superhuman helper of mankind, but Mankind itself—heroic, just, gentle, secretly thirsting after liberty and spiritual gladness but chained and tortured by the ruler of Heaven. In the fullness of time Demogorgon (Necessity) hurls the tyrant from his throne, and Prometheus is united to Asia, the Spirit of Love in nature. Here, as elsewhere, Shelley depicts a conflict between the forces of good and evil. The conflict with which the poem begins, is between Prometheus and Jupiter, between the principle of reason and love and the principle of tyrannous destructiveness which hates and harasses the good but is unable to destroy it. Shelley continues to believe that it is only some external tyranny, the might of priests and kings, the weight of "Custom"—the dark cloud of superstition—which keeps mankind from rising to ideal stature. Here, Shelley's faith in the inevitable elimination of evil from the world and the consequent domination by love receives transcendent expression. The nobility of mood and the heroic enthusiasm of the drama make it eternally inspiring. From first to last, the theme of 'Man's afflicted will' is the counterpoint of the "beautiful idealism" and Shelley never wrote finer verse than the concluding stanzas, on the loss of moral freedom and the hard way to win it again.

      Shelley's Philosophy: All things, including the mind of man, was to Shelley impersonal; he generally spoke of the mind as' a 'phantom: and his chief characters in his poem are not flesh and blood individuals, but are either instruments of some cosmic power or symbols of it. His conception was that an impersonal, spiritual power pervades all objects of the universe and necessitates their being and action; but the seemingly pantheistic element in Shelley is relieved by a high spirituality The philosophy of Prometheus Unbound is essentially the same as that of The Revolt of Islam. The fundamental teaching of the latter poem is that the furtherance of good cannot be entrusted to supernatural powers, but is man's own task, and his first step must be selfreform. He must cast hate from his heart and admit love; for the mind can be made a Hell or a Heaven. In Prometheus Unbound, the application of the principle of reform is much more general and correspondingly more indefinite. This major poem is far more successful than The Revolt, as a consideration of the problem of evil. According to it, self-reform is the only trustworthy means of exterminating evil. Man should dethrone hate and enthrone love. If man wrere to achieve this act of purgation within his own mind, his whole vision would be clarified and the great part of evil would be eliminated. Shelley distinguishes, in this work, between two types of evil; one sort is ineradicable and objectively grounded; the other sort is subjective but deeply based.

      As an Allegory: "The problems of interpretation of Shelley's lyrical drama are as formidable as English poetry affords, and are perhaps finally quite unresolvable" Shelley's work, Prometheus Unbound, can be considered as an elaborate allegory—spiritual or scientific or even political. Each character is interpreted in terms of human qualities to show the success and failure of each quality and the true worth of good that exists in this universe. A host of critics allegorized the characters and each one's allegorization was different from the other. It is Shelley's myth-making pow'er which gives rise to many interpretations. With Shelley; Prometheus is not a real person and he does not believe in his individual existence, but a figure who symbolizes a great abstract idea. Shelley is not concerned with the story of a particular individual; his main purpose was to present before us a spiritual conflict dealing with a cosmic process that leads us from darkness to light, from death to life. "What matters is not what they are in themselves but what they represent. They are incarnate ideals.''

      As a Lyrical Drama: Shelley himself called this poem a lyrical drama, and it is in fact one extended and diversified lyric, uttered now by one singer, now by another, and now by choruses. There is always a tendency in the poetic drama to become lyrical, to concern itself more with emotional effects than with the action that causes them; and the more lyrical a drama becomes, the nearer it approaches to music and particularly to symphony. Prometheus Unbound is also nearer to symphony, especially in form. There is, in fact, a unity and a cumulative power of emotion; and being poetry and not music, it is, of course, to be judged as poetry; yet it fails to solve some of the problems peculiar to that art, as at least to the form of that art in which it is written. In this lyrical drama, a simple melodic theme has been built into an ordered harmony with wonderful and progressive modulations. The action is essentially action within the mind as the mind contemplates laws and principles. Hence, there may not be much of action, much of characterization, but there is an organic unity despite its series of exquisite details.

      Platonism in Shelley: Like Plato, Shelley believed in a supreme power, which is at once immanent and transcendent, and which works from within the world struggling with the obstructions of matter, transforming and molding it to its will. Like Plato, he believed life as well as the underlying spirit, though it reveals itself in many forms, is everywhere and essentially the same. Plato's god is only omnipotent and he believed that a powerful Spirit of evil interferes with the supreme and mars its works. In this too Shelley followed Plato. The conception of the power of good struggling against and almost overcome by the power of evil appears in Prometheus Unbound:

How glorious art thou, Earth! And if thou be
The shadow of some spirit lovelier still
Though evil stain its work and it should be,
Like its creation, weak yet beautiful.

      Shelley is Platonic in his conception of the soul and of the soul of the world, to which the soul inherently belongs. The principle of necessity is the Soul of the Universe to whose inspiration the human soul must submit. The soul should attain the heaven; then only it is delivered from darkness and 'errors' of the body. Super-sensuous world to Shelley; as to Plato, is always more real than the one he can touch and see.

      Symbolism and Imagery: The abstract ideas which meant so much to him and had for him an almost personal existence could be presented only in symbols and images. In the Preface, he comments on this use of symbols and images: "The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed." Though it is not an easy job for a dramatist to dramatize abstract ideas, Shelley succeeded in giving a different shape and meaning to them through his symbolism. But in spite of his best efforts, his symbols in Prometheus Unbound are not very clear. Shelley's characters in this work are both characters and symbolic universals. Hence, such complex symbols suggest multiple meanings. However, many of the details are relevant to his main theme. In that sense, they increase their poetical appeal.

      As a Work of Art: As a work of art, Prometheus Unbound has a dream-like beauty, wonderful delicacy of form and fine suggestions. The four Acts of ids piece are four phases or steps in the evolution of a single mood or in the unfolding of various moods, all contributing towards the. development of a single theme—the theme of fall and regeneration or "a complex symbol designed to evoke the mind of man to the realization of moral excellence as an all abiding mode of living." This piece of Shelley's is more than a reflection of his temperament; it reveals his highest power, a power which otherwise we might never have known him to possess. The drama is no mere succession of exquisite details, it has a noble and organic unity. In this piece, Shelley finally and completely vindicates his claim to architectonic faculty. Scudder rightly observes: "His (Shelley's) is not the Shakespearean power of dramatic construction, dependent on the clash of character with event; neither is it exactly the intellectual power shown in a noble development of thought-experience, like Tennyson's in the In Memoriam. Shelley's power is more akin to that of the musician; from a simple melodic theme he evolves a vast whole of ordered harmony Prometheus Unbound is like a symphony or oratorio, where the music, exquisite at every point, is modulated with wondrous beauty and subtlty into a grandly progressive whole. To translate the drama into terms of music is primarily emotional: and surely no emotional theme was ever discovered deeper and wider in scope, fuller of varied imaginative suggestion, than that of this drama of Redemption."

      Above all, Shelley's use of blank verse into the long passionate swing of the anapaest or broken by notes of short trochaic lines or relieved by the effect of rhymed endings. The verse lends itself with equal beauty to the grandeur of sustained endurance, to the passionate yearning of love, to severe philosophic enquiry; to the ethereal notes of spirit-voices dying on the wind. The variety of meters too is marvelous.

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