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Notes on Shelley's Prometheus Unbound

Preface Source in Aeschylus--he rejects the myth: "I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind" Compares Prometheus to Milton's Satan--except free from "taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement" Sublime setting Prometheus' opening speech. He is unrepentant and full of sorrow for allowing the world to descend to "torture and solitude, / Scorn and despair" (13-14) Language full of sublimity: unbounded both space and time (language of unmeasurable, unspeakable, etc.) Also much that looks like the gothic, especially 31-43 But sublime terror gives way to sympathy; he pities Jupiter (not hates him and not is terrified by him) (53-58) He wants to withdraw his curse, but first he wants to hear the curse again. He calls on spirits (of his own mind) to remember and recite the curse. His mother (Earth) appears but is unrecognized because the world is "fallen" since Jupiter's reign has caused the mother to hate (I.159-179) The phantasm of Jupiter appears and recites Prometheus' curse. Prometheus revokes his curse ("I wish no living thing to suffer pain" (I.305).) He comes to realize that he granted Jupiter power by committing the "crime" but also he continues to grant him power by hating him and thus perpetuating Jupiter's vision of the word. By no longer hating Jupiter he no longer participates in Jupiter's tyranny. Earth sees this as surrender. Mercury appears to cajole Prometheus into telling the prophecy of Thetis. Mercury appears as a friend of Prometheus (376-380), who does his duty unwillingly (352-357). Prometheus refuses his advice and rejects all submission (395-402) Furies appear to punish Prometheus; show him visions of the modern world Chorus shows us human violence, degradation and suffering (all due to Jupiter's reign of terror); vision includes Christ's crucifixion and the French Revolution. The world full of suffering and indifference; Prometheus pities not the suffering but the indifferent. This last act chases away the last of the furies. Spirits arrive to tell Prometheus a prophecy (780-788); he shall end the reign of Jupiter. Prometheus almost gives in to despair (815-820), but is recalled from it by thoughts of Asia ("I said all hope was vain but love" (824)). Act II.i Summary--Panthea tells Asia of her dream, in which she sees Prometheus rejuvenated by love. Together the two sisters follow the mysterious echo of a second dream to the dark underworld of Demogorgon

Act I I.1-73


263-301 303-305


525-531 539-577 623-633

Shelley, Prometheus Unbound


Act II.ii

Asia and Panthea travel through a forest where they hear songs of sweet beauty and overhear two fauns talking about the old songs that predict Prometheus' triumph over Jupiter and the restoration of order and unity (93-96) Asia and Panthea arrive at the entrance of Demogorgon's cave, where they are bound and taken. Asia and Panthea journey to Demogorgon's cave and discover that the time has come for revolution. Asia rouses into action with her passionate declaration of love for suffering humanity. Asia questions Demogorgon about creation and the creator, to which Demogorgon answers "God", but when questioned about hate, malice, etc. he answers "He reigns"--the important part here is that it is not so much God, Creator, Jupiter, but power and force that create inequity, injustice and suffering. Asia retells the story of the world, how it began in joy and love. Then time entered the world and with it mortality. Prometheus attempted to take care of humans and for it was punished by Jupiter, who punished Prometheus and humans. Why did Prometheus help humans? Sympathy for their plight. Demogorgon, the principle of Necessity in history, speaks in the language of the sublime; but Asia must travel with him. Why? Because Love must go with revolution or the revolution will fail. Later in the act, a stream of chariots of the Hours pours across the stage. One of these carries the grim fate of Jupiter, the other the happy reunion of Asia and Prometheus. Jupiter on his throne speaks the language of the sublime power and pain. When he turns to Thetis, his language remains sublime (the language of negation, eternity, insufferable, veiled and so on). Demogorgon appears to take Jupiter away. Jupiter claims Prometheus would not treat him thus--he's right. His language remains the language of the sublime right up to the end. Apollo tells the story of Jupiter's fall. There will henceforth be no more suffering. Hercules arrives to free Prometheus. Note the dramatic shift in language from the abstract language of the sublime to another register, one related to the beautiful perhaps? Note also the increasing use of coordination to link clauses instead of subordination. The picture offered is almost Wordsworthian; Strange combinations out of common things, Like human babes in their brief innocence; And we will search, with looks and words of love, For hidden thoughts, each lovelier than the last (3.3.32-35) This will initiate a rebirth of arts and creativity. The passage closes with an inversion of Plato's cave; the cave Prometheus will withdraw to will be the real thing and not a world of shadows. (Recall Wordsworth's "To the Same" and his critique of ambition.)

Act II.iii Act II.iv




140 Act III.i

52-61 67-83 Act III.ii Act III.iii 4-63

Shelley, Prometheus Unbound



Earth is rejuvenated. Note how the language has become much clearer, with coordination predominating over subordination, and much of the Miltonic stuff gone (inversions, latinate constructions and so on). See especially 100-107, and 135-147. The universe has been changed The Spirit of the Hour details the changes in the human world--no kings, no subordination; freedom and love Summary--The final act, added a few months later by Shelley, is a cosmic coda or epithalamium sung first by a chorus of Spirits of the Hour and another chorus of the Spirits of the Human Mind, then by the Spirit of the Earth and of the Moon. Earth's part in the chorus combines delight, joy and the sublime. Even the abysses now resound with laughter. Note how the language of sublimity is used to express not terror, pain, or alienation but their opposites. Specifically boundless, madness, overflowing, bursting and so on. The abyss (sublime) filled with laughter (human, beauty, etc.) Another passage which uses the language of the sublime to describe joy. A paean to man, similar to the chorus from Sophocles' Antigone ("Wonders are many, but none more wonderful than man"), with the important distinction--the chorus in Antigone reserved this praise for the law-abiding citizen. Here we see language of the beautiful: dissolving, warmth, self-annihilation, blending, softness, sweetness and so on. The loss of self--beautiful associated with sympathy, abnegation, while the sublime is associated with the self, its tyrannies, power, and so on. [This characterization can be seen in 493-502, where the language of the beautiful gives way to the language of the sublime, which is needed to describe how the sublime is overcome (i.e. how "pride" (self) is overcome).] Demogorgon addresses all. Conquest is made slave (556). Love and the beautiful is awful (sublime) (556-561) Love and beauty defeat hate and sublimity (562-564) Concludes with language of beautiful and sublime. Beautiful (hope, forgive, love, bear, creates, good, great, joyous, beautiful, free, life, joy) Sublime (woes, infinite, wrongs darker, death, night, defy, Power, omnipotent, wreck, Empire, Victory) They have crossed and are no longer separate.

Act III.iv 126-176 Act IV


376-381 400-423



Shelley, Prometheus Unbound



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Microsoft Word - Shelley-PU-Notes.doc