Prometheus Bound: Robert Lowell and Aeschylus


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Some of the same problems of mediational intrusion that occur in Robert Lowell's translation of Phèdre recur in his translation of Prometheus Bound. Much as Racine's play had become distorted to accommodate events from Lowell's life and his various preoccupations, so, too, does Aeschylus' drama. Here, however, the question of "classicism" is more pronounced, the original less accessible, and the modernizations are more obvious. French classicists, for example, were never quite able to come to terms with the play; they found Aeschylus' subject "monstrous" and, generally by reason of its dealing primarily not with humans but with superhumans, unsuitable for tragedy. The plot was episodic, the characters bizarre and improbable, and the diction wild and barbaric. There was, moreover, no proper intrigue, and nothing was proved. In listing the types of tragedy, Aristotle had specifically placed the play in the fourth and lowest category, lesser in value ,than the complex or pathetic or characterological and, in the seventeenth century, a writer like John Dryden could use Longin us either to support or to attack the language. But even without a general framework of "classicism," the play poses certain technical problems: its main character is basically immobile from the start, "chained to a rock, orated to, and orating at, a sequence of embodied apparitions" (PB, v).1 Unlike that of most protagonists of Greek drama, his "sin" has been committed before the play begins, and what an audience is asked to witness as action is the nature of his punishment and suffering. Yet, by the time Friedrich Nietzsche came to write The Birth of Tragedy (1872), he could refer to Prometheus as the embodiment of "activity" as opposed to the aged Oedipus who becomes the personification of "passivity." Prometheus' theft of fire - like his foreknowledge - will allow man in time to acquire culture by himself and compel "the gods to ally themselves with him, because in his self-sufficient wisdom he [will hold] in his hands their existence and their limitations."2

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