The Influence of the Promethean Myth for the British Romantics

The Promethean myth, though it has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, has proven to still be significant and applicable today. Its themes and messages have permeated contemporary literature and pop-culture, ranging from Lord Byron’s poem titled Prometheus, published in 1816, to as recent as 2012 in the sci-fi alien film titled also titled Prometheus. Although it can be assumed that these two items take very different stances on the classical myth, they simply demonstrate its ability to traverse through the ages. A particular age and medium in which a strong interest seems to be shown in the myth was that of the literature of the British Romantic Period. Two of the most significant representations of the myth in this age of literature are Percy Shelley’s dramatic play Prometheus Unbound and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Although the ideas from these two works clearly stem from the initial Prometheus myth and therefore exhibit several parallels, their overall interpretations and final messages vary quite significantly.

In the actual Greek myth that started this movement, Prometheus is a Titan whom is credited as somewhat of a hero as well as the creator of mankind. However, although he is merely intending to do good onto mankind, he is punished by Zeus and accused of defying his will as he brings fire to the humans. As a punishment, Zeus has Prometheus chained to a rock in the Causasus Mountains for three thousand years. For each day during Prometheus’s “imprisonment,” eagles are sent to peck away at his liver. Eventually, Prometheus is liberated by Hercules.

To see the connection and make a comparison between Prometheus Unbound and Frankenstein, one must first take a look at the initial Prometheus Myth above and understand its relevance to the two works. In the case of Prometheus Unbound, the connection is quite clear as Percy is quite obviously retelling this ancient myth, without straying from the original plot. In Frankenstein, on the other hand, this is definitely not the case. Mary essentially took bits of pieces of the plot and themes of the Prometheus myth of her choosing and used them to rework her own story around them. As a matter of fact, without the subtitle of “The Modern Prometheus,” it’s possible the connection between Mary’s novel and the ancient myth could be missed entirely. However, thanks to this telling subtitle the connections become the myth and the novel become much clearer, as do the connections between the novel and Prometheus Unbound. For example, in each of these writings the protagonist, either Prometheus or Victor Frankenstein, in an act of rebellion and defiance serve as something of a creator and a giver in an effort (or at least with the claim) to want to better mankind. However, in doing this the two “creators” and “givers” overstep their boundaries by not considering the consequences and defying some sort of authority. Because of this, in the end the two characters are punished with eternal suffering. In the case of Prometheus, he creates (or at least tries to do so) a better mankind in his act of giving them fire. However, in doing so he is defying the will of Zeus by taking on a too “God-like” role. Therefore, he becomes punished or “bound” to a rock and is forced to suffer being pecked at by eagles every day for what he expects to be an eternity.

In the case of Frankenstein, he creates a monster act by giving life to lifeless matter. With this attempt, Frankenstein is defying modern science and scientific authority to prove to the world what he can do. However, in trying to defy this “authority,” Frankenstein, just like Prometheus, manages to cross boundaries and enter into a more “God-like” realm of powers. Like Prometheus, he is also then punished in that his intent to do good comes back to haunts him. However, unlike Prometheus this punishment comes in the form of that which he was trying to create as he becomes eternally “bound” by the suffering his creation will cause him in killing his friends and family.

Aside from the surface plot lines, the two writings separate quite distinctly into different interpretations and focuses of the original Promethean myth as the two authors further develop the myth to suit their own purposes. At the heart of Prometheus Unbound are ideas of revolution over tyrannical authority and the power of an individual to achieve it. No doubt, these ideas were inspired by the French Revolution and tumultuous political climate and frustration with royalty in England at the time. In this comparison, it is quite clear that Shelley is using the tyrannical grip that Zeus has over society to demonstrate the tyrannical grip exhibited by English royalty, and possibly as a representation of all authority in general. Judging by Shelley’s description of Zeus as a “foul tyrant both of Gods and Human-kind,” one can assume that he is unpleased with this type of authority (1.264). Essentially, Zeus becomes a representation of all that is evil and harmful to mankind whereas Prometheus becomes a representation of all that is good and beneficial. This particular idea can be seen as Prometheus must go through something of a moral cleansing and rebirth (and therefore become a stronger representation of goodness in the world) to become unbound by finally revoking his curse against Zeus. Prometheus chooses to revoke this curse as he realizes that wanting vengeance will not allow him freedom as he declares that “he who is evil can receive no good” (1.389). Furthermore, Prometheus then says that one should “pity the self-despising slaves of Heaven,” or, in other words, those that have given into and accepted such tyrannical authority and evils (1.429). Therefore, this work can be considered something of a revolutionary text or an example of the power of an individual to overcome the evils of oppression and unfair authority. After all, if Prometheus is able to overcome Zeus’s tyranny simply by accepting his faults and being more “good” and “moral,” why can’t the common man do the same and stand up for himself in the face of unfair government? The fact that Prometheus is able to do this reflects Shelley’s optimism and faith in mankind’s ability to change the world. This can be seen in act III in which, thanks to Prometheus’s actions, Zeus and his tyrannical rule have been overthrown and something of a human utopia has been created. Therefore, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound can also be considered something of a new myth of redemption and apocalypse for the Earth that portrays an optimism of it actually being possible.

On the other hand, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein appears to be much more pessimistic about the characteristics of mankind and many of the messages her novel offers serve as a warning to these societal flaws. Unlike Percy, whom seemed to be influenced by the French Revolution, Mary Shelley seemed to be more influenced by the scientific revolution and her novel offers somewhat of a cautionary tale about the consequences it could bring. Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist, goes on a quest to obtain knowledge new to mankind and demonstrates it by creating a living being out of lifeless matter. However, as Frankenstein begins on this “dangerous acquirement of knowledge” (42) by creating this creature he is passing the boundaries of human morality and adopting a role which Shelley may consider to be too “God-like”; a role in which Frankenstein will be punished for and come to regret later on. This example is therefore serving as somewhat of a warning from Shelley to those other scientists embarking on a quest for knowledge and new creations. In other words, a warning to not step the boundaries of human morality in regards to their discoveries. With Frankenstein’s successful creation of the monster, this novel then becomes a tale of accountability. Frankenstein, unlike Prometheus whom accepted his fate as a consequence for his actions, refuses to take responsibility for his creation and instead flees upon the realization of what he has done, simply hoping that the problem will disappear on its own. Naturally, it does not. Frankenstein completely disregards the idea that, as the creator of his “monster,” he is responsible both for his upbringing, development, and actions just as a parent is for his or her child. As Frankenstein leaves his monster with essentially no knowledge or example of how to behave and interact with people as well as how to take care of itself, it could be argued that Frankenstein and not the monster is actually the cause for the tragic events to follow. Therefore, it could also be argued that these tragic events could have been prevented if Frankenstein had taken responsibility for his creation and actions in the first place. As he is unable to accept this responsibility, he is forever left to suffer the consequences. Finally, Frankenstein can serve as a message for human rights, possibly reflecting Shelley’s feelings about the rulings of the time in which she felt the common people were unable to have their voices heard. In this case, Frankenstein’s monster appears to be an exemplification of the common man. Although the monster is clearly sensible and capable of reasoning and thinking intelligently (as Shelley may be suggesting common society to be), he is offered nothing in the way of rights and is offered no opportunity to try to obtain them. This suggests that the monster is in a way also being held down by tyranny of those considered “above” him. In this case, those above the monster (who, although do not have a lot of influence, have more than he does) are simply the common people. Although Shelley seems to be arguing for the rights of the common people under their greater authorities and government, her implication of the common people above the monster also imply that common people are also capable of things like tyranny. Therefore, unlike Prometheus Unbound, the overall interpretation of mankind and likelihood of change is pessimistic as both the cruelty of the common man as well as the flaws of Victor Frankenstein can be seen in the novel.

Overall, it is clear that interpretations of the classic Promethean myth can be seen both in Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus. However, these new interpretations vary and are dependent upon the new author that sets to the task of reworking the myth to his or her own purpose. Therefore, although there are many obvious parallels between Prometheus Unbound and Frankenstein, the two arrive at different conclusions and offer different messages in the end. Despite this, it still remains clear that there is something within the Promethean myth that speaks to all and has allowed it and will continue to allow it to remain in discussion and culture.

Works Cited

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. London: Wordsworth Editions

Limited, 1993. Print.

Shelley, Percy. “Prometheus Unbound.” British Literature 1780-1830. Eds. Anne K.

Mellor and Richard E. Matlak. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 1996.

1102-1138. Print.

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