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21st Century Ideals of Revolution From Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound”


Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound combines the literary forms of lyrical drama and poetry to recreate and reanimate a classical mythological story. In the opening episode of the play, Jupiter, Shelley’s symbol of religious and political tyranny, punishes the heroic Prometheus for stealing fire from heaven and giving it to mortals. Prometheus is chained in the mountainside of the Indian Caucasus. He endures the suffering and abides by his decision to oppose Jupiter. Prometheus is projected as a political and revolutionary character, averse to despotism, and focused on uprooting the repressive regime.

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This closet drama illustrates various outstanding similarities and differences between the characteristics and ideals of the Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist literary periods. Although Prometheus Unbound symbolizes many themes, the texts prominently reflect social class issues, gender, individuality, racial construction, and frustrations stemming from people ignoring the environment, which are widespread today.

Comparisons of the Ideals and Characteristics of the Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist Literary Eras

The ideals and characteristics of Romanticism, Victorian, and Modernist literary periods share various similarities and differences. The former was an artistic and intellectual movement inspired by the spirit of the French Revolution, particularly regarding freedom, equality, and democracy (Zaiter 35). Consequently, artistic works of this era are depicted by their emphasis on individualism, freedom from the established rules, spontaneity, worship of nature, and fascination with the past, especially the middle ages’ myths and mysticisms. The Victorian literature era focused mainly on the issues created by the Industrial Revolution, such as the disparities in the prosperity of the middle and upper classes and the deplorable conditions of the poor.

Modernism, a relatively recent literature movement, deviates from the conventional writing techniques and depicts the individual as more interesting than the society. Consequently, the artists of this epoch were fascinated with the way people adapted to the fast-changing world, and triumphed over obstacles. Moreover, the artworks defied all expectations, combining past impressions with modern themes and languages, resulting in a collage of styles.

Reality is bluntly described in modernistic literature, and there is a generally negative attitude towards authority and power. Additionally, modernist writers pursued creativity and originality as seen by the invention of words, the inclusion of foreign languages, and the utilization of dense vocabulary. Therefore, the Romanticism, Victorian, and Modernism periods significantly differed regarding their perspective on individuality, defiance of expectations, and the assertiveness on creativity originality.

However, there are various similarities between the Victorian, Modernism, and Romantic eras. For instance, the Modernist and Victorian artists were significantly inspired by the literature that came before them and the events which occurred during their time. Numerous social issues, such as widespread poverty, oppression, economic, and political changes are extensively covered in this era. The two periods utilize and advance similar literary styles and forms. Similarly, the Romantic era incorporated human passions, sensory elements, and imageries to convey different ideas on issues such as nature and romance. Thus, the three literary periods focused significantly on the prevailing occurrences and utilized previous literary forms and styles.

Knowledge and Freedom

Knowledge and freedom is one of the dominant and most recurring themes in Prometheus Unbound. Essentially, the possession of knowledge in the dramatic poem creates liberty and civilization for humanity (Hunt 28). The enlightenment, symbolized by fire, enables people to survive and tame the hostile Earth, which has created a multitude of slaves. From this perspective, Prometheus’ act of granting knowledge to humans is equated to an act of transgression against the Greek gods, which leads to the loss of his freedom. Additionally, he endures prolonged episodes of pain and scorn as the consequences of his actions, as depicted by the last line, “Ah me! Alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!” (Shelley 1.1.23). Thus, this scene illustrates knowledge as something worth pursuing at any cost since it ultimately liberates humanity and enhances survival.

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Further, despite the horrible punishment, Prometheus is rebellious and unyielding to Jupiter’s taunting. Shelley’s dramatization depicts the fundamental significance of the relentless commitment to a worthy cause.

In today’s context, Prometheus Unbound inspires the need to tenaciously challenge the detrimental establishments, such as patriarchy, social caste, and despotism. Ultimately, Prometheus’ refusal to submit to Jupiter culminates in his freedom, since entrenched repression can only be defeated through persistent onslaught (Hamarat 202). For instance, retrogressive class structures and rigid social conventions, which keep people enslaved today, cannot be demolished by erratic actions. This aspect of Shelley’s text applies to the current society and our thinking by highlighting that triumph over social injustices and evils can only be possible through sustained efforts.

Resistance and Authority

Shelley’s poem symbolizes resistance against tyrannical and authoritarian authorities, despite the defiance leading to punishment and isolation. As a romanticist, Shelley believed in the uninhibited freedoms to think, act, and make decisions. However, these liberties are hampered and suppressed by social institutions, which disrupt the natural course of life for immoral aims. Shelley symbolizes Jupiter as a powerful establishment which impeded social reforms which were critical in alleviating the widespread suffering among the people. For instance, Jupiter is depicted as a corrupt monarch who imposes restrictive social conventions through “fear and self-contempt and barren hope” (Shelley 1.1.8).

His reign has rendered the “Earth multitudinous with thy slaves” (Shelley 1.1.5) who are obligated to make “knee-worship, prayer, and praise” (Shelley 1.1.6) The Spirit of the Hour refers to him as “the tyrant of the world.” This amplifies the monotheistic and hegemonic tendency of Jupiter through which he exerted supreme oppressive governance. The ultimate overthrow of this deity is an explicit illustration of rebellion against tyrannical regimes.

Further, Prometheus demonstrates that resistance to despotism and repressive social conventions can be triggered and sustained by one person. Shelley’s imagery exemplifies the power of an individual in sparking the rebellion against tyranny. Although Prometheus acknowledges Jupiter as the “Monarch of Gods and Daemons, and all spirits,” he asserts his conscious defiance to the autocracy, which Shelley projects as the last bastion of freedom (Shelley 1.1.1).

This aspect of the poem reflects our current society, where single and isolated acts of defiance have resulted in meaningful revolutions, such as the Tunisian Revolution (Sofi 41). There is a striking similarity in this perspective of Shelley’s poem with today’s society, where numerous fundamental changes have been triggered by determined individuals who were not afraid to lead and champion social transformation. Therefore, individuality is a critical component in reengineering numerous issues, including the demolition of social caste, racial constructs, and gender issues.

Shelley’s dramatic poem also illustrates the frustrations which stem from people ignoring the environment in which they live. Since humans respond to various stimuli, the disregard of the environmental aspects often causes irritation because of the inability to adjust to surroundings. The absence of foresight on the potential damage, the probability of occurrence, and irreversibility of the repercussions of a changing environment generates disappointment and annoyance. Therefore, the Prometheus myth highlights the frustrations that humanity experiences during transitional periods after failing to handle the resultant changes.

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Conclusively, Shelley’s play, written during the Romanticism period, explores numerous contemporary subjects on class structure, social transformation, and human rights issues, such as freedom. The author illustrates the significance of defying autocratic and repressive establishments and the need to commit to one’s convictions to triumph over evil. Shelley’s work exemplifies the Romantic period’s artistic ideals, particularly in its depiction of individualism, freedom from conventions, and the fascination with myths and mysticism.

Works Cited

Hamarat, Abdulkadir. “Shelley’s Revolutionary Idealism in Prometheus Unbound.” Dil ve Edebiyat Arastirmalari Guz, no. 18, 2018, pp. 199─210.

Hunt, Katie Alyssa. “Jupiter of Percey Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound reconsidered.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, vol. 32, no. 1, 2019, pp. 28─30.

Shelley, Percey Bysshe. Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts. C and J Ollier, 1820.

Sofi, Mohammad Dawood. “Rethinking the Root Causes of the Tunisian Revolution and its Implications.” Contemporary Arab Affairs, vol. 12, no. 3, 2019, pp. 41-64.

Zaiter, Walid A. “Romanticism in Context: Shelley’s and Keats’ Verse and Prose: Keats’s Letters and Ode to a Nightingale, Shelley’s Defense of Poetry and Skylark.” International Journal of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies, vol. 6, no. 3, 2018, pp. 34─38.

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