Prometheus Bound contains a plethora of colorful characters, exemplifying the inimitable nature of Greek mythology, where polytheism combines with a very human-centered perspective on the intentions and desires of the gods of the Greek Pantheon. Specifically, the play features a character that readers often barely notice, even though it plays a central role in Prometheus Bound and can take place of the main hero of the play. Embodying a very human tragedy of being in the crossfire of jealousy between Zeus and Hera, Io symbolizes the humanity for the sake of which Prometheus dares to challenge the gods of Olympus.
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Io as the Most Significant Character
With Prometheus’ name in the very title, and his feud with Zeus taking most of the narrative, any character beside him might seem secondary in the story. Indeed, compared to Prometheus, whose deeds are in the center of the reader’s attention, the events occurring to other characters, such as Io, remain in the periphery of the story. However, Io remains a crucial character due to the role that she plays in Prometheus Bound. By representing humankind and incorporating foundational human characteristics, namely, compassion and vulnerability, Io becomes a crucial player in Prometheus Bound.
Arguably, the animal form that Io takes for most of the play devalues her role as the embodiment of humanity. At first glance, the identified stance on the character of Io offers a valid point since Io never takes her human form throughout the play. However, on further scrutiny, the specified argument falls apart since the implied difference in the form does not negate the human nature of Io and the problem of the power imbalance between Olympic gods and people that she represents: “how could you know what winged disease from the Gods/stings me on? I’m near/eaten away!” (Aeschylus 343). Thus, one can deem the character of Io to be more important than the one of Prometheus.
In addition to the vital function that Io obliquely plays in the story, namely, the fact that one of her descendants frees Prometheus from his suffering, Io serves as the human representation of Prometheus’ pain in the poem. Indeed, Io’s storyline in the poem mirrors that one of Prometheus to an almost hauntingly accurate extent. Namely, having entangled herself into a conflict between gods, specifically, Zeus and Hera, Io suffered a punishment, yet was redeemed eventually. The specified narrative coincides with that one of Prometheus, thus pointing to the humane nature of the protagonist, especially, his empathy: “Don’t be kinder to me than I would like” (Aeschylus 345). Moreover, Io’s fate serves a distinct purpose of connecting the cosmic scale of the Olympic narrative with the human one, which appears to be immeasurably less significant by comparison.
In the described perspective, it is possible to see Io as the instigator of the rebellious act that Prometheus commits, encouraging the lead character to take his actions a bit further. Indeed, Io’s character does not come across as exceptionally brave in the poem. At the very beginning of the story, she is portrayed as lost and in fear for her life: “What did you do/to deserve this?/Where on earth/have I strayed to?” (Aeschylus 342). Although the described attitude of Io changes throughout the poem, she remains to have comparatively little agency, maintaining her presence mostly in the shadows and allowing Prometheus to take the leading role in the story. As a result, Io mostly plays the part of an observer, even though not quite a passive one, which resembles the stance of the audience. Consequently, Io becomes much easier to identify with for a reader, which is another reason for Io to serve as the transition point between the Gods of Olympus and the voice of humankind.
Therefore, it would be reasonable to agree that Io’s role in the play is vital since it thematically relates to the conflict within the play. Representing the humankind that Prometheus strives to save by offering it metaphorical enlightenment, Io embodies the fears, struggles, and the general plight of humankind in the poem. Therefore, Io is thematically the most important character in the narrative since, without it, the story would have been nonexistent. Creating an emotional outlet for the reader, Io also serves as the empathetic element of the story: “Say who wedged you into this ravine” (Aeschylus 344). Thus, she illustrates the absurd whims of Olympic gods and the passions to which they can succumb, thus hurting those who have lesser power.
Continuing the issue of thematic relevance, the fact that Io symbolizes the power imbalance in the interactions between the residents of Olympus and mere mortals deserves a mentioning. The specified issue is central to the entire poem, being the main reason for Prometheus to steal fire from Olympus and bring it to people as those that need it most. Thus, Io continues to represent the plight of humankind as the main premise on which the myth was born, which suggests that Io’s place and function in the poem are more important than those of Prometheus.
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Thus, although the extent of Io’s agency in the play is restricted, her symbolic character becomes the embodiment of the struggles that both Prometheus and humankind face. As a result, Io’s character functions as the middle ground between Olympic gods and the humanity that Prometheus strives to save. Therefore. Io’s character gains increasing significance in the context of the story. Expanding the analysis, one could claim that the exploration of humankind’s fate considering the character that represents them is more important than following the story of Prometheus. Consequently, when applying a critical lens to the story of Prometheus Bound, one could claim that Io and her character arc are more important than those of Prometheus. Symbolizing the people that Prometheus strived to protect, as well as the twists of fate, Io represents a thematically more important character.
Due to the unique function of representing the bridge between humankind and the world of gods, which Io plays in Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus does not restrict her role to a side character; in fact, he elevates her to one of the main protagonists. The author places the weight of Io’s presence in the story under a much greater emphasis by showing the crucial change that she introduces into the play. Despite being indirect, the assistance that she provides to Prometheus through her descendant saves him and, therefore, allows recognizing Io as the crucial agent in the narrative. Moreover, with a background story that mirrors that one of Prometheus, one can interpret the character of Io as a human representation of Prometheus’ struggle, even though being in the bovine form for most of the narration. Although the role of Io in Prometheus Bound is often side-glanced due to the perceived lack of agency in this character, Io, serves a major role in the story, both from the plot development perspective and from the symbolism of the poem. Serving as the missing puzzle piece that connects Olympus and the human world, Io brings humanity into the poem, demonstrating what Prometheus struggled to save.
Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound (Greek Tragedy in New Translations). Translated by James Scully and C. John Herington, Oxford University Press, 1990.