REBELLION AND AUTHORITY IN GOETHE’S PROMETHEUS
City and State
REBELLION AND AUTHORITY IN GOETHE’S PROMETHEUS
No form of art, be it a painting or poem, is impervious from the influence and criticisms of its predecessors. It is apparent that Goethe attempt to capture the intellectuality contained in previous versions of Prometheus in the poem. The poets infuse their own romantic vision, but still manage to maintain the vigor that embodies the character of Prometheus. While the poem is primal, the context and content are highly psychological. At the center of the narrative is the tribulation of one demigod, who, according to Zeus’ instructions, is to spend the rest of eternity pinned to a large rock. However, the protagonist is rescued from the plight by his tendency to help mortals with knowledge and fire. The interplay between Zeus and the protagonist is one of the many ways the poets establish the themes of rebellion and authority. Ironic is that the character with less authority helps secure the throne for Zeus. Prometheus and Zeus have a love and hate relationship that balances the protagonist’s dream of rebellion and Zeus’ undeniable authority.
The poem itself is symbolic of civil rebellion. In the late 28th century and early 19th century, Prometheus was a dominant theme in English literature. According to DeMoss (2018, p. 1), poets, such as Gordon Byron, was using the narrative together with the revolutionary spirit of the century as symbols of rebellion against religion. Prometheus is a narrative that speaks against the limitations of human capabilities, abuse of power, and discriminative law. The poem begins with the apostrophized inquiry, “what was thy pity, recompense?” (Goethe 1772) The question is the titan’s way of asking what did he get in return for helping human beings, apart from receiving despise from the gods. Due to his good deeds, Prometheus has to take on the form of a human being to suffer the same implications the gods set for man. The protagonist is silent in his suffering but internally opts to rebel against his masters.
Goethe’s Prometheus was written at a time when power was not just competitive but also reciprocal. Unlike in previous versions of the poem, Goethe’s protagonist does not denote helpless submission to the will of Zeus. There is some degree of revolt where the protagonist in the poem implies that Zeus is free to do as he wishes. The segment denotes both the submission of Prometheus to his oppressor and the subtle intent to rebel with time. Active power lies in authority dispatched by Zeus. The god has the power to control, thunder, and lightning. The god takes pleasure in creating things that someday he may be able to annihilate or destroy (Runkel 2017, p. 1). However, Zeus does not employ the same approach when it comes to Prometheus. He does not create the demigod with the intent of destroying him. In fact, he refuses the titan’s request to die. In this part of the poem, there is both the depiction of Zeus’ authority and his willingness to allow defiant refusal from Prometheus.
Goethe portrays Zeus in a way that God cannot be reprimanded or challenged. In lines 29-31, the poet denotes that there is a refusal to expose the prophecy that projects Zeus’ demise and fall from power. The lines read, “the fate thou didst so will foresee, / but would not appease him tell, and in thy silence was his sentence” (Goethe 1772). The poet’s refusal to expose the prophecy portrays the supremacy of the god. It could be accurate to assert that Zeus’ authority stems from the fact that he is all-knowing. Contrastingly, Prometheus’ decision to keep quiet concerning the prophecy denotes his underlying intent to rebel. It is interesting that the all-knowing being is not aware of his fate, while Prometheus does. At the end of the second stanza, Zeus is anxious concerning the realness of his fate. By remaining silent about the prophecy, Prometheus is able to make Zeus anxious, which is a function many gods have been unable to accomplish.
The final two stanzas of the poem illustrate how Prometheus employs suffering to revolt and win against the almighty Zeus. Goethe wishes the reader to identify with Prometheus as a character with an impenetrable spirit and who has endured all forms of suffering since his birth. Endurance is the main strategy for revolting, as it is a characteristic that Zeus does not possess. According to Goethe, the Supreme Being let Prometheus live in order for him to suffer human-like consequences. However, due to his endurance, Prometheus triumphs as described in the 44th and 45th lines, which state “a mighty lesson we inherit, thou art a symbol and a sign, to mortals of their fate and force” (). Goethe informs the reader that mankind has the ability to learn from their actions, hence the ability to reduce their suffering and endure. The theme of resistance contains the lesson that human beings can be victorious through their unique sufferings.
Possessing human-like features is a form of rebellion to the rule of gods, as illustrated by Prometheus. Lines 47-50 provide comparisons between human beings and titans. Just like Prometheus, mankind is part divine because they are the result of celestial creations. However, given that mankind is mortal, they possess some form of foresight based on the knowledge that they will eventually fade away. The comparisons state, “like thee, man is part divine, a troubled stream from a pure source, and man in portions can foresee, his own funeral destiny” (Goethe 1772). Zeus created mankind to be sustained by their praise and worship. Zeus punishes Prometheus and mankind to force them into submission. However, the two perceive death as a victory. The Promethean myth centers on the acceptance of human-level suffering as opposed to god-like status and authority. By remaining silent and accepting the human approach to life, Prometheus directly rebels against Zeus. Being human means enduring struggle that is worthy of death.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Prometheus focuses on a powerful protagonist who revolts against the heteronomy and hegemony of Zeus to establish complete autonomy. Due to his good deeds, Prometheus has to take on the form of a human being to suffer the same implications the gods set for man. The protagonist is silent in his suffering but internally opts to rebel against his masters, which he manages by not disclosing the prophecy covering Zeus’ demise. Contrastingly, Goethe portrays Zeus in a way that the God cannot be reprimanded or challenged. Zeus’ authority stems from the fact that he is all-knowing. The god takes pleasure in creating things that in someday, he may be able to annihilate or destroy. The degree to which Zeus and Prometheus understand human traits determines which direction the balance between authority and rebellion swings.
DeMoss, V 2018, Prometheus, the human struggle, Cornell College, viewed 17 November 2019, https://www.cornellcollege.edu/classical_studies/cla216-2-a/prometheus/lordbyron.htm
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1772, Prometheus, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Berlin.
Runkel, D 2017, Misotheism and rebellion in Lord Byron’s Prometheus and Goethe’s same titled hymn. GRIN Verlag, viewed 17 November 2019, https://www.grin.com/document/424718