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The line “all spirits are enslaved that serve things evil” can be found in the play Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

My initial interpretation is, spirits that serve evil are enslaved by that evil.

Is that an accurate interpretation?

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Yes, your interpretation is correct. The line contains a couple of anastrophes, “figures of speech in which words or clauses in a sentence are inverted” (OED). In conventional order the line would be:

All spirits that serve evil things are enslaved

In this scene the characters Demogorgon and Asia are discussing whether Jupiter is all-powerful, or whether he too is servant to some yet greater power, such as

Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change?

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1820). Prometheus Unbound, act 2, scene 4, p. 87. London: C. and J. Ollier.

The idea that Jupiter might not be all-powerful, but subject rather to Fate, is ancient. Lucian satirized it in Zeus Cross-examined:

Cyniscus. I was thinking of that bit in Homer, where he makes you [Zeus] address the Gods in council, and threaten to suspend all the world from a golden cord.† You said, you know, that you would let the cord down from Heaven, and all the Gods together, if they liked, might take hold of it and try to pull you down, and they would never do it: whereas you, if you had a mind to it, could easily pull them up, “And Earth and Sea withal.” I listened to that passage with shuddering reverence; I was much impressed with the idea of your strength. Yet now I understand that you and your cord and your threats all depend from a mere cobweb. It seems to me Clotho‡ should be the one to boast: she has you dangling from her distaff, like a sprat at the end of a fishing-line.

Lucian (2nd Century). Zeus Cross-examined. Translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler (1905). The Works of Lucian of Samosata, volume 3, p. 73. Oxford: Clarendon.

Iliad 8.19–27. ‡ Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos are the three Moirai or Fates. Clotho spins the thread of human life, which is why Lucian describes her as carrying a distaff.

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  • After rereading this scene several times, this line feels so out of place to me. Is the intended effect to say, because of the evil acts of Jupiter, they must be a slave to a higher master, and that master may be a more intangible idea like fate or chance? Nov 26, 2023 at 5:56
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    @GarethRees Do you think it might also be a reference to John 8:34: “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.” ? Nov 26, 2023 at 10:50
  • Yes, perhaps that too. Nov 26, 2023 at 13:18
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    @BinaryPatrick The question you ask in your comment is a good one, and needs to be its own post. Perhaps you could post it as a linked question?
    – verbose
    Nov 26, 2023 at 20:44

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