The word “prologue” goes from the Greek meaning “before the word.” It is the opening to a story, or outside of literature to a piece of music, that comes before the first page or chapter. The prologue is often used to establish the context and provide background details to the story and the characters involved in it, which is to come. Sometimes the prologue is more critical to the text than other times. It may or may not contain information that’s necessary to understand the rest of the story.
History of the Prologue
Scholars have dated the prologue back to examples from Greek and Latin writings, specifically plays. The prologue in Rome was more complex than its Greek counterpart. Greater importance was put on its composition and what it contained. The invention of the prologue is generally attributed to Euripides, who placed an introduction before each of his plays that explained the actions to the audience.
During the classical period, the prologue usually conformed to one of four different formats. The sustatikos, epitimetikos, dramatikos, and the mixtos. The first involved praising the play or poet before the performance, the second gave thanks to the audience, the third dealt with an explanation of the plot, and the fourth was a mix of all these. In the Middle Ages, the homily was introduced. This short expert began various compositions of the time period.
During the period of the Renaissance, the prologue was used to transition the audience into a narrative or provide crucial information about the way that the narrative was going to play out. These were completed by an actor on stage speaking directly to the audience. The actor might ask the audience to pay attention to certain things that are about to come or offer a disclaimer of sorts. Writers such as Ben Jonson use the prologue in this manner.
The prologue in non-dramatic fiction, dories, and novels dates back most prominently to the works of Chaucer.
Examples of Prologues in Literature
Example #1 Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
One of the best-known prologues in the English language comes, unsurprisingly, from the works of William Shakespeare. In his much-loved play Romeo and Juliet, the Chorus comes before the audience to describe the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets. The lines begin with:
Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
They continue on in this vein using techniques such as allusion to prepare the audience for what’s going to come next. After a reader or audience member becomes familiar with the events of Romeo and Juliet the prologue makes a lot more sense.
Example #2 Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
The author’s best-known novel and the first to book to appear on The New York Times Best Seller list for fiction. This novel follows the journey of a human man born in space and raised on mars named Valentine Michael Smith. His parents, who both died while he was a baby feature in the prologue of the novel. It depicts the space ship, Envoy, being launched towards Mars. Earth loses contact with the vessel and years later a new craft finds the child, now twenty-five years old.
While the prologue does not contain any information a reader could not glean from reading the novel in full, it does set up the story well. It will, for someone who is invested in the novel, provide longed for information. Stranger in a Strange Land provides an example of a prologue that has just enough information to make it worth reading but not too much to where a reader will feel as though they’ve read the entire book.
Example #3 The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
The General Prologue in The Canterbury Tales is one of the best examples of how this element of a story can benefit the reader. This part of the story describes the setting. It details the time of year and the fact that people were wanting to go on a pilgrimage. The speaker joined in with a group staying at a tavern in Southwark called the Tabard Inn. There were a variety of different kinds of people in this group.
The General Prologue to the vastly different stories that follow. It is quite long and formal in nature. It is followed by the rest of the Prologue that is more relaxed and colloquial.