The prologue, Greek prologos (meaning: before word), is an opening of a story that establishes the setting and gives background details.
Generally speaking, the main function of a prologue tells some earlier story and connects it to the main story. Similarly, it is serves as a means to introduce characters of a story and throws light on their roles. In its modern sense, a prologue acts as a separate entity and is not considered part of the current story that a writer ventures to tell.
Prologue Examples from Literature
Prologue on Greek Stage
The prologos in Greek dramas incorporated the above mentioned features but it had a wider importance than the modern interpretations of the prologue. Greek prologos was more like a preface i.e. an introduction to a literary work provided by a dramatist to tell how the idea of a story developed. Therefore, in Greek dramas, prologue was a complete episode or the first act which was succeeded by the remaining acts of a play.
The invention of prologue is attributed to Euripedes. He prefixed a prologue to his plays as an explanatory first act in order to make the upcoming events in a play comprehensible for his audience. Other dramatist followed in his footsteps and prologue became a part of the traditional formula for writing plays. Almost all Greek prologues told about events that happened much earlier in time than the events depicted in the play.
Prologue on Latin Stage
Plautus, a Latin playwright, has written examples of prologues in his plays that were more elaborate than Greek prologues. His prologues were admired for their romantic quality. His prologues were usually performed by characters that did not make appearances in the play. A prologue to Rudens is a perfect manifestation of his genius in writing prologue. Later, Moliere revived prologue on Latin stage by prefixing it to his play Amphitryon. Furthermore, we notice Racine introducing his coral tragedy Esther with a prologue with Piety as its speaker.
Prologue on Elizabethan Stage
The early English dramatists were influenced by the traditions of prologues in Greek and Latin plays. Even the early forms of drama, mystery and morality plays, always began with a homily i.e. which was a religious commentary on the biblical story that was to be performed in those plays. Elizabethan dramatists took inspiration from the Greek and Latin tradition of prologue and held it as a compulsory ingredient of their plays. In 1562, Sackville wrote Gorboduc which is believed to be the first English play. He prepared a pantomime that acted as a prologue for his play. Later, he wrote Induction that was a prologue to his Miscellany of short romantic epics.
A prologue to Elizabethan plays usually served to quieten and settle down an audience before the commencement of a play. It then introduced the themes of the play and other particulars to audience making them mentally prepared for the events they were to witness in the performance. Also, it was considered necessary to beg their leniency for any error that might occur in the writing of a play or in the performances of actors on stage. Usually, the character who uttered the prologue was dressed in black in order to differentiate him from the rest of the actors who wore colorful costumes during their performances. For instance, read the following lines from the prologue in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”:
“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.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage—
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.”
The Chorus in the extract not only introduces the theme but also requests the audience to be attentive “with patient ears attend.”
An Example of Non-dramatic Prologue
In English literature, a prologue was employed in non-dramatic fiction as well. One of the earliest prologue examples is Chaucer’s A Prologue to Canterbury Tales. His prologue was built on the conventional pattern. He used it to introduce all his characters or pilgrims in dramatic details before each of them told their story on their way to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett.
Function of Prologue
As previously mentioned, the primary function of a prologue is to let the readers/audience be aware of the earlier part of the story and enable them to relate it to the main story. This literary device is also a means to present characters and establish their roles.