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What is a Prologue?

By Licia Morrow
Updated May 23, 2024
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A prologue, sometimes referred to as a preface, is an introduction at the beginning of a literary work. This type of introduction generally gives information to the reader or audience, assisting in the ability to understand what is to follow in the main body of the work. It may introduce the setting, preview the characters, or establish a theme or moral for the work. Examples can be found in Greek and Elizabethan drama, and in a play, it often takes the form of a character’s monologue or dialogue.

In Greek tragedy, the prologue is the opening section of a drama that precedes the first choral ode. In the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, it is presented as dialogue between Oedipus, the Priests, and Kreon, and establishes that the plague in Thebes will end as soon as Laios’s murderer is found. This precedes the opening hymn of the Chorus that appeals to the gods.

Shakespeare includes a prologue to set up the story behind the star crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet. In this case, the Chorus delivers it, which begins as follows:

“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-cross'd lovers take their life”

Not only does Shakespeare introduce the story line of two warring Verona households with this introduction, he foreshadows the ending of the play and alerts the audience to the tragedy about to unfold.

While many may consider a prologue a literary device used only in plays, it is also often seen in prose works. For example, in Plain and Simple, Sue Bender uses it to set the stage for her experiences with the Amish when she says, “I had an obsession with the Amish. Plain and simple. Objectively it made no sense. I, who worked hard at being special, fell in love with a people who valued being ordinary.” In fact, the use of such introductions in literary prose can be traced as far back as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales which includes ones that provide background information and character sketches for the tales.

Prologues may be written by the author of the work, or may be contributed by another writer who uses this introduction as a way of presenting and recommending a literary work.

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Discussion Comments

By SkyWhisperer — On Jun 09, 2011

@miriam98 - Generally that may be true, except when the prologue serves to give voice to the author himself. How could the narrative of the story do that? In that sense, the author is stepping back and telling the reader about the story he is about to read, rather than speaking from the viewpoint of one of the characters or even an author omniscient point of view.

One of the best prologue examples which I’ve never forgotten illustrates this: Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, where he says, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” I think the prologue is the only place that Twain could have placed that humorous utterance.

By miriam98 — On Jun 06, 2011

@hamje32 - You raise a good point about the prologue: what exactly does the general prologue accomplish that could not be accomplished through the standard narrative itself?

I think prologues are not always necessary, anymore than epilogues are always necessary. It’s just a function of how the author wants to tell the story. In standard fiction, character development is accomplished through the ebb and flow of the story.

For Chaucer, as you mentioned, he wanted to give a quick snapshot of the characters. It was optional, but that was the approach he chose.

By hamje32 — On Jun 03, 2011

In one of my literature classes in college we studied Chaucer’s Canterberry tales. Two things I remembered from that class: the stilted style of that period’s English, and the Chaucer general prologue which introduced each character. These characters included the Knight, the Merchant, the Friar and so forth. The prologue defined their characteristics so as to give the reader insight into their behavior throughout the story.

Some people think prologues are unnecessary in a work of fiction, but I think in Chaucer they were indispensable for the purpose they served. They gave the reader a condensed view of all of the actors on stage so to speak, so that we could get on with the story as quickly as possible.

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