Prologues have come in and out of fashion over time; some writers find them useful, others dismiss them as outdated and overused. They continue to be used in plays and novels.

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Table of contents

    What is a prologue?

    A prologue is used at the beginning of a novel or play to tell an earlier part of the story and to introduce the characters. A prologue is an independent section that can appear before a novel, play or opera. It may explain something of what will happen in the main story, or be used to set the scene or introduce a reoccurring theme that will appear in the story.

    On stage, the prologue will be given either to one of the characters or to the designated ‘chorus’ performer. The chorus is a leftover from the Greek chorus in plays from the ancient period. Originally the chorus was a group of actors who would recite together. This gradually devolved into one actor reciting before the curtain rises on the action.

    Euripides (who is credited with inventing the prologue) - Medea, 431 B.C.

    Chaucer’s 'Canterbury Tales', 1387- 1400.

    The prologue to Medea is rather long. Medea’s nurse has a good bit of background information to get across to the audience: Jason’s arrival, Medea’s love for him, their children, followed by his forthcoming marriage to another princess:

    For Jason hath betrayed his own children and my mistress dear for the love of a royal bride, for he hath wedded the daughter of Creon, lord of this land. While Medea, his hapless wife, thus scorned, appeals to the oaths he swore, recalls the strong pledge his right hand gave, and bids heaven be witness what requital she is finding from Jason. And here she lies fasting, yielding her body to her grief, wasting away in tears ever since she learnt that she was wronged by her husband, never lifting her eye nor raising her face from off the ground...

    (Euripides, Prologue from Medea, 431 B.C., tr. E.P.Coleridge)

    All of this is told to explain to the audience what stage they are at in the legend of Jason.

    In a prologue, the backstory is often given - rather like at the beginning of new TV seasons (particularly US ones) that provide a catch up (the story so far) so the audience knows where they are in the story.

    Chaucer’s Prologue to Canterbury Tales is even longer, introducing each of the characters (over twenty of them!) and explaining how they shall each tell a tale to help pass the time on their pilgrimage.

    This is the poynt, to speken short and pleyn,

    That ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye

    In this viage, shal telle tales tweye,

    To Caunterbury-ward, I mene it so,

    And homward he shal tellen othere two,

    Of aventúres that whilom han bifalle.

    And which of yow that bereth hym beste of alle,

    That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas

    Tales of best sentence and moost solaas,

    Shal have a soper at oure aller cost,

    Heere in this place, sittynge by this post,

    Whan that we come agayn fro Caunterbury.

    (The pilgrims' host here suggests that everyone should take it in turns to tell two tales on the way to Canterbury, and another two tales on the way back. The best storyteller shall be rewarded with a free meal ('Shal have a soper at oure aller cost'/ Shall have a supper at all our cost) when they return from Canterbury ('whan that we come agayn fro Caunterbury'))

    Is a prologue the same as an introduction?

    The word ‘introduction’ is a general term to mean anything or anyone that needs to be presented to the reader or audience before the story begins; prologue and preface are types of introduction.

    The introduction, as a specific term in publishing, appears in the front matter of a book, usually non-fiction. While it may also give some background information or setting, it will most often summarise the main content. An introduction to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution will probably talk a little about Darwin and his life, as well as outline his theory.

    What is the main purpose of the prologue?

    A typical example of prologue appears in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597).

    In Shakespeare’s time, theatres could be rather rowdy places, with the audience standing around the stage, ready with fruit to eat (if they enjoyed the play) or throw (if they didn’t enjoy it). The prologue was particularly useful in that situation as a way of telling the audience what to expect beforehand (and with any luck, reduce the amount of fruit thrown).

    Here, the performer explains how, in Verona, a pair of ‘star-crossed lovers’ will meet and then kill themselves as a result of their families’ constant enmity. Only by their deaths will the two families bury their grudges. This will be the main content, or ‘traffic’, of their story on stage for the next two hours. The prologue ends with the promise that anything the audience misses, the actors will attempt to explain:

    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.

    (Shakespeare, Prologue, lines 1-14, Romeo & Juliet, 1597)

    Roughly translated, the prologue explains where the play will take place, what has happened already (giving background information about the two warring families) and what the audience can expect:

    Our play is set in fair Verona and is about two families of equal status who are enemies over an old grudge.

    Their children, our star-crossed lovers of the play, meet, fall in love, and kill themselves as a result of their families’ enmity.

    This will be the story of our play for the next two hours - what is missing from this prologue, we shall attempt to explain (in the play), if you listen carefully.

    Preface vs. prologue

    A preface is another kind of introduction that appears in the front matter of a book; it appears most often in non-fiction, for example in academic books. It gives the author an opportunity to talk directly to the reader, and explain their approach and qualification for writing about the subject matter of the book.

    Peter Schaffer's Preface to his play Amadeus (1979)

    The preface to Amadeus was written in 1981, two years after the enormously successful opening of Amadeus in London. In it Schaffer modestly introduces the play's success at the National Theatre. He then goes on to describe the changes he made before its production in America - not, he explains, because the play had been a failure (it clearly wasn't) but because he felt 'emboldened ... to try to improve it.' He then details what he felt was wrong with the play. For example, Salieri 'had too little to do with Mozart's ruin.' He was the observer and not the actor.

    'In this new version', Schaffer explains, 'he seems ... to stand where he properly belongs - at the wicked centre of the action.' Schaffer then goes on to explain other changes, and gives generous praise to those directors and actors who helped his play to shine on stage. He closes with a note of deep gratitude to his publisher.

    The preface in this case gives the reader interesting background detail about the making of the play at different stages of the process. It includes the reader in the play's transition from London to America, and its further development with varying casts and directors.

    Prologue & epilogue

    Think of a shelf with a row of books on it. The problem is, the books at each end of the shelf keep slipping off. Solution? Find some bookends: they enclose the books, and nothing slips off anymore.

    In a sense, this is how a prologue and epilogue work: they stop the loose ends from slipping out. The prologue helps to set the scene, introduce a main character or two, give some backstory. Then the main story can begin.

    The epilogue helps to tie things up: those minor characters who might or might not go off together, the missing pet dog that finally returns, or anything else the author didn’t have opportunity to explain during the rushed pace of the central narrative.

    Prologue, prologue and epilogue bookends, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Prologue and epilogue bookends.

    Prologue and epilogue have had a stormy ride over time - sometimes vilified, sometimes mocked, and sometimes held up as a necessity, they are useful tools for moulding the shape of a narrative and giving the story a satisfying conclusion.

    They are to be found in ancient and modern literature, plays and films.

    Shakespeare’s Prologues to Henry V (1599), Romeo & Juliet (1597)

    Peter Schaffer’s opening to Amadeus 1979

    In film:

    Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981 (dir. S.Spielberg)

    The James Bond films 1962- (dir Young et al.)

    The Amazing Spider-Man 2 2014 (dir. M.Webb)

    The prologue from Henry V ends with a request that the audience rely on its own imagination to supply the sound of hooves, travel time and space in order to follow the story:

    Think when we talk of horses, that you see them

    Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;

    For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

    Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,

    Turning the accomplishment of many years

    Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,

    Admit me Chorus to this history;

    Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,

    Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

    (Shakespeare, Prologue to Henry V, lines 27-35, 1599)

    The opening to Schaffer's Amadeus goes further; it begins in total darkness, and the audience hears only whispers:

    [Darkness. Savage whispers fill the theatre. We can distinguish nothing at first from this snakelike save the word 'Salieri!' repeated here there and everywhere. Also the barely distinguishable word 'Assassin!' The whispers overlap and increase in volume, slashing the air with wicked intensity. Then the light grows Upstage to reveal the silhouettes of men and women dressed in the top hats and skirts of the early nineteenth century - Citizens of Vienna - all crowded together in the Light Box, and uttering their scandal....]

    (Schaffer, Act 1, Scene 1, Amadeus, 1979)

    In this way, Schaffer reintroduces the idea of the classic Greek Chorus. Here the citizens of Vienna become the chorus, whispering the words 'Assassin' and 'Salieri'. By doing this they set up atmosphere (through sound) as well as indicating that we are entering the story long after the death of Mozart. That story is going to be told (in flashback). With two simple words hissed in darkness, Schaffer orchestrates a chilling, intriguing prologue to what is to follow.

    The epilogue, then, comes at the end, after the main action has finished.

    Puck's closing speech from Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream, 1605

    Puck ties up loose ends in Midsummer Night’s Dream, offering an apology to the audience:

    If we shadows have offended,

    Think but this, and all is mended,

    That you have but slumber’d here

    While these visions did appear.

    So, good night unto you all.

    Give me your hands, if we be friends,

    And Robin shall restore amends.” (V, i. 440-455)

    Other epilogues can be found in Wilkie CollinsThe Moonstone and The Woman in White: the final threads and clues are drawn together, and a happy ending for the main characters is celebrated.

    In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the epilogue serves to show how power ultimately corrupts all who wield it.

    In film, a hint is often given to indicate things to come in a possible sequel.

    (Spoiler alerts!)

    Stranger Things: After the sheriff is thought dead in the explosion of the underground laboratory, the scene switches to a set of cells with two guards exchanging comments on the ‘Yank’ in the last cell, thus suggesting the sheriff has in fact survived.

    Shazam! : The fallen Dr Sivana, locked inside the lunatic asylum, is addressed by a talking doll who talks of a plan to dominate the world.

    Prologues have their uses; it depends on the author and why they need to have one. If you want to jump into your story straight away without any warning (and plenty of people do) then your story probably doesn’t need one. The question an author will ask before using a prologue is how much the reader or audience really needs to know before the story starts.

    Prologue - Key takeaways

      • A prologue helps describe an earlier part of the story and introduces the characters.

      • The prologue can also tell the audience what to expect beforehand.

      • The prologue helps to open a story, the epilogue helps to close it.

      • An epilogue can also be used in films or tv to hint at a sequel

      • A preface allows the author to explain their approach and qualification for writing their book.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Prologue

    What is the main purpose of the prologue ?

    A prologue can give backstory and introduce the characters.

    What is a prologue?

    A prologue is a kind of introduction at the beginning of a play or novel.

    What is a prologue example?  

    Romeo and Juliet is a typical example of a prologue.

    What is the difference between a prologue and a preface?    

    A prologue is used for plays or novels; a preface is used for non-fiction like academic works.

    What is the difference between a prologue and a preface?

    A prologue is used for plays or novels; a preface is used for non-fiction like academic works.

    Is a prologue the same as an introduction?    

    A prologue is a type of introduction; in publishing, the introduction may also give some background information or setting, it will most often summarise the main content.

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