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Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. William Morris Hunt, oil on canvas, circa 1864.

The word protagonist (from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning "player of the first part, chief actor") has more than one definition which can be found in the dictionary. It is used notably in stories and forms of literature and culture that contain stories, which would include dramas, novels, operas and films. In those forms the definition may simply be the leading actor, or the principle character in the story. But in addition the word takes on more formalized definitions. For example, the protagonist, while still defined as a leading character, may be also defined as the character whose fate is most closely followed by the reader or audience, and who is opposed by a character known as the "antagonist". The antagonist will provide obstacles and complications for the protagonist; the antagonist will create conflict, which will test the protagonist — thus revealing the strengths and weaknesses of his character.[1][2]

The protagonist should be at the center of the story, should be making the difficult choices and key decisions, should be experiencing the consequences of those decisions. The protagonist should be propelling the story forward. There are variations in the use of the protagonist. For example, if a story contains a subplot, or is a narrative that is actually made up of several stories, then there may be a character who is interpreted as the protagonist of each subplot or individual story.[3]

Ancient Greece[edit]

The invention of the protagonist occurred in ancient Greece. At first performances involved merely dancing and recitation by the chorus. But then in Poetics, Aristotle describes how a poet named Thespis introduced the idea of having one actor step out and engage in a dialogue with the chorus. This was the invention of tragedy, which occurred about 536 B.C.[4] Then the poet Aeschylus, in his plays, introduced a second actor, inventing the idea of dialogue between two characters. Sophocles then wrote plays that required a third actor.[5][6][7][8]


Euripides' play, Hippolytus, may be considered to have two protagonists. The protagonist of the first half is Phaedra, until she dies. Then her stepson, the title character, Hippolytus, has the dominant role in the second half.[9]

In Ibsen’s play, The Master Builder, the protagonist is the architect Halvard Solness. The young woman, Hilda Wangel, whose actions lead to the death of Solness, is the antagonist.[10]

In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is the protagonist. He is actively in pursuit of his relationship with Juliet, and the audience is invested in that story. The character of Tybalt opposes Romeo’s desires, he is the antagonist.[11]

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, Prince Hamlet, who seeks revenge for the murder of his father, is the protagonist. The antagonist would be the character who most opposes Hamlet, Claudius.[12]

In the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the character Holden Caulfield is the protagonist. He is the leading character, and the reader is invested in his story.[13]

Sometimes, a work will have a false protagonist, who may seem to be the protagonist, but then may disappear unexpectedly. The character Marion in Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho (1960) is an example.[14]

A novel that contains a number of narratives, may have a number of protagonists. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, for example, depicts a variety of characters imprisoned and living in a gulag camp.[15] Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, depicts fifteen major characters involved in or affected by a war.[16]


  1. ^ πρωταγωνιστής, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library.
  2. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary
  3. ^ Duncan, Stephen. A Guide to Screenwriting Success: Writing for Film and Television. Rowman & Littlefield (2006) ISBN 9780742553019
  4. ^ Müller, K.O. History of the literature of Ancient Greece. [Library of Useful Knowledge.] Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. London (1840) page 306
  5. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica online
  6. ^ Aristotle. Poetics. Oxford University Press (January 20, 2013) ISBN 978-0199608362
  7. ^ Packard, William. The Art of the Playwright. Thunder’s Mouth Press. 1997 ISBN 1-56025-117-4
  8. ^ Storey, Ian. Allan, Arlene. A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama. John Wiley & Sons (2008) ISBN 9781405137638. page 84
  9. ^ Euripides. Hippolytos. Oxford University Press (October 29, 1992) ISBN 978-0195072907
  10. ^ Ibsen, Henrik. Meyer, Michael Leverson. editor. Ibsen Plays: 1: Ghosts; The Wild Duck; The Master Builder. Dramatists Play Service Inc. (1980) ISBN 9780413463302. page 241
  11. ^ Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare; Third edition (July 15, 2012) ISBN 9781903436912
  12. ^ Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Simon & Schuster (July 1, 1992) ISBN 978-0743477123
  13. ^ Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown and Company (May 1, 1991) ISBN 978-0316769488
  14. ^ Kolker, Robert Phillip. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: A Casebook. Oxford University Press (2004) ISBN 9780195169195
  15. ^ The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947–2005: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Edward E. Ericson, Jr., Daniel J. Mahoney.
  16. ^ Moser, Charles. 1992. Encyclopedia of Russian Literature. Cambridge University Press. pp. 298–300.