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You may or may not be able to define the term 'dramatis personae' yet, but you're definitely more familiar with it than you think. The dramatis personae is everywhere. It's in the theatre, in our books, and on our screens. We see a version of it almost every day. It provides us with crucial information. Can you guess what it is? The character list, of course! Let's read on and discover the origin of the term and how it's used in English, and look at some examples.
The term 'dramatis personae' translates to 'people of the drama'. It originated from the Latin words 'drama' and the plural of 'persona'.
Dramatis personae refers to the key characters that are featured in a list at the start of a play.
Although no concrete dates are available as to when the dramatis personae was first used in theatre, the use of the device may have been popularised by the need to cast a wide range of characters in plays featuring multiple different actors who desired credit for their work.
The dramatis personae can also be split into multiple segments to help the audience better understand how characters interlink.
Although no concrete dates are available, the dramatis personae is believed to have been first utilised in the English language in the 1700s. While the device originated for use in plays, it has since spread to fiction, like novels and even cinema.
Every time you see a character list at the start of a book or the credits at the end of a movie, you see a version of a dramatis personae!
You may be the most familiar with the dramatis personae in the works of William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616). Nearly every version of Shakespeare's plays features a list of characters that aid our understanding of the action to follow.
The dramatis personae is more than just a character list. It typically shows both the characters' profession and their relationships with each other, providing the necessary context for the audience to understand the interactions taking place.
For example, in William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603): 'Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and mother to Hamlet'1 shows both that Gertrude is Queen of Denmark and details her relationship with the play's main character, Hamlet.
Although Shakespeare's plays all begin with the dramatis personae, it was not Shakespeare himself who made this decision, nor did he divide his plays into acts and scenes. Shakespeare's plays were intended to be watched, not read, and we will never know how he intended his plays to be performed.
Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), an English dramatist and poet, is credited as the first 'editor' of Shakespeare's works. Rowe's knowledge of drama aided him in creating the first critical edition of Shakespeare's collection in 1709, complete with all of the dramatic devices, dramatis personae included, that we are familiar with in the work of Shakespeare.
Let's look at some examples of the dramatis personae and explore some of the different features they typically include.
Let's begin with a look at a dramatis personae created for Shakespeare's Macbeth (1623).
DUNCAN, King of Scotland.
MALCOLM & DONALBAIN, his Sons.
MACBETH AND BANQUO, Generals of the King's Army".
MACDUFF, LENNOX, ROSS, MENTEITH, ANGUS & CAITHNESS: Noblemen of Scotland.
FLEANCE, Son to Banquo.
SIWARD, Earl to Northumberland, General of the English Forces.
YOUNG SIWARD, his Son.
SEYTON, an Officer attending Macbeth.
Boy, Son to Macduff.
A Scotch Doctor.
An Old Man.
Gentlewoman attending on Lady Macbeth.
HECATE and Three Witches.
SCENE - Scotland; England.
This example provides insight into the type of organisational approach taken to the dramatis personae. The characters are grouped into male and female and ranked in order of their position.
While some editors may prefer to put Macbeth at the top of the dramatis personae, placing Duncan, the King of Scotland, first in line indicates the hierarchy of the play. Men who are similar in rank, no matter how critical they are to the narrative, are also placed together. Macduff and Caithness are both grouped as 'Noblemen' despite Macduff being one of the play's most important characters.
In this way, the dramatis personae can be the first indicator to a reader of the social and political context they need to be aware of to better understand the narrative. It also ensures that characterisation and action unfold naturally and that the reader holds fewer expectations as to who will play an important role in the narrative's development.
Take a look at this exciting, original dramatis personae from George Farquhar's Beaux Stratagem, which opened on the 8th March 1707 at The Theatre Royal, now the site of Her Majesty's Theatre, London.
You'll first notice that Farquhar's dramatis personae features considerably more information than the previous example. The creator of the personae has categorised the cast by gender, and has provided information about the character's personalities. For instance, Lady Bountiful is described as 'foolishly fond of her Son Sullen', while Sullen is described as 'brutal to his wife'.
This additional description is an interesting change from the previous example, as an audience watching Macbeth would have little idea which characters (aside from Macbeth himself) were instrumental to the plot. In contrast, Farquhar provides the audience with character information that will allow the audience to form key judgements before the play has even begun. The playwright has also included a cast list to the right of the dramatis personae, with a different actor playing each character.
Did you know? It was once prohibited for women to act on stage. This means all of Shakespeare's female characters were originally played by male actors. King Charles II changed the law in 1660, allowing females to perform in theatres, and by the end of the seventeenth century, actresses were in high demand!
Beaux Strategem perfectly reflects this change, as the dramatis personae shows actresses like Mrs Powell, Mrs Bradshaw and Mrs Oldfield playing major roles in large-scale theatre productions.
Although the term 'dramatis personae' isn't used as regularly today, we actually see a version of the dramatis personae in the end credits every time we watch a movie. Take a look at this snippet of Alan Parker's Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982):
It'll strike you just how closely these end credits resemble the dramatis personae of both Macbeth and Beaux Stratagem. However, you may notice that the actors' names here are now in a larger font than that of the characters they play. Could this offer us any insight into modern celebrity culture? Perhaps it implies that contemporary audiences are increasingly interested in the actors instead of the characters they play. What do you think?
The use of the dramatis personae does not commonly extend to poetry. They often feature a single narrator over multiple key characters. Poems are also frequently vague, metaphorical, and symbolic, meaning the genre does not lend well to descriptive character lists that aid understanding.
Although not related directly to the literary device, Robert Browning's (1812-1889) poetry collection, Dramatis personae (1864), includes a varied range of narrators that reveal their unique personas to the reader through lengthy soliloquies.
A dramatis personae is a character list. Characters should be categorised based on certain traits they share.
When referring to the device, 'dramatis personae' is singular:
'The playwright included a 'dramatis personae'.
However, as 'dramatis personae' translates to 'people of the drama', it can also be used as a plural when referring to a list of characters:
'The playwright showed their list of 'dramatis personae' before the opening scene'.
The dramatis personae helps the reader to understand what the characters do, and their relationships with one another.
A dramatis personae is a character list positioned at the start or end of a play.
The dramatis personae in literature are the characters represented at the start of a novel, or other work of fiction.
What does the term 'dramatis personae' translate to?
'People of the drama'.
Where is the dramatis personae in a play normally found?
At the beginning.
Which of these is not an important feature of the dramatis personae?
To help the reader to understand the relationships between characters.
The dramatis personae is often synonymous with which famous playwright?
Why didn't Shakespeare add dramatis personae to his plays?
Because they were meant to be performed and seen by an audience, not read.
Who was the first to add the dramatis personae to Shakespeare's plays?
In what year was the first edited collection of Shakespeare's work, featuring the dramatis personae, released?
Why might an editor not choose to place the main characters at the top of the dramatis personae? Pick two reasons.
To make sure that the reader has no expectations as to how the narrative will develop.
The term 'dramatis personae' originates from which language?
Where else aside from theatre might you see an example of the dramatis personae?
The beginning of a novel or at the end of a TV show or movie.
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