- Etymological note: Originally protagonist was the Greek word πρωταγωνιστής (prōtagōnistēs), formed from πρῶτος (prōtos) 'first' and ἀγωνιστής (agōnistēs)‚ 'agonist', 'competitor', 'combatant'; 'disputant', 'debater', 'struggler'; ἀγωνιστής‚ is itself from the Greek ἀγωνίζεσθαι (agōnizesthai), 'to struggle', 'to wrestle', linked with ἀγών (agōn), 'a gathering', 'assembly', especially for public games, which became 'the contest for a prize at the games', or indeed at any contest, in this case the competition at the Festival of Dionysus. (Later it became more generalized to any 'struggle', such as battle, court hearing, mental struggle, or anxiety; in Hellenistic Greek (ca. 300 BCE-ca. 300 CE) also 'a speech delivered in court or before an assembly'; in Byzantine Greek (ca. 400-1451 CE) also 'the main argument of a speech'.
Protagonist thus meant 'the actor who plays the first part'. The introduction of an actor speaking a part separately from the Chorus was a great innovation, said to have been introduced by Thespis (6th century BCE), who is regarded as the founder of tragic drama and won a prize for tragedy at Athens in 534 BCE.
- Later, Aeschylus introduced a second actor, the deuteragonist ('second contestant') and Sophocles a third (the tritagonist, 'third contestant') in the fifth century. (It is not clear in what exact sense 'first', 'second' and 'third' should be interpreted, not least because each actor played different parts in the same play, putting on a different mask for each: but the archon, or presiding organizer, of the Festival, engaged the protagonist, who then engaged the other two.)
The word 'protagonist' was then extended to mean 'the character played by the first actor'. A character in opposition to the principal character become known as the antagonist, from ἀντί (anti) 'against' and ἀγωνίζεσθαι (agōnizesthai) 'to struggle'.
Various difficulties are found in the use of the word protagonist by different academics. Many of their objections will be regarded as pure pedantry by ordinary users of the language; but students should be careful to observe the preferences of their teachers; and all academics should seek to use words as precisely as possible. So here are some of the main problems - with AWE's advice.
- Writers of criticism of drama should always be careful to distinguish between the character and the actor (a person representing the character on stage or screen). But this distinction has been blurred since at least the days of classical Greek drama, and protagonist has now been used so much in the sense of 'character' that it seems unnecessary pedantry to object.
- In ordinary non-academic English, the term protagonist has been extended to mean 'the [important] participants in any public situation', for example the main speakers in a parliamentary debate or other political conflict, or the parties in a civil war. Some authorities (including Fowler 1926) have objected to this extended use of a term which, they argue, should be confined to discussion of the drama; but such extensions of meaning are one of the natural ways in which language develops.
- Those who know Greek are similarly offended by the use of adjectives such as 'chief' or 'main' with the noun : they say (quite correctly) that it is pleonastic, or superfluous, to describe 'the 'first actor' as the 'chief first actor'. Writers should avoid this error which seems careless. But it is not a battle that is going to be won: if your reader doesn't object to the usage, then there is no need for students to hold the line.
- It is objected that there cannot be more than one 'first' actor., So it is wrong to use the plural protagonists to mean the cast list of a play, or the list of characters in a novel. OED says about this: "Plural use in sense 1 [The chief character] with reference to characters in a single work has frequently been criticized on the grounds that the word referred only to a single actor in the ancient Greek drama (compare deuteragonist n. and tritagonist n.), but it is nonetheless frequently found [citing G.B.Shaw]."
- A more fundamental misunderstanding of the Greek is revealed by those who use protagonist to mean 'proponent', or 'advocate' of a cause, or indeed 'champion'. They appear to have taken the first element of the word as 'pro', derived from the opposite of 'anti', rather than 'proto', 'first'. This should be rigorously avoided.