Soliloquy

Definition of Soliloquy

A soliloquy is a literary device in the form of a speech or monologue spoken by a single character in a theatrical play or drama. The purpose of a soliloquy is for the character to express their inner thoughts and feelings that are not intended to be heard or known by other characters in the play or the audience members. Essentially, during a soliloquy, the action of the play stops, as if time has paused for the audience to be “inside” the speaker’s head for a moment while they articulate what they are thinking. This is effective as a literary device in terms of providing insight into a character’s emotions and reflections.

One of the most famous soliloquies in literature is Hamlet’s private monologue beginning with “To be, or not to be…”

 To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Hamlet’s soliloquy allows the reader/viewer to know his thoughts and feelings about whether to remain alive and face human suffering or end his life and face the unknown experience of death. By incorporating this soliloquy into Hamlet, Shakespeare allows his audience to understand Hamlet’s inner conflict and confront their own feelings about his situation.

Purpose of Soliloquy

As a literary device, soliloquy is not utilized very often since Shakespeare’s time. In most modern works, when a theatrical character gives a speech, it is primarily categorized as monologue rather than soliloquy. However, soliloquy does serve some purposes when it comes to drama and plays.

For example, a soliloquy can reveal a character’s state of mind. This is particularly effective when it comes to soliloquies delivered by villains as a means of revealing their plans and why they wish to take such action. This literary device can also provide details and information to influence the plot and course of action. In addition, soliloquy can create irony in a play by revealing something about a character that others don’t know.

Examples of Soliloquy in Shakespearean Works

William Shakespeare utilizes soliloquy in many of his plays as a means for his characters to express what they are thinking and feeling. During a soliloquy, a character on stage is not speaking to any other character nor the audience members. Instead, this literary device functions like a stream of consciousness to allow the audience to “hear” what a character is thinking or feeling in order to further the plot or provide information and opinions without any filter due to listeners.

Here are some well-known examples of soliloquy lines in Shakespearean works:

Othello

Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years—yet that’s not much—
She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. Oh, curse of marriage
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! (spoken by Othello)

Julius Caesar

It must be by his death: and for my part,

I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general. He would be crown’d

How that might change his nature, there’s the question. (spoken by Brutus)

Romeo and Juliet

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (spoken by Romeo)

The Tempest

Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. (spoken by Prospero)

Macbeth

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (spoken by Macbeth)

Difference Between Soliloquy, Monologue, and Aside

When it comes to understanding certain elements of literary drama and theater, it can be difficult to distinguish between some terms and their functions. For example soliloquy, monologue, and aside are all literary devices that allow characters in a play to speak without interruption. They are effective in giving characters an opportunity to express themselves on stage. However, these devices are different in their purpose and function within a drama.

A soliloquy is a rather long speech made by a single character in a theatrical production. The speech is not intended to be heard by any other character, on or off stage. Therefore, if another character is on stage during a soliloquy, the audience is made to understand that the presence of that character does not affect the “privacy” of the speech. This is due to the purpose and function of a soliloquy in a play, which is to allow a character to articulate their internal thoughts and feelings, as if they are speaking aloud during a paused moment in the action. A soliloquy is not directed at any listener, including the audience members.

A monologue is also spoken by a single character, but it is addressed to the fellow characters on stage and meant to be heard by them. A monologue can also be addressed to the audience. Therefore, unlike soliloquy, a monologue does not function as a character’s fully private expression. An aside is a literary device that is similar to soliloquy in the sense that it is not spoken to other characters on stage. However, an aside is typically very short and more like a comment than a speech.

Writing Soliloquy

It can be difficult for playwrights to effectively portray a character’s true and private thoughts and feelings. This is due to the nature of dramatic literary works and the rare presence of a narrator. Unlike novels and short fiction, plays do not have an omniscient narrator through which to indicate a character’s innermost plans and/or state of mind to the audience. Therefore, the audience is often left to ascertain cues and subtext in a dramatic character’s actions.

Soliloquy can be an effective literary device in its impact. For example, in many Shakespearean plays, a character speaks alone on the stage while facing the audience, but with no “awareness” of their presence. During soliloquy, characters are essentially trapped in their thoughts while the play’s action ceases. They may reveal or share their emotions, motivations, or desires in a soliloquy that would never be spoken if they were “aware” of anyone to be listening.

It can be difficult for writers to effectively incorporate true soliloquy into their dramatic works. More often than not, what appears to be soliloquy becomes a monologue. For example, in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie, many people view the character Tom’s speech at the end as a soliloquy. Tom’s speech is definitely a monologue, in that he is speaking uninterrupted. In addition, there are no other characters present to hear his words. However, Tom addresses the audience in his speech, meaning it is not truly a soliloquy. Therefore, writers must be aware of these distinctions.

Examples of Soliloquy in Literature

Most soliloquy appears in literary works from the Elizabethan age, particularly in the plays of William Shakespeare and his contemporary dramatist Christopher Marlowe. However, there are some modern plays that feature this literary device. Here are some examples of soliloquy in literature and their importance to literary works:

Example 1: Othello (William Shakespeare)

 I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets
He’s done my office. I know not if ’t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well.
The better shall my purpose work on him.

In this soliloquy, Iago expresses his innermost thoughts about his hatred for and jealousy of Othello. Iago’s character is alone on stage when he delivers this soliloquy and he has no awareness of an audience. Therefore, the words Iago speaks are his private thoughts and feelings.

In this portion of his soliloquy, Iago expresses his hatred for Othello (“the Moor”) and his awareness of the rumor that Othello has slept with his wife. Though Iago has not proof of this adultery, the existence of the rumor is enough in his mind for the act to be true. This indicates for the audience of the play some of Iago’s motives and plans for bringing Othello to ruin, which may have been less clear without Iago’s soliloquy.

Example 2: Doctor Faustus (Christopher Marlowe)

  Ah, Faustus.
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!

In Marlowe’s play, the character of Faustus recites a soliloquy as his life is coming to an end. Without repentance, Faustus is doomed to hell in the afterlife. In this portion of his soliloquy, Faustus reveals not so much that he is ready to repent and save his soul, but more that he wishes time to stop so that he will not face the moment of his death. This is a revealing sentiment when it comes to the character of Faustus and his unwillingness to repent and be saved.

Example 3: The Crucible (Arthur Miller)

Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

In Miller’s play, John Proctor delivers a soliloquy about his signature as a confession to witchcraft. With this speech, Proctor indicates that he does not want to dishonor the other convicted prisoners by signing the confession since it is a lie to save himself. However, his words also demonstrate the power of one’s “name” as a symbol of their reputation in this society. This allows the reader to understand, through Proctor’s words, that public and private morality are equal in the play.