Monologue and Soliloquy Summary


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Though the idea of monologue is simple—any solo speech delivered by an actor—the purpose and effect of monologue and soliloquy in the world of theater are anything but simple. Sometimes monologues provide essential narration and exposition, filling in the audience on past or offstage events; sometimes they serve to mediate between audience and action, much like the chorus of classical Greek drama; and sometimes they signal the passage of time or a change of location. A monologue may occur at any point in a play, as a prologue or epilogue, or as a part of the main action. Often monologues occur at moments of heightened emotion, but just as often they provide opportunity for dispassionate analysis. Traditionally words dominate in a monologue, regardless of whether other actions are occurring on stage. Indeed, during the Victorian era, Robert Browning and other poets took the stylized language of monologue out of the theater entirely, giving it a new life in “dramatic monologues,” in which the poets spoke in the voices of fictional or historical figures.

Generally speaking, a theatrical monologue or soliloquy is a set piece, which allows for virtuoso performance and highlights the skill of both writer and actor. Handled poorly by either party, a monologue can break the spell of the theater, but when done well, a monologue can be among the most moving and enlightening moments in a production. It is perhaps for this reason that actors commonly are expected to prepare monologue recitations for auditions, and many books of...

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Early History

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Monologues and soliloquies have played important roles throughout the history of Western theater, changing in style and substance as the theater itself evolved. The monologue was first introduced in classical Greek theater —always highly stylized in its conventions—in which it had several functions. Because violent action traditionally took place off stage, the Greek playwrights often employed a messenger to report significant offstage events (often including battles, murders, and the intercession of gods) to the principal characters. Additionally, playwrights such as Euripides and Aristophanes wrote tragic or comic monologues as rhetorical set pieces, to be delivered as prologues or in the lofty debates that often occur at the heart of Greek drama.

Medieval European drama , generally religious in nature and often highly allegorical, continued with some of these traditions, particularly in the prologues and epilogues common in morality plays. Playwrights of this period also used monologues to deliver the word of God and prayers to God.

In the Renaissance, many functions of the Greek chorus had been taken over by single characters, sometimes actually designated as “chorus,” who were responsible for delivering monologues to inform the audience about the backgrounds and philosophical implications of plays. At this time, soliloquy also rose to a place of central importance in English drama. Indeed, many soliloquies of Elizabethan drama rank among the true gems of literary achievement. Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (Doctor Faustus, pr. c. 1588) is first seen alone in his study, arrogantly rejecting, one by one, each of the higher arts and sciences in favor of power and black magic. In the penultimate scene of the same play, Faustus is again alone in the same spot and this time delivers another moving soliloquy as he realizes, too late, the consequences of his earlier action. William Shakespeare, of course, is considered the master of the Renaissance soliloquy, particularly in his tragedies. Soliloquies such as Lady Macbeth’s guilty speech while sleepwalking (Macbeth, pr. 1606) and King Lear’s mad ravings in the storm (King Lear, pr. c. 1605) have made a profound mark on dramatic history. Hamlet’s soliloquies are without equal in terms of their influence, with the “to be or not to be” speech, particularly, ranking as the most famous soliloquies in English literature (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, pr. c. 1600-1601).