Soliloquies Essay - Critical Essays




Dramatic soliloquies are generally understood to be words spoken by a character who is alone on stage or seems to be speaking private thoughts aloud. Yet there are many instances of overheard soliloquies in Shakespeare, in which the character may or may not be aware of other characters who are nearby but concealed from the speaker. Soliloquies are often viewed as a dramatist's way of informing the theater audience about subtleties in the dramatic action or a character's motivation. However, critics invariably emphasize that evaluations of Shakespeare's soliloquies must take into account their dramatic context: while they may be viewed as a means of developing themes and characterization, they should not always be taken at face value—that is, as forthright expressions of what the dramatist intended his audience to infer about the character speaking them. Maurice Charney (1989) asserts that most soliloquies and asides do not “provide a window into the souls of the characters.” A major critical issue is whether soliloquies should be regarded as interior monologues or exterior addresses spoken to an onstage audience, if one exists, or to the theater audience. This is, of course, a crucial question for actors and directors.

The most celebrated—and arguably the most discussed—soliloquy in English literature is Hamlet's “To be, or not to be” speech (III.i). Linwood E. Orange (1965) views it as Hamlet's attempt to convince Claudius and Polonius (who are overhearing his words) that he is truly mad and contemplating suicide. James Hirsh (see Further Reading) also claims that the “To be” soliloquy is not an interior monologue; the critic emphasizes the impersonality of its first section and regards it as an instance in which the speaker knows he is being overheard and uses his words to mislead the eavesdroppers into believing that he does not intend to exact vengeance for the murder of his father. Like Orange and Hirsh, Edna Zwick Boris (see Further Reading) judges this speech to be “a staged soliloquy”; Boris argues that Hamlet is fully aware that he is being observed and overheard, and that the speech is primarily directed to Claudius. Harold Jenkins (1989) outlines various stages of Hamlet's argument in this speech, from consideration of the alternatives of relief from “the pains of living” to “fear of the unknown.” For Jenkins, the soliloquy is an impersonal debate: the prince's search for a resolution of a universal conflict. Analyzing the juxtaposition of philosophy and religion in this soliloquy, Arieh Sachs (see Further Reading) describes Hamlet here as a “would-be Stoic” who is essentially a Christian. Like Sachs, Francesca Bugliani (see Further Reading) interprets the speech as an expression of Hamlet's doubts about Stoicism, and whether rationality and imperturbability are preferable to passion.

During the course of the play, Hamlet has six other extended monologues. In a book that focuses on the way eleven different twentieth-century actors delivered Hamlet's soliloquies, Mary Z. Maher (1992) remarks that directors and performers have frequently interpreted these passages as attempts to woo the audience, to establish ties with it that will turn playgoers into collaborators or, at least, sympathetic judges. James Cameron Andrews (see Further Reading) links Hamlet's soliloquy in I.ii (“O that this too too sallied flesh would melt”) with the monologue in I.v that begins “O all you host of heaven.” Andrews calls attention to the association of “foul play” in the second soliloquy with Hamlet's suspicions regarding his mother's sexual misconduct expressed in the first. W. Schrickx (see Further Reading) connects Hamlet's “O all you host of heaven” soliloquy to the theme of revenge, asserting that in this speech the prince takes on the burden of avenging his father's death, even though his religious beliefs incline him to leave vengeance to divine providence. Stephen Booth (see Further Reading, 2002) offers a close reading of the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy at the close of Act II, scene ii. Booth emphasizes the complexity of this speech, its lack of clarity, and the richness of its language. Both Fredson Bowers (1962) and Maurice Charney (1977) evaluate Hamlet's monologue in Act III, scene ii that follows the dumb show of “The Murder of Gonzago” and which begins “'Tis now the very witching time of night.” Bowers argues that the function of this speech is to inform the audience that Hamlet's confrontation with Gertrude in the following scene is linked to his hope that he can make his mother see the incestuous nature of her marriage to Claudius. Charney similarly associates this soliloquy with the closet scene (III.iv), but in contrast to Bowers, he argues that the speech demonstrates that Hamlet has become so contaminated by the idea of revenge that his attitude toward his mother is dominated by cruelty and thoughts of matricide. Gideon Rappaport (1987) analyzes Hamlet's “Now might I do it pat” soliloquy (III.iii), as Claudius kneels in an attempt to pray. Emphasizing the importance of reading this passage in relation to its dramatic context, the critic contrasts Hamlet's apparent rationality here with the prince's corruption and descent into evil as he struggles to determine how to pursue an ethical course of action in a universe that is “morally complex.” Anthony J. Gilbert (1995) assesses Hamlet's “How all occasions do inform against me” soliloquy (IV.iv) with respect to the question of whether dramatic soliloquies, Shakespeare's and others', represent moments of truth telling. Gilbert calls attention to what he regards as Hamlet's evasive, ambiguous language in this passage, concluding that the speech demonstrates that “Hamlet is incapable of knowing why he does not act.” Ralph Berry (1989) argues that a principal function of Hamlet's soliloquies is to impose “his viewpoint upon the audience” by speaking to it directly, as if its members were psychological counselors or analysts. Both Berry and Rappaport address the question of why Hamlet has no monologues in Act V; their conclusions are similar: the absence of externalized complaints signals that by this point in the play the prince has matured, finally acknowledging his responsibility to take action.

Commentary on soliloquies in other Shakespearean tragedies include evaluations of those spoken by Macbeth, Othello, and Juliet. Horst Breuer (see Further Reading), S. S. Hussey (1982), and Gilbert bring different perspectives to bear on Macbeth's monologues. Breuer analyzes the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech (V.v) with reference to medieval and Renaissance concepts of time; in the Middle Ages, the critic argues, time was a symbol of order and stability, but in the early modern era time is disorderly and fragmented. In Breuer's judgment, a large measure of the despair and alienation Macbeth expresses in this soliloquy is related to a loss of identity and a hopeless view of the future. In an essay on the development of Shakespeare's soliloquies, Hussey discusses several of Macbeth's, with particular attention to the rhythm and rhetoric of the first, which begins “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good” (I.iii), and the second, “If it were done when 'tis done” (I.viii). By contrast, Gilbert focuses on this second soliloquy, reading it as a disclosure of Macbeth's “desperate search for security” but also as evidence of his capacity for honesty and self-knowledge. Gilbert also remarks on Othello's “It is the cause” soliloquy (V.ii), calling attention to its ambiguities and fallacious reasoning, and characterizing these as indications of the Moor's evasion or repression of the truth. James Hirsh (2003) evaluates “implicitly overheard” soliloquies and asides in Romeo and Juliet, assessing them in terms of what he claims were the prevailing dramatic conventions for such speeches at the time the play was written. Similarly concerned with dramatic conventions, Gary M. McCown (see Further Reading) explicates Juliet's soliloquy at the opening of Act III, scene ii in the context of classical and medieval wedding lyrics; the critic proposes that Shakespeare altered the usual style of such lyrics to achieve a deeper sense of sadness and paradox.

Among the historical figures Shakespeare recreated, Richard III is an eminent focus of commentators who study Shakespeare's soliloquies. Lawrence W. Hugenberg, Sr., and Mark J. Schaefermeyer (1983), James Schiffer (2000), and Igor Shaitanov (see Further Reading) offer varying points of view of Richard's monologues. Hugenberg and Schaefermeyer discuss Richard's soliloquies in both Richard III and Henry VI, Part 3, contending that in these speeches he has two audiences: himself and the people witnessing the play. Moreover, the critics assert that the soliloquies serve to disclose Richard's motives, to demonstrate his creation of a self-image, and to establish a bond between Richard and the theater audience. Contrasting Richard's first soliloquy, “Now is the winter of our discontent” (I.i.), with his last, “O outward conscience, how doest thou afflict me!” (V.iii), Schiffer points out that while the first soliloquy is apparently a direct address to the audience, the last is seemingly an interior monologue. The critic suggests that Richard's increasingly fragmented self, reflected in the last soliloquy, mirrors the audience's divided responses to the king: throughout the play we are drawn to and repelled by his persona. Shaitanov centers his attention on Richard's first soliloquy, especially its semantics. The critic urges readers and audiences to pay close attention to the effect of the repetition of vowel sounds in the speech and to its combination of personal and impersonal tones. Another eminent soliloquist in Shakespeare's history plays is Prince Hal; Dale C. Uhlmann (1984) and Marc Grossman (1995) both evaluate his “I know you all” soliloquy in Act I, scene ii of Henry IV, Part 1. Uhlmann contends that this speech is a complex argument that moves from the general to the specific, and remarks on its sonnet-like structure as well as its rhetoric. Grossman maintains that the prince's argumentation here is specious, pointing out that the passage should be read or heard with close attention to the circumstances in which Hal delivers it.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

S. S. Hussey (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Hussey, S. S. “The Development of the Soliloquy.” In The Literary Language of Shakespeare, pp. 181-202. London: Longman, 1982.

[In the following essay, Hussey traces the evolution of Shakespeare's soliloquies, from the early tragedies and history plays to the later tragedies, with particular attention to their function and syntax. Remarking on the development of these speeches from expository passages to communications of moral or psychological confusion, the critic discusses soliloquies in a number of plays, especially Macbeth and Hamlet, but also Henry VI, Part 3, Richard III, Julius Caesar, and Othello.]

We must beware of applying to...

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Anthony J. Gilbert (essay date May 1995)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Anthony J. “Shakespearean Self-Talk, The Gricean Maxims, and the Unconscious.” English Studies 76, no. 3 (May 1995): 221-37.

[In the following essay, Gilbert employs a theory of the normative pattern of conversational practice formulated by H. P. Grice—a philosopher of language—to evaluate four Shakespearean soliloquies in terms of whether characters are speaking the truth about themselves and their actions, evading it, repressing it, or rationalizing it. Gilbert analyzes Claudius's “O, my offence is rank” soliloquy in Hamlet (III.iii) with respect to what it reveals about the king's resourcefulness and self-awareness as well as his cynicism; Hamlet's...

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James Hirsh (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Hirsh, James. “Shakespeare's Soliloquies: The Representation of Speech.” In Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies, pp. 119-98. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Hirsh claims that, in accordance with accepted dramatic convention, soliloquies in Shakespeare's plays are direct speech acts, not interior monologues. He discusses numerous soliloquies and asides that are overheard by other characters, either onstage or offstage, with particular reference to the ones in Romeo and Juliet.]

Shakespeare employed the conventions that governed soliloquies in the late Renaissance and that were the focus of the...

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Criticism: Individual Plays

Fredson Bowers (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: Bowers, Fredson. “Hamlet's Fifth Soliloquy, 3.2.406-17.” In Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, edited by Richard Hosley, pp. 213-22. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1962.

[In the following essay, Bowers connects Hamlet's “'Tis now the witching hour of night” soliloquy (III.ii) with the prince's conduct in the closet scene (III.iv). The critic contends that in the second part of this speech Shakespeare purposely directed the audience to interpret Hamlet's subsequent confrontation with Gertrude not as a murderous assault on her but an attempt to convince her that she must repent her incestuous marriage to Claudius.]


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Linwood E. Orange (essay date winter 1965)

SOURCE: Orange, Linwood E. “Hamlet's Mad Soliloquy.” South Atlantic Quarterly 64, no. 1 (winter 1965): 60-71.

[In the following essay, Orange asserts that as Hamlet is delivering his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy (III.i) he is fully aware of Ophelia's presence and suspects that Claudius and Polonius, though not visible onstage, can hear his words. Thus the speech is not an introspective reflection, the critic argues, but a calculated strategy to deceive his enemies into believing that he is so mentally distracted that he is considering killing himself.]

To the two major groups into which nearly all Hamlet critics inevitably fall, the “to be”...

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Maurice Charney (essay date spring 1977)

SOURCE: Charney, Maurice. “The ‘Now Could I Drink Hot Blood’ Soliloquy and the Middle of Hamlet.Mosaic 10, no. 3 (spring 1977): 77-86.

[In the following essay, Charney calls attention to the cruel, even gruesome elements of Hamlet's soliloquy in Act III, scene ii. He argues that in this monologue Hamlet is chiefly concerned with dissuading himself from the impulse to kill his mother.]

As a matter of principle, some hardy critics never read a play before seeing it in order not to spoil the freshness of the effect. If a play doesn't make sense in its oral and presented form, then there is something radically wrong with it. Have things come to such a...

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Lawrence W. Hugenberg, Sr. and Mark J. Schaefermeyer (essay date May 1983)

SOURCE: Hugenberg, Sr., Lawrence W. and Mark J. Schaefermeyer. “Soliloquy as Self-Disclosure: The Soliloquies of Richard III.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 69, no. 2 (May 1983): 180-87.

[In the following excerpt, Hugenberg and Schaefermeyer consider the soliloquies of Richard of Gloucester in Henry VI, Part 3 (III.iii) and Richard III (I.i and I.iii) in terms of communication theory. They conclude that these monologues represent forthright speech that clearly reveals Richard's motivations, his goals, and his strategies.]

In William Shakespeare's historical plays, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later to become Richard III, rationalizes his actions in...

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Dale C. Uhlmann (essay date fall 1984)

SOURCE: Uhlmann, Dale C. “Prince Hal's Reformation Soliloquy: A ‘Macro-Sonnet.’” Upstart Crow 5 (fall 1984): 152-55.

[In the following essay, Uhlmann analyzes the structure and style of Prince Hal's “I know you all” soliloquy in Henry IV, Part 1 (I.ii). He suggests that Shakespeare constructed this monologue in the form of an extended sonnet to convey to the audience its significance as a revelation of the prince's true nature.]

Prince Hal's famous “reformation soliloquy” in Act 1, scene 2 of I Henry IV is a self-characterizing speech which is something more than a monologue existing for the sake of exposition. Samuel Johnson, J. Dover...

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Gideon Rappaport (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Rappaport, Gideon. “Hamlet: Revenge and Readiness.” Upstart Crow 7 (1987): 80-95.

[In the following essay, Rappaport focuses on Hamlet's “Now might I do it pat” soliloquy (III.iii) that immediately follows Claudius's own soliloquy before he kneels in prayer. The critic reads Hamlet's monologue as an expression of the prince's pride, arguing that he does not kill Claudius at this moment because he is guilty of the sin of taking on himself the divine authority of saving or condemning souls. Rappaport also discusses Hamlet's other soliloquies and contends that the reason there are none after the sea voyage is because during this time Hamlet has learned to submit to God's...

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Harold Jenkins (lecture date December 1989)

SOURCE: Jenkins, Harold. “‘To be, or not to be’: Hamlet's Dilemma.” Hamlet Studies 13, nos. 1 and 2 (summer and winter 1991): 8-24.

[The following essay is the text of a lecture delivered in Delhi, India, in December 1989. Jenkins offers a close reading of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, remarking on the development of its argument and its lack of reference to Hamlet's particular circumstances, and providing a useful summary of commentary on this speech over the centuries. Importantly, he relates the quandary Hamlet expresses—whether one should free oneself from human existence or endure it—to the play's themes of humanity's dual nature, both godlike and bestial, and...

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Ralph Berry (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Berry, Ralph. “Hamlet and the Audience: The Dynamics of a Relationship.” In Shakespeare and the Sense of Performance: Essays in the Tradition of Performance Criticism in Honor of Bernard Beckerman, edited by Marvin and Ruth Thompson, pp. 24-8. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Berry suggests that through Hamlet's soliloquies, the audience becomes, in effect, his psychological counselor, sympathetically accepting his perspectives on himself and other characters. In Berry's judgment, the lack of soliloquies in Act V reflects Hamlet's recognition that it is now time for him to behave like a man and replace complaints with action.]


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Maurice Charney (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Charney, Maurice. “Asides, Soliloquies, and Offstage Speeches in Hamlet: Implications for Staging.” In Shakespeare and the Sense of Performance, edited by Marvin and Ruth Thompson, pp. 116-31. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Charney emphasizes the dramatic context and function in Hamlet of speeches that are distinctly different from regular dialogue. He calls attention to asides that are expository, or didactic, or expressions of guilt; to the range of tone and emotions in the soliloquies of Hamlet and Claudius; and to the dramatic significance of the several instances of voices heard from offstage or beneath it.]


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Marc Grossman (essay date fall 1995)

SOURCE: Grossman, Marc. “The Adolescent and the Strangest Fellow: Comic and Morally Serious Perspectives in 1 Henry IV.Essays in Literature 23, no. 2 (fall 1995): 170-95.

[In the following essay, Grossman reads Prince Hal's “I know you all soliloquy” in Henry IV, Part 1 (I.ii) not as a promise to reform but as the prince's attempt to justify to himself his agreement to participate in the Gad's Hill robbery. At this point in the play, the critic contends, Hal is filled with shame and self-loathing because he knows his attraction to Falstaff's comic but shameless view of life must be balanced by a commitment to honor, duty, and a morally serious perspective if he is to...

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James Schiffer (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Schiffer, James. “The Splintered Glass.” Upstart Crow 20 (2000): 42-57.

[In the following essay, Schiffer focuses on Richard III's final soliloquy (V.iii), spoken after he awakens from a sleep disturbed by the visitation of his victims' ghosts. From the perspective of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the critic compares this soliloquy with Richard's earlier ones, especially the soliloquy at the opening of the play (I.i); he concludes that whereas the first demonstrates Richard's remarkable confidence and single-mindedness of purpose, the final soliloquy reveals an incoherent, fragmented self.]

Who, if not us, will question once more the objective...

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Criticism: Performance Commentary

Mary Z. Maher (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Maher, Mary Z. “John Gielgud: The Glass of Fashion.” In Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies, pp. 1-18. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Maher describes in detail John Gielgud's delivery of Hamlet's seven soliloquies in a 1936-1937 production staged in New York and London. In a narrative supplemented by comments from the actor himself, she relates the effects of varying tempos, speech breaks, gestures, lighting, and stage business on Gielgud's performance of these speeches, stressing that he spoke them as if they were communications with himself rather than with the audience.]

Because of his extensive and varied experience...

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Mary Z. Maher (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Maher, Mary Z. “David Warner: The Rogue and Peasant Slave.” In Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies, pp. 41-62. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Maher gives an account of a 1965-1966 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet that was directed by Peter Hall with David Warner in the lead role. This anti-establishment staging likened the politics of Elsinore to those of mid-twentieth-century Britain, the critic reports, and Warner's direct communication of Hamlet's soliloquies was an essential part of his and Hall's intent to involve the numerous young members of the audience in the play and help them understand it.]


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Further Reading


Andrews, Michael Cameron. “‘Foul Play’ in Hamlet.Hamlet Studies 16, nos. 1 and 2 (summer and winter 1994): 75-82.

Connects Hamlet's lines at the close of Act I, scene ii alluding to “foul play” with his soliloquy earlier in this scene: “O that this too too sallied flesh would melt.” Emphasizing the Renaissance connotation of “foul play” as adulterous sex, Andrews posits that even after the ghost has appeared to him, Hamlet is more appalled by his mother's sexual misconduct than by Claudius's murder of his father.

Booth, Stephen. “Close Reading without Readings.” In Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in...

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