What is a Soliloquy?
One of the most difficult challenges a playwright faces is conveying a character's inner thoughts or motivation to the audience. One dramatic device which addresses this problem is called a soliloquy, an uninterrupted speech delivered by a single character to the audience but not to the other characters in the scene. A soliloquy can be quite poetic and elegant in structure, as in many of Shakespeare's plays, but it is meant to be an intimate communication of a character's innermost thoughts delivered as if he or she were thinking aloud.
Perhaps the most familiar soliloquy in the English language is Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" speech delivered in Act 3, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's tragic play, Hamlet. At this point in the drama, a young prince named Hamlet considers the option of suicide as an escape from his troubled life. He begins his soliloquy by asking the most essential question: To be (live), or not to be (commit suicide)?. The rest of this famous passage considers whether not the perceived benefits of death outweigh the joys and challenges of living.
Another famous Shakespearean soliloquy takes place beneath a balcony, where a young suitor named Romeo secretly observes the forbidden object of his affection, Juliet. Romeo's internal thoughts upon viewing Juliet in the moonlight are shared with the audience through a soliloquy which begins "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun..." While the audience learns of Romeo's passionate love for Juliet, she cannot hear him speak those words. This is the purpose of a soliloquy, to share intimate thoughts with the audience that might otherwise cause complications with fellow characters.
In the Scottish tragedy Macbeth, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth deliver dramatic soliloquies which reveal hidden characteristics to the audience, but not to other characters. Lady Macbeth asks for the strength to commit murder in a soliloquy beginning "The raven himself is hoarse/That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan...", while Macbeth delivers a resigned observation about the brevity of life in Act 5, Scene 5:
"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,
The device of a dramatic soliloquy is still used by many modern playwrights, but it can be difficult for an actor to deliver such an internal monologue without isolating the other characters onstage. A soliloquy is a form of monologue, but a monologue is not necessarily a soliloquy. A dramatic monologue is an uninterrupted speech by a single character, but it may be directed at other characters onstage. It may not even reveal the internal thoughts of the character, as in the case of a stand-up comedy routine. A soliloquy is often delivered in a hushed or reflective tone, as if the character were sharing an intimate secret with the audience.
I think Macbeth has some of the best soliloquies ever written. It's too bad very few theater companies perform it these days.
I remember a day when our theater instructor asked several of us to learn the same soliloquy from Hamlet. He didn't give any of us any cues on how to perform it. We were just supposed to come into class the next morning and act out the lines as we thought they needed to be acted.
After we were all finished doing our sometimes over the top interpretations, the instructor turned to the class and said "None of these actors would have gotten an A in my class." We were a little disappointed, obviously, but someone asked him why. The instructor said we all forgot who Hamlet was really saying all of this to, and that was himself. We delivered a monologue to an audience, not a soliloquy. He went on stage and delivered all of those lines in a tortured whisper, not really looking at anyone else. That was the difference.
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