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Soliloquy

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English Literature

Have you wondered what it might be like to be able to read everyone's minds? Is being privy to people's innermost thoughts and desires a blessing or a curse? In a drama, the literary device that expresses a character's internal sentiments to the audience is called a soliloquy. Read on to find out exactly how a soliloquy works.

Soliloquy in a sentence: meaning

In a sentence, a soliloquy can be defined as follows:

A soliloquy is a literary device used in dramas in which a character, who is by themselves, expresses their innermost thoughts and feelings, which allows the audience to understand their intentions and motivations.

Plays of the Elizabethan Age frequently employe soliloquy, particularly the works of playwright William Shakespeare. We will look at some examples of soliloquies from Shakespeare's plays below.

The Elizabethan Age refers to when Queen Elizabeth I was the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom. This period lasted from the years 1558 to 1603, sometimes also referred to as the Golden Age. Queen Elizabeth was a great patron of arts and culture and encouraged artists to produce remarkable works, including some of the most widely read plays and poems in the English literary canon.

Examples of Elizabethan poetry and play include Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590) and The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (c. 1592) by Christopher Marlowe.

Soliloquy: characteristics

A soliloquy has some distinctive features that separate it from other kinds of dialogues and speech in a dramatic narrative. These features are discussed below:

  • Single character – a soliloquy is always spoken by a single character. During this scene, no other character is present to observe the speaker as they launch into the soliloquy.
  • True intentions – since there is no other character to observe them, the character uttering the soliloquy reveals their true feelings and intentions in the soliloquy. They no longer need to keep themselves in check and filter their speech.
  • Internal conflict – the character delivering the soliloquy typically suffers from an internal turmoil that they feel the desperate need to resolve. By expressing their thoughts in a soliloquy, they try to work out this inner conflict.
  • Character-driven narratives – soliloquies are most frequently used by playwrights for character-driven works. The narrative progresses because of the thoughts and actions of a particular character.
  • Audience advantage – since soliloquies reveal the desires and motivations of certain characters to the audience; the audience has an advantage in knowing why a specific character behaves in a particular way, something other characters in the drama are largely unaware of.
  • Blank verse – while soliloquies can be written in prose form, they are typically written in verse form, and specifically in blank verse.

Blank verse is a non-rhyming line written in the iambic pentameter. Most of Shakespeare's plays are written in blank verse.

The meter is a unit to measure the rhythm of a line of poetry. An iamb includes an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (e.g. destroy or belong). When an iamb occurs five times in a line, it is called an iambic pentameter.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

—'Sonnet 18' (1609) by William Shakespeare

Soliloquy: examples

Let us now explore some examples of soliloquies and how they bring out the features discussed above.

Hamlet (1599–1601)

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, performed between 1599 and 1601, and first published in 1603. Below is the titular character's famous soliloquy:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to sufferThe slings and arrows of outrageous fortuneOr to take arms against a sea of troublesAnd by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–No more–and by a sleep to say we endThe heartache, and the thousand natural shocksThat flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummationDevoutly 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 comeWhen we have shuffled off this mortal coil,Must give us pause.

—Act 3 Scene 1

In this scene, Hamlet is contemplating suicide. He walks the precipice of sanity and insanity after his father has been murdered by Hamlet's uncle, who usurps the throne and marries Hamlet's mother. Hamlet is grieved by the death of his father, and later confused by the appearance of his father's ghost, who tells him of his murder. His uncle is responsible for the King's death enrages Hamlet. Meanwhile, his relationship with Ophelia is also at odds and Polonius, Ophelia's father works as a spy for Hamlet's uncle.

Notably, the first line of this soliloquy is not written in the iambic pentameter. You will notice that it has an extra syllable at the end, disrupting the rhythm of the blank verse that most of the lines in the play are written in. This disruption is indicative of Hamlet's state of unrest and confusion. The soliloquy offers a window into his thoughts and his depression at being helpless. He does not know how to bring his uncle to justice and harbours resentment towards his mother, who he believes did not sufficiently mourn his father's death. Hamlet, in this soliloquy, reveals that he considers death to be a way out of all his troubles. The last line of this soliloquy is also not written in the iambic pentameter. It is much shorter, indicating that Hamlet's contemplations are cut short when a character suddenly makes an appearance.

Julius Caesar (1599)

This play is yet another one of Shakespeare's tragedies, first performed in 1599. Although it is best known for the line 'Et tu, Brute?' meaning – 'you too, Brutus?' to indicate the feeling of betrayal (Act 3 Scene 1), the play also includes some soliloquies that are crucial in underlining the motivations of the characters in the play. Here, we discuss two soliloquies from 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.

- Act 2 Scene 1

These lines are spoken by Brutus when he is alone. He thinks about his conversations with other conspirators against Caesar, such as Cassius. Cassius manipulates Brutus into believing that Caesar will crown himself and go on to become a tyrant – a fate that the conspirators set out to prevent.

Brutus, concerned by the fate that awaits Rome because of Caesar's ambitions, experiences a monumental internal conflict that he voices in this soliloquy. He is Caesar's best friend and immensely respects and loves him. However, he weighs his love for Caesar against his love for Rome and finally decides that he must betray Caesar and prevent his ascension to the throne for the good of Rome. Since characters are honest about their thoughts in soliloquies, it is clear from Brutus' soliloquy that he does not do this for personal gain. This is crucial as at the end of the play, Antony remarks upon the death of the conspirators that it was only Brutus who was concerned about Rome, while the rest of the conspirators killed Caesar out of envy.

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!Thou art the ruins of the noblest manThat ever lived in the tide of times.Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,—Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips,To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue—A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;Domestic fury and fierce civil strifeShall cumber all the parts of Italy;Blood and destruction shall be so in useAnd dreadful objects so familiarThat mothers shall but smile when they beholdTheir infants quarter'd with the hands of war;All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,With Ate by his side come hot from hell,Shall in these confines with a monarch's voiceCry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;That this foul deed shall smell above the earthWith carrion men, groaning for burial.

- Act 3 Scene 1

Mark Antony speaks these lines as he stands over Caesar's body. Antony has just made a deal with the conspirators to talk to the Roman public in their support to prevent unrest upon Caesar's murder. Afterwards, left alone with Caesar's body, Antony apologises to Caesar for joining hands with the conspirators, who he calls 'butchers'. In this soliloquy, he reveals his loyalty and love for Caesar and vows to avenge his death. He notes that Italy will see great 'fury and fierce civil strife' so the conspirators are brought to justice. Just as was the case with Brutus' soliloquy, Mark Antony's soliloquy too reveals that he does not go to battle with the conspirators out of personal gain but does so out of loyalty towards Caesar.

Soliloquy vs monologue

After learning about the soliloquy, you may wonder how it differs from a monologue.

A soliloquy is a long expression of a character's inner thoughts, i.e. time has come to a standstill in the narrative as the character reveals their innermost desires and musings to the audience. There is no 'action' to speak of during a soliloquy. Also, notably, all other characters except the one delivering the soliloquy are absent from the scene.

In a monologue, on the other hand, while a single character delivers lines, they do so to another character present in the scene, which is a fundamental difference between a monologue and a soliloquy.

Soliloquy's influence

Through the examples discussed above and your own experiences with soliloquies, you may have realised the importance of a soliloquy in a dramatic work. A soliloquy offers a transparent window into the thoughts and desires of a character, which reveals attributes about the character that only the audience is made aware of and which remain concealed from other characters in the narrative. Sometimes, because the audience is aware of the circumstances, the playwrights may use the soliloquy to evoke specific responses from the audience and create a sense of foreboding. Hence, a soliloquy is an extremely popular literary device among playwrights.

Soliloquoy - Key takeaways

  • A soliloquy is a literary device used in dramas where characters express their innermost thoughts and feelings while alone in the scene.
  • A soliloquy gives the audience insight into the motivations and desires of a character.
  • One of the most famous soliloquies in English literature is 'to be, or not to be' in Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
  • Playwrights frequently used soliloquies during the Elizabethan Age.
  • Soliloquies are typically written in the iambic pentameter.

Soliloquy

An example of a soliloquy is Hamlet uttering the lines 'To be, or not to be – that is the question' in the Shakespearean play Hamlet (c. 1599).

A soliloquy is a literary device used in dramas where characters express their innermost thoughts and feelings while alone in the scene.

A soliloquy is a long expression of a character's inner thoughts. All other characters except the one delivering the soliloquy are absent from the scene.

In a monologue, while a single character delivers lines, they do so to another character present in the scene, which is a fundamental difference between a monologue and a soliloquy.

A soliloquy is a device typically used in dramas and theatre plays. Since some dramas are written in verse form, there are instances where a soliloquy may read like a poem, for example, in the iambic pentameter.

The first use of soliloquies is largely agreed to have occurred in Elizabethan dramas, especially the ones written by Shakespeare, such as Hamlet.

Final Soliloquy Quiz

Question

True or false: Soliloquies developed as a dramatic device in the 1800s

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Answer

True

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Question

Soliloquies were popular during the _____________ Age

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Answer

Elizabethan

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Question

The Elizabethan Age is also known as the _________ Age

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Answer

Silver

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Question

What verse form is a soliloquy typically written in?

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Answer

free verse

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Question

The blank verse is written in what kind of meter?

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Answer

iambic pentameter

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Question

Which of the following works consists of a soliloquy?

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Answer

The Chronicles of Narnia

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Question

Which of the following characters did NOT have a soliloquy in Julius Caesar?

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Answer

Augustus Caesar

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Question

Which of the following works does NOT contain a soliloquy?

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Answer

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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Question

The most famous soliloquy in Shakespeare's Hamlet begins with which line?

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Answer

Friends, Romans and Countrymen! Lend me your ears!

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Question

A scene with a soliloquy features how many characters?

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Answer

3

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