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Title: Soliloquies

Source: Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 91. Detroit: Gale, 2005. From
Literature Resource Center.
Document Type: Topic overview, Critical essay
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Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
Introduction Further Readings about the Topic


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

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.



• 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
New Contexts, edited by Russ McDonald, pp. 42-55. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University
Press, 1994.

Provides a discourse on the seemingly "incidental" linkages between words and ideas in
Shakespeare's plays that yield new significance and meaning. To explain his theory,
Booth discusses how Lady Macbeth's "raven" soliloquy (I.v) and Edmund's "Thou,
Nature, art my goddess" speech (King Lear, I.i) might be read.

• ------. "The Physics of Hamlet's 'Rogue and Peasant Slave' Speech." In "A Certain Text":
Close Readings and Textual Studies on Shakespeare and Others in Honor of Thomas
Clayton, edited by Linda Anderson and Janis Lull, pp. 75-93. Newark: University of
Delaware Press, 2002.

Parses Hamlet's Act II, scene ii soliloquy, explicating the syntax, logic, phonics, internal
echoes, correspondences, and inversions of this speech.

• Boris, Edna Zwick. "To Soliloquize or Not to Soliloquize--Hamlet's 'To be' Speech in Q1
and Q2/F." In Stage Directions in Hamlet: New Essays and New Directions, edited by
Hardin L. Aasand, pp. 115-33. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press,

Compares the placement of Hamlet's "To be" speech in three versions of the play text--
the First and Second Quarto and the First Folio--and considers the implications of these
various placements and the accompanying stage directions with respect to the question of
whether, as he delivers this speech, Hamlet is aware that he is being overheard by other
characters. Boris concludes that Hamlet "stages" this soliloquy for Claudius.

• Breuer, Horst. "Disintegration of Time in Macbeth's Soliloquy 'Tomorrow, and

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.'" Modern Language Review 71, no. 2 (April 1976): 256-71.

Focuses on the first ten lines of Macbeth's soliloquy in V.v, with its conception of Time
as incoherent and fragmented, comparing it to Samuel Beckett's notion of Time as
circular and repetitive. Breuer emphasizes Macbeth's hopelessness and alienation--the
loss of identity he has suffered because he is not living in the feudal age, when Time
symbolized order and stability.

• Bugliani, Francesca. "'In the mind to suffer': Hamlet's Soliloquy 'To be, or not to be.'"
Hamlet Studies 17, nos. 1 and 2 (summer and winter 1995): 10-40.

Interprets the "To be" soliloquy as an essential element in what the critic views as
Shakespeare's depiction of Hamlet as a melancholic. Bugliani regards the speech as a
meditation on classical and Renaissance ideas about the conflict between reason and

• Carnovsky, Morris with Peter Sander. "The Use of the Soliloquy." In The Actor's Eye, pp.
167-81. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984.

Characterizes the Shakespearean soliloquy as a powerful concentration of thought and

emotion that leads to extraordinary creativity and sensitivity, and that explicates the
character's motivations for action. Carnovsky focuses on Hamlet, but he also alludes to
soliloquies of Claudius, Juliet, Hermione, Theseus, Portia, and Shylock.

• Clemen, Wolfgang. Shakespeare's Soliloquies, pp. 1-26. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1972.

Outlines the many functions and modes of Shakespeare's soliloquies. Emphasizing the
playwright's innovative adaptations of dramatic conventions and his introduction of
realistic or naturalistic elements into these monologues, Clemen comments on the
soliloquies of Richard III, Richard II, Brutus, the Bastard in King John, Macbeth, Hamlet,
and Lear.

• Hirsh, James E. "The 'To be or not to be' Scene and the Conventions of Shakespearean
Drama." Modern Language Quarterly 42, no. 2 (June 1981): 115-36.

Argues that Hamlet's "To be" soliloquy is not a private meditation but part of the prince's
strategy to mislead Claudius into believing that he does not intend to exact vengeance on
the king. Hirsh discusses this speech in relation to numerous other Shakespearean
soliloquies delivered by characters who are aware that they are not alone as they speak
and thus know their words will be overheard.

• ------. "Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies." Modern Language Quarterly 58, no.
1 (March 1997): 1-26.

Contends that beginning with classical dramatists and up until the middle of the
seventeenth century, playwrights employed soliloquies and asides as speech acts rather
than interior monologues. It is anachronistic, Hirsh maintains, to describe any speech in
the Shakespeare canon as a soliloquy--a term he claims was not in use before the advent
of Restoration drama--or to treat it as an expression of a character's thoughts.

• Maher, Mary Z. "Kevin Kline: In Action How Like an Angel." In Modern Hamlets and
Their Soliloquies, pp. 175-200. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

Provides a detailed description of a 1990 production of Hamlet at New York's

Public/Anspacher Theater that Kevin Kline directed and in which he played the lead role.
Maher's commentary is supplemented by extensive explanations by Kline of his general
intentions in this production and, particularly, his choice to deliver Hamlet's soliloquies
as introspections rather than addresses to the audience.
• McCown, Gary M. "'Runnawayes Eyes' and Juliet's Epithalamium." Shakespeare
Quarterly 27, no. 2 (spring 1976): 150-70.

Analyzes the syntax and structure of Juliet's soliloquy at III.ii.1-31 in terms of classical
and medieval lyrics written to celebrate a marriage. McCown argues that Shakespeare
modified the conventions of the genre to heighten the sense of irony and pathos in the

• McDonnell, William E. "The Shakespearean Soliloquy: A Problem of Focus." Text and

Performance Quarterly 10, no. 3 (July 1990): 227-34.

Reports on a study of sixty-one Shakespearean soliloquies in terms of their setting, the

dramatic action that precedes and follows them, and their relation to the characterization
of the speakers. McDonnell determines that a minority of those he evaluated might be
shared with the audience and about one-third should be interpreted as self-reflective; but
he judges that for the majority of these speeches there is no clear indication in the text
whether they ought to be shared directly with the theater audience.

• Petronella, Vincent F. "Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' Soliloquy: Once More unto the
Breach." Studies in Philology 71, no. 1 (January 1974): 72-88.

Reviews different critical perspectives on the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy and attempts
to fuse diverse viewpoints. The speech is principally about life and death and self-
destruction, Petronella acknowledges, but it does not indicate that Hamlet himself is

• Sachs, Arieh. "To Be or Not to Be: Christianity versus Stoicism." In Studies in the
Drama, edited by Arieh Sachs, pp. 291-305. Jerusalem, Israel: Magnes Press, 1967.

Assesses the dialectical nature of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" speech, emphasizing the
juxtaposition of religion and philosophy in the prince's debate with himself. Sachs
contends that Hamlet regards human existence as brutal and worthless, and believes that
suicide would be both noble and rational, yet his fear of eternal damnation prevents him
from killing himself.

• Schrickx, W. "The Background and Context of Hamlet's Second Soliloquy." Modern

Language Review 68, no. 2 (April 1973): 241-55.

Discusses Hamlet's "O all you host of heaven" soliloquy (I.v) with reference to the theme
of revenge, maintaining that in this passage the prince acknowledges that vengeance for
crimes on earth belongs to God. The critic compares Hamlet's willingness to yield
responsibility for implementing justice with the way the protagonists of Titus
Andronicus, Thomas Kyd's The Revenger's Tragedy, and John Marston's Antonio's
Revenge pursue revenge.
• Shaitanov, Igor. "The Prologue to Genre: Richard Gloucester's Introductory Soliloquy."
In On Page and Stage: Shakespeare in Polish and World Culture, edited by Krystyna
Kujawinska Courtney, pp. 127-38. Krakow, Poland: Towarzystwo Autorow i Wydawcow
Prac Naukowych Universitas, 2000.

Argues that Richard III's soliloquy at the beginning of the play that bears his name not
only serves as a prologue to the dramatic action, it introduces us to both the protagonist
and the theme of Time. Arguing that at one point it shifts from an impersonal recounting
of historical events to a deeply personal revelation of Richard's inability to cope with the
ever-changing nature of the present, the critic suggests that this speech also marks a shift
in Shakespeare's development of complex historical and tragic heroes.

• Skiffington, Lloyd A. "Shakespearean: Its Content." In The History of English Soliloquy:

Aeschylus to Shakespeare, pp. 71-98. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985.

Maintains that while Shakespeare relied on the dramatic tradition of medieval morality
plays to construct his soliloquies, particularly with regard to their functions as plot
explanations and disquisitions on moral or philosophical themes, he was original in his
development of the solo utterance as a means of revealing a character's motivation and
intentions, and disclosing the clash of emotions in his or her psyche.

• Velz, John W. "The Ovidian Soliloquy in Shakespeare." Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986):


Evaluates several Shakespearean soliloquies in light of meditative speeches about the

conflict between love and honor in Ovid's Metamorphoses. In his analysis of the way
Shakespeare's soliloquies express self-questioning, rationalization, and honesty, Velz
focuses on the monologues of Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece and Angelo in Measure
for Measure.

• Weil, Jr., Herbert S. "'I Know You All': Possible Assaults upon and Invitations to the
Audience by Shakespeare's Characters." In The Elizabethan Theatre IX, edited by G. R.
Hibbard, pp. 169-85. Port Credit, Ont.: P. D. Meany, 1981.

Considers a number of speeches by Shakespeare's characters--including soliloquies,

asides, and epilogues--that might be delivered as direct addresses to the audience. Weil
regards some of these as occasions when the dramatist, through the actors, appeals for the
spectators' imaginative engagement in the experiences of the characters and invites them
to relate these words and emotions to their own lives.

Source Citation
"Soliloquies." Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 91. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 Oct. 2010.
Document URL
Gale Document Number: GALE|H1410001477