A dramatic monologue is a conversation a speaker has with themselves, or which is directed at a listen or reader who does not respond. Only the words and thoughts of the speaker are relayed. This means that the other side of the conversation, if there is one, is left up to the reader’s imagination.
In poetry, a dramatic monologue is often a speech given dramatically. These are seen throughout the history of poetry, as well as in drama. William Shakespeare’s plays have some of the best English language examples of dramatic monologues.
The Function of a Dramatic Monologue
A dramatic monologue is used to vent a speaker’s thoughts. It gives the speaker a chance to get their own experience across without the thoughts or words of someone else interfering. ‘Mrs. Midas’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a great example of this. The only obstacle the speaker has to confront is their own perception of events. These speeches often reveal to the reader something important about the character speaking.
Examples of Dramatic Monologues
Example #1 Mrs. Midas by Carol Ann Duffy
This poem is a dramatic monologue spoken from the perspective of the mythological King Midas’ wife. It details the aftermath of his granted wish. The poem describes, from the wife’s viewpoint, what it was like after Midas found out everything he touched turned to gold. Take a look at these lines from the first stanza of the poem:
It was late September. I’d just poured a glass of wine, begun
to unwind, while the vegetables cooked. The kitchen
filled with the smell of itself, relaxed, its steamy breath
gently blanching the windows. So I opened one,
then with my fingers wiped the other’s glass like a brow.
He was standing under the pear tree snapping a twig.
These lines are narrative, describing events as they happened. They are not full of poetic language, rather, the tone is language is straightforward and clear. The speaker is relaying events to the reader how she experienced them without her husband’s emotional influence.
Example #2 Tithonus by Alfred Lord Tennyson
‘Tithonus’ by Lord Alfred Tennyson is written in the form of a dramatic monologue in which only one speaker is used to tell an entire story. The poem describes the plight of Tithonus who is cursed to an immortal life in which he continues to age but never dies. He mourns this fact but takes the time to tell his whole story and how this curse befell him in the guise of a blessing. Take a look at these lines from the first stanza:
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Here, he is introducing the narrative. It is in the first person, but the focus, in this case, is on the details. Tennyson allows his speaker to set the scene, preparing the reader for what comes next. In these next lines he describes the curse:
I ask’d thee, ‘Give me immortality.’
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men, who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
His own emotional experience is very clearly described here. He is relaying what these moments were like for him and him alone.
Example #3 Andrea del Sarto by Robert Browning
This poem was published in the collection, Men and Women. It is written in the form of a dramatic monologue told from the perspective of the Italian Renaissance painter, Andrea del Sarto. The speaker then spends the majority of the poem discussing how his skill level compares to the work of other artists. By the end of the poem, he concludes that although his life has not been what he wanted he knows that he cannot change it. Take a look at these lines from the beginning of the text:
But do not let us quarrel any more,
No, my Lucrezia; bear with me for once:
Sit down and all shall happen as you wish.
You turn your face, but does it bring your heart?
I’ll work then for your friend’s friend, never fear,
Treat his own subject after his own way,
Fix his own time, accept too his own price,
This section of the poem is a perfect example of a dramatic monologue as it contains one side of a conversation. The other side is left to the reader’s imagination. They have to use context clues to understand what has been said.