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.
Definition and Explanation of 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.
Dramatic Monologues in Film and Television
Not to be overlooked are dramatic monologues in film and television. Some of the best and most memorable are created in this format. Some great examples of Lt Kaffe’s speech in A Few Good Men that begins with the line “You can’t handle the truth!” this speech, like others, is filled with emotion and power. Others are Captain Miller’s monologue about Ryan, saving and taking lives in Saving Private Ryan and Red’s speech in The Shawshank Redemption. The latter begins with the lines “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. That’s goddamn right. For the second time in my life, I’m guilty of committing a crime” and ends with ” I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope”.
Why Do Writers Use Dramatic Monologues?
Dramatic monologues are key parts of some poems and many plays. They are often the best-remembered sections of dramatic moments and are opportunities for the writer to express, without interruption, the thoughts of a specific character. Monologues, such as those seen in the above examples, often contain hints about the major themes of a work of literature as well. Close readers can find out a lot about the character, the broader literary work, and even the playwright or poet through the monologues they write.
Dramatic Female 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 The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This example is not the most famous on the list, but it is a wonderful example of a dramatic female monologue. It is one of many poems that Browning wrote in order to address social issues. It is an indictment of American society and the treatment of slaves, throughout history, but specifically in the 1800s. Browning wrote it in order to raise funds for abolitionism. Here are a few lines from the poem:
I stand on the mark beside the shore
Of the first white pilgrim’s bended knee,
Where exile turned to ancestor,
And God was thanked for liberty.
I have run through the night, my skin is dark,
I bend my knee down on this mark:
I look on the sky and the sea.
The lines are written from the perspective of a black slave who is contemplating their life and how they came to be in the situation they are in.
Dramatic Male Monologues
Example #1 Tithonus by Alfred Lord Tennyson
‘Tithonus’ by Alfred Lord 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 #2 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.
Examples of Dramatic Monologues in Plays
Example #1 Hamlet by William Shakespeare
As stated above, some of the best dramatic monologues come from plays. One of the best is found in Hamlet. Take a look at these lines from Act V Scene I:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that.
Hamlet speaks these lines while holding the iconic skull and after a period of indecision after finding out that his uncle murdered his father. Hamlet and Horatio are walking in a cemetery and he picks up a skull that gravediggers have unearthed.
Example #2 As You Like It by William Shakespeare
It’s very likely that any reader, whether they’re a fan of Shakespeare or not, will recognize the first lines from this monologue from Act II Scene 7 of As You Like It.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
The monologue goes on for a number of lines after this. In this passage, Shakespeare is having his speaker, Jaques, express the belief that every phase of life is part of a larger drama. It is a play acted out on stage. This is not the first or last time that Shakespeare uses theatre-related imagery in order to speak on broader themes within his work.
Dramatic Monologue Synonyms
Some words that readers might find associated with “dramatic monologue” are speech, oration, lecture, sermon, and address.
Related Literary Terms
- Aside— a dramatic device that is used within plays to help characters express their inner thoughts.
- Soliloquy— a dramatic literary device that is used when a character gives a speech that reveals something about their thought process.
- Point of View— is what the speaker, narrator, or character can see from their perspective. This can change dramatically depending on the character.
- Watch: What is a dramatic monologue?
- Watch: The Greatest Acting Monologues of All Time
- Read: As You Like It by William Shakespeare
- Read: Popular Monologues