A soliloquy is a dramatic literary device that is used when a character gives a speech that reveals something about their thought process. These are parts of plays that when read on the page or preformed help the reader better understand who the characters are and what it is that’s driving them. Soliloquies can be powerful and pivotal moments in plays as someone’s true motivations or intentions might be revealed.
In contrast to monologues, soliloquies are not directed at other characters. They consist of the character speaking their inner thoughts out loud and to themselves. The word comes from the Latin meaning “to himself” and “speak” and they were most popular during the Renaissance period.
Purpose of a Soliloquy
Writers choose to use soliloquies in order to keep their audience informed of anything and everything that’s going on in a play. Without a character’s inner thoughts a certain amount of substance would be lost. They are at their most effective when they are preformed live. It is in this format that they make the most sense. In poems and novels, thoughts can be used fluidly and with separation from dialogue but that’s not possible in a play where everyone is speaking out loud all the time.
Soliloquy or Monologue?
It is very easy to confuse the two. A monologue, unlike a soliloquy, is heard by everyone on stage. The other characters are supposed to hear the speaker’s words. They take the form of a speech, often dramatic in nature. Monologues are simply long sections of dialogue that are uninterrupted by other character’s words.
Soliloquy of Aside?
An aside is often confused with a soliloquy. It is another form of communication used in plays. The simplest way to tell them apart is length. An aside is short, usually just a few words. It’s a brief comment to the audience that gives a small amount of detail.
Famous Examples of Soliloquies
Example #1 “To be, or not to be” Soliloquy, Hamlet by William Shakespeare
It is likely that there is no soliloquy in the English language better known than Hamlet’s suicide speech. The lines begin with the phrase “To be, or not to be, that is the question”. Take a look at a bit of what follows and consider how, as an audience member, these lines would be received:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
that Flesh is heir to? […]
While speaking, the only other character on stage is Ophelia. This is a perfect example of how this kind of speech is different from a monologue. Rather than responding or acknowledging Hamlet when he’s done with these wonderful lines, Ophelia acts as though she hasn’t heard him. This is because she hasn’t. In the magic of the theatre, the audience members are the sole listeners to these lines.
Example #2 “Wherefore art thou Romeo” Soliloquy, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare is the main source from which lovers of this kind of writing can find inspiration and source material. This speech is perhaps the best known from the play. It is addressed to the audience, and in it, Juliet thinks out loud about her love and the situation they are in. She begins by asking him why he is who he is and then goes on to say:
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
These lines as passionate. They express her true desire that Romeo cast off his family and his name (a representative of the feud that’s keeping them apart). She is willing to do anything, as the play makes clear, to keep their love alive.
Example #3 The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
A modern example comes from The Glass Menagerie. In this play the character Tom often speaks to the audience, sometimes breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging the fact that he’s on stage.The following lines are spoken by Tom and are in reference to the conclusion of the play and what he thinks about it:
I didn’t go to the moon that night. I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two points. Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe-box. I left Saint Louis.