Soliloquy: Definition & Examples Video

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  • 0:00 What Is a Soliloquy?
  • 1:51 Examples
  • 5:25 Soliloquies Today
  • 7:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Drama is a vastly different medium from written literature. This lesson focuses on one particular thing that exists only in spoken performances: the soliloquy.

What Is a Soliloquy?

When you are reading a novel, how do you know what the character is thinking? In the written word, this is usually very easy in that the narrator, or the character himself, will express his thoughts directly. That's great for novels, but what about on stage? In a play, if there are no words to read, how will you know what a character is thinking? The answer comes in the form of a soliloquy.

A soliloquy is a section of dialogue where one character is speaking aloud to himself. You may be wondering, why does a character need to talk to himself? On stage, these speeches are extremely important. Where novels have clear words to help the audience infer a character's thoughts, motivations, and feelings, drama has only dialogue to do so. Thus, soliloquies are sometimes the only way to explain to the audience a character's motivations, which makes clear why a character is acting a certain way. It can also help explain past, present, or future events of the play, where otherwise the audience would be left confused.

Besides a soliloquy, there are two other kinds of speech in drama where only one character speaks. One is a monologue and the other is an aside. Both are important in drama, but each is a little different from a soliloquy. A monologue is a speech made by one character, but he is not alone and is speaking to the other characters on stage. On the other hand, an aside is a short, sometimes whispered comment one character says to himself while other characters are on stage. However, none of the other characters can hear him. Both a monologue and an aside serve important roles, but neither illuminates the in-depth personal thoughts and feelings of a soliloquy. Remember, a soliloquy is meant for only the real audience to hear, and it gives insight into a character's inner thoughts and motives.

Examples

Soliloquies were most common during the Elizabethan and Victorian Eras. During these time periods, with the help of Shakespeare and other famous playwrights, drama became extremely popular with the masses. This helped soliloquies grow in importance and use. Here are some famous examples of soliloquies from Shakespeare:

  • Hamlet

To be, or not to be: that is the question: /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;

This speech, which continues on the same topic, gives the audience an insight into the depth of Hamlet's depression after learning of his father's murder. It further shows that Hamlet is losing his will to live. He sees life as simply heartache, but at the same time he shows his own fear of death. He does not want to live, but is too afraid to take his own life. This speech is very important in explaining why Hamlet does many of the unbelievable actions in the play. Mainly, it shows that he is losing the will to live, but is too cowardly to do anything about it.

  • Macbeth

In Macbeth, the main character hears of his wife's death and gives this soliloquy:

Out, out, brief candle! /Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage /And then is heard no more: it is a tale /Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, /Signifying nothing.

This occurs towards the end of the play, after Macbeth has murdered the king in order to take over the throne. After hearing of his wife's death, Macbeth shares his inner thoughts on the meaning of life. He likens life to a brief candle or merely a shadow. Although he has risked everything to become king, he now believes life is ultimately meaningless. He feels that soon his own life will be over and nothing will be left on earth to show he was significant in any way. This marks the true downfall of Macbeth and foreshadows his own death soon after.

  • Othello

Lastly, in Othello, Iago expresses several important soliloquies. In these speeches, Iago explains to the audience his motivation for all his future actions. For instance, in the first scene, he has already complained of how Othello gave Cassio the promotion he wanted. Then he makes these remarks.

I hate the Moor: /And it is thought abroad, that 'twixt my sheets/He has done my office: I know not if't be true;/ But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,/Will do as if for surety. He holds me well;/The better shall my purpose work on him. /Cassio's a proper man: let me see now: /To get his place and to plume up my will /In double knavery--How, how? Let's see:-- /After some time, to abuse Othello's ear/ That he is too familiar with his wife.

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