To be or not to be a soliloquy

When you mention soliloquy there is only one thing that pops into your head—Shakespeare! Shakespeare was both playwright and poet (and it is his birthday today, 23 April 1564). His language had its greatest power when he was exploring the inner thoughts of his most important characters. The most remembered moments in Shakespeare’s plays are the soliloquies. The thoughts they captured gave life to his characters.

Do you know the difference between a soliloquy and a monologue? One actor talking alone on stage can be “soliloquising” or “monologuing” or they may even be dialoguing with someone offstage or imagined. Simply, if an actor talks directly to the audience it is a monologue. The dramatic effect is that the audience members become actors in the scene, they become a stand-in for the crowd, the throng, the army, whoever is being addressed.

A soliloquy is different. The character is not talking dramatically to the audience but to himself or herself. A soliloquy shares the private thoughts of a character with the audience. The audience is not participating in the scene they are eavesdropping. From this intimacy comes the dramatic power.

The meaning of soliloquy comes from Latin solus meaning alone and loqui meaning speak. It is thought to have been coined by St Augustine in his work, Liber Soliloquiorum. Soliloquy came into English in about 1610. Monologue has a similar derivation from Greek with monologos meaning speaking alone, from monos meaning single or alone and logos meaning speech or word.

The most quoted piece of literature of all time is Hamlet’s soliloquy (Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1) as he ponders the meaning of life and the possibility of death:

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 trouble
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep …

Richard, as Duke of Gloucester, begins Richard III (Act 1 Scene 1) with his gloating soliloquy on the rise of his House of York:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Macbeth (from Macbeth Act 2 Scene 1) becomes agitated as he contemplates the imminent assassination of the king that he and his wife have planned:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

The enraptured Romeo (from Romeo & Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2) imagines the beauty of Juliet as glorious as the sunrise:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:

The evil Iago (Othello Act 1 Scene 3) pours forth his paranoia and jealousy to explain his hatred of his once-friend Othello:

Thus do I ever make my fool my purse:
For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane,
If I would time expend with such a snipe.
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets
He’s done my office.

It’s 450 years today (23 April 2014) since Shakespeare was born. (Shakespeare died on the same day 23 April in 1616). This is my little contribution to the celebration.