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A soliloquy (from Latin solo "to oneself" + loquor "I talk") is a device often used in drama when a character speaks to themself, relating thoughts and feelings, thereby also sharing them with the audience, giving off the illusion of being a series of unspoken reflections. If other characters are present, they keep silent and/or are disregarded by the speaker.
The term soliloquy is distinct from a monologue or an aside: a monologue is a speech where one character addresses other characters; an aside is a (usually short) comment by one character towards the audience, though during the play it may seem like the character is addressing him or herself.
Soliloquies in Shakespeare
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Shakespeare’s soliloquies contain some of his most original and powerful writing. Possibly prompted by the essays of Montaigne, he explores in his greatest tragedies the way someone wrestles with their private thoughts under pressure, often failing to perceive the flaws in their own thinking, as in the great galloping I-vii soliloquy (‘if ‘twere done when ‘tis done…’) in which Macbeth unconsciously reveals through his imagery his fear of damnation but fails to realise what really holds him back from murdering his king: simply the fact that it is wrong.
The earliest of the mature soliloquies occur in Julius Caesar where Shakespeare develops Brutus as a forerunner of Hamlet: the self-critical and honest man struggling to do what’s right in unpropitious circumstances. Hamlet’s seven soliloquies, and the single major soliloquy of Claudius in Hamlet can all be described as ‘a search for a difficult sincerity’, and represent Shakespeare’s most extended study of the workings of the human mind; it is not until the novels of Dostoyevsky that a character’s inner self is examined with such power, discrimination and technical skill.
Shakespeare’s soliloquies are written in blank verse of unparalleled variety, invention and rhythmic flexibility, suggestive of the rapidly changing moods of their speakers. Often, it is through vivid and memorable imagery that an individual registers his unique take on the world: Hamlet’s perception of Elsinore as ‘an unweeded garden that grows to seed’, the frantically deluded Leontes who feels he has ‘drunk and seen the spider’, the self-dramatising murderer, Othello ‘Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse’ or Antony’s transcendent vision of his afterlife with Cleopatra: ‘Where souls do couch on flowers, we’ll hand in hand, And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze’.
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