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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 him- or herself, 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. Though it should be said that sometimes, depending on the performance, a monologue that is written as a soliloquy, will be addressed directly to the audience. And sometimes it is hard to tell if what is being heard is a monologue, or a duologue or a soliloquy; in which case choosing the right term may be a matter of interpretation.
A soliloquy is a type of monologue, but it is not an aside: a monologue is a speech where one character addresses other characters, or the audience; or it is a speech that is self-directed; 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 were frequently used in dramas but went out of fashion when drama shifted towards realism in the late 18th century. But nowadays, with budget restrictions in theatre, they have come back into fashion in a big way.
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. That is part of it; he actually has a variety of thoughts. But he fails to realise what really holds him back from murdering his king: simply the fact that it is wrong. And if he does indeed realize that, and is choosing not to give that fear greater importance, he also expresses his fear of getting caught, and feeling guilty, and how things will play out.
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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