Writing

Poetry 101: What Is a Soliloquy? Learn the Difference Between Soliloquy, Monologue, and an Aside With Examples

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 22, 2019 • 3 min read

When most people hear the word “soliloquy” their mind might produce a singular image: Hamlet, Act Three, Scene One, where Hamlet ponders the value of his own continued existence: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” So begins one of the most iconic soliloquies in the dramatic arts. Not only is this monologue a window into a tortured man’s soul: it’s also a piece of poetry.

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What Is a Soliloquy?

A soliloquy is a monologue spoken by a theatrical character which expresses the character’s inner thoughts and emotions. Soliloquies may be written in common prose, but the most famous soliloquies—including those by Hamlet and countless other William Shakespeare characters—are written in poetic verse.

What Is the Structure of a Soliloquy?

In Act Three, Scene One of Hamlet, the doomed Prince of Denmark speaks in blank verse—that is to say, unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter. However, Hamlet’s poetic rhythms are not limited to his many soliloquies; he speaks in blank verse for much of the play.

  • Many of the most renowned dramatic soliloquies are spoken in blank verse.
  • Other famed Shakespearean soliloquists include Othello (from Othello); Brutus (the tortured protagonist of Julius Caesar); Prospero (ruminating sorcerer in The Tempest); and Juliet (“star-crossed” lover in Romeo and Juliet).
  • Shakespeare’s Elizabethan contemporaries were also practitioners of poetic soliloquy—most notably Christopher Marlowe in plays like Doctor Faustus.

What Is The Purpose of a Soliloquy in Drama?

Dramatists like Shakespeare and Marlowe use soliloquies to reveal a character’s thoughts and inner monologue. As they speak alone on a stage, physically facing an audience but emotionally trapped in their own minds, characters share motivations and desires that they’d never articulate to other characters in the play.

  • Soliloquies enable playwrights to compensate for the lack of a narrator in most dramatic works.
  • In written novels, omniscient narrators have the ability to delve into a character’s mind, analyze her emotions, and relay them to an eager reader.
  • Playwrights are rarely afforded such a luxury, although sometimes they utilize other characters as a bit of a workaround.
  • The chorus characters of ancient Greek theater were not narrators but often had the ability to analyze lead characters’ emotional states in a way that they (the lead characters) could not.
  • In Sophocles’s Antigone, the chorus characters seem to understand Creon’s self-destructive hubris better than he does, which helps the audience process the subtext in his actions.
  • When playwrights choose not to employ a chorus character (or a more overt narrator character, such as in Sondheim & Lapine’s Into The Woods), the soliloquy is an expeditious literary device that allows the audience access to a character’s inner workings.
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What Is The Difference Between a Soliloquy, a Monologue, and an Aside?

Soliloquies, monologues, and asides are all uninterrupted speeches made by theatrical characters, but they have key differences that partition them into separate categories.

  • A soliloquy is a long speech spoken by a single character that is not intended to be heard by any other character in the play. In the rare cases where someone else is on stage during a soliloquy, an audience is implicitly asked to suspend disbelief. Effectively, time stops in the action of the play, because the soliloquy articulates thoughts that might flash through a person’s head in the span of a few seconds.
  • A monologue is spoken by a single character but is addressed to the other characters on stage (or on screen). Examples include Linda Loman at the end of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (“Attention must be paid...”); Blake in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (“As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado…”); and Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (“He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits!”)
  • An aside is not spoken to the other characters on stage, which makes it more like a soliloquy than a monologue. But unlike a soliloquy, an aside is typically very short. Within the realm of Shakespeare, Iago makes many asides in Othello. So, too, does John Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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