What Is a Soliloquy? Literary Definition and Examples

This literary device is often used to create dramatic irony

'Reina Juana' Theatre Play
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A soliloquy (pronounced suh-lil-uh-kwee), a literary device used in drama, is a speech that reveals a character's internal thoughts, motivations, or plans. Characters usually deliver soliloquies while they are alone, but if other characters are present, they remain silent and appear to be unaware that the character is talking. When delivering soliloquies, characters often seem to be “thinking out loud.” Soliloquies are found in dramatic works.

 

Coming from a combination of the Latin words solo, meaning “to himself,” and loquor, meaning “I speak,” a soliloquy offers playwrights a handy way of keeping the audience aware of the play’s plot and progress, as well as providing insight into a character's private motivations and desires.

The soliloquy reached the height of its popularity during the Renaissance period. The use of soliloquy has fallen since the late 18th century when drama shifted to the “Stanislavsky System” of realism—the accurate portrayal of real life in performances. Today, the soliloquy is known as “direct address” in movies and television.

Why Writers Use Soliloquy

By giving the audience exclusive “insider” knowledge of what their characters are thinking, playwrights can create dramatic irony and suspense. Soliloquies allow the audience to know things that other characters do not—like who’s going to die next. Because soliloquies must have a visual component to be effective, they are most often used in plays, movies, and television shows.

Soliloquy, Monologue, or Aside?

The monologue and the aside are often confused with the soliloquy. All three literary devices involve a solitary speaker, but they have two key differences: the length of the solitary speech, and who is supposed to hear it.

Soliloquy vs. Monologue

In a soliloquy, the character makes a lengthy speech to him or herself.

In a monologue, the character delivers a speech to other characters with the clear intent of being heard by them. For example, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Hamlet asks, “To be or not to be…?”, he is speaking to himself in a soliloquy. However, when Julius Caesar's Mark Antony says “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” he is delivering a monologue to the characters at Caesar's funeral.

In simple terms, if other characters can hear and possibly respond to what a character is saying, the speech cannot be a soliloquy.

Soliloquy vs. Aside

Both a soliloquy and an aside are used to reveal a character’s secret thoughts and motives. However, an aside is shorter than a soliloquy—typically only one or two sentences—and is directed at the audience. Other characters are often present when an aside is delivered, but they do not hear the aside. In plays and movies, the character making the aside will often turn away from the other characters and face the audience or camera while speaking.

A classic example of an aside comes in Act 1 of Hamlet. The King of Denmark has just died and the throne has passed to his brother, Claudius (who is the play's antagonist).

Prince Hamlet, who was denied the throne when Claudius married the late king’s wife, feels depressed, even calling his Uncle Claudius’ marriage, “foul incest.” When Claudius speaks to Hamlet, calling him “my cousin Hamlet, and my son,” Hamlet, who now secretly feels far more related to Claudius than he wants to be, turns to the audience and says as an aside, “A little more than kin, and less than kind.”

Early Examples of Soliloquy from Shakespeare

Clearly influenced by the Renaissance, Shakespeare used soliloquies as some of the most powerful scenes in his plays. Through his soliloquies, Shakespeare exposed the innermost conflicts, thoughts, and diabolical plots of his always complicated characters.

Hamlet’s Suicidal Soliloquy

Perhaps the best-known soliloquy in the English language takes place in Hamlet, when Prince Hamlet considers the peaceful alternative of death by suicide to suffering a lifetime of “slings and arrows” at the hands of his murderous uncle Claudius:

“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

No more; and by a sleep, to say we end

the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks

that Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation

devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,

To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there's the rub, […]”

Though another character, Ophelia, is present when Hamlet utters this speech, it is clearly a soliloquy because Ophelia gives no indication that she hears Hamlet speaking. The passage is further distinguished from an aside by its considerable length and importance in exposing Hamlet’s inner feelings.

Macbeth’s Visionary Soliloquy

In Act 2, Scene 1 of Macbeth, the perpetually moody Macbeth has a vision of a floating dagger tempting him to carry out his plan to kill Duncan, the King of Scotland, and take the throne himself. Fighting with a guilty conscience and now confused by this vision, Macbeth says:

“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.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? or art though but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? [...]”

Only by having him speak through soliloquy in this famous scene is Shakespeare able to inform the audience—and not the other characters—of Macbeth’s helter-skelter state of mind and secretly-held evil intentions.

 

Modern Examples of Soliloquy

While Shakespeare was one of the first and by far the most prolific user of soliloquy, some modern playwrights have incorporated the device. With the rise of realism at the end of the 18th century, writers worried that soliloquies would sound artificial, since people rarely talk to themselves in front of other people. As a result, modern soliloquies tend to be shorter than Shakespeare’s.

Tom in The Glass Menagerie

In Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, the play’s narrator and protagonist, Tom, relays his memories of his mother Amanda and sister Laura. In his opening soliloquy, Tom warns the audience not to believe everything they see the characters do on stage.

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

In the final scene, Tom finally admits the truth—that his own actions largely ruined his life.

“I didn't go to the moon that night. I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two points. Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe-box. I left Saint Louis. [...] I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out! For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura—and so goodbye. . .”

Through this soliloquy, Williams reveals to the audience Tom's self-loathing and doubt over abandoning his family and home.

Frank Underwood in House of Cards

In the television series House of Cards, fictional 46th President of the United States and protagonist Frank Underwood often speaks directly to the camera after all other characters have left the scene. Through these pithy soliloquies, Frank reveals his thoughts on politics, power, and his own schemes and strategies.

In a memorable soliloquy in the first episode of season two, Frank reveals his overriding fear of developing personal relationships in the political realm.

“Every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless at first, small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood—sometimes, from the hand that feeds them.”

Having just won an election in season two, Frank uses another soliloquy in an attempt to justify the often devious tactics of presidential politics.

“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy. There will be casualties.”

These soliloquies create dramatic tension by revealing Frank’s unbridled pride in his skill at manipulating others and his secret plots to use that skill. While the audience may be appalled at Frank’s schemes, they love being “in” on them.  

Soliloquy Key Takeaways

  • A soliloquy (suh-lil-uh-kwee) is a literary device used in drama to reveal a character’s thoughts, feelings, secrets or plans to the audience.
  • Characters usually deliver soliloquies while they are alone. If other characters are present, they are depicted as not having heard the soliloquy. 
  • Writers use soliloquy to expose irony and create dramatic tension by letting the audience in on information that some characters do not know.