What Is a Soliloquy? Definition and Examples
Are you someone who talks to yourself? An aspiring playwright? Both or anywhere in between? Wherever you fall on this spectrum, this guide will help you identify a soliloquy when you read it, see it or perhaps catch yourself in the act.
In short, soliloquy is the act of expressing your thoughts out loud, even when no one’s there to hear you. Unlike a monologue, a soliloquy is a speech that’s always addressed to yourself.
Here, we’ll cover the definition, etymology and examples in theater and literature.
What does “soliloquy” mean?
“Soliloquy” comes from the Latin solus, which means “alone,” and loqui, “to speak.” The word “soliloquy” most commonly refers to a speech a character in a play recites onstage alone, or as if they’re alone.
Shakespeare popularized soliloquy as a dramatic device in the Elizabethan Era.
What purpose does a soliloquy serve?
A soliloquy acts as a window into a character’s inner thoughts and feelings. It can also help advance a play’s plot, since it allows the audience to get inside a character’s mind, learn what they might do next or what might have happened offstage.
Soliloquy vs. monologue: What’s the difference?
While all soliloquies are monologues, not all monologues are soliloquies.
Both monologues and soliloquies are speeches given by a single character. The main difference is that a soliloquy must be directed toward oneself, while a monologue can be directed at someone else.
For example, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony addresses the crowd at Caesar’s funeral with his famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. Because Mark Antony delivered this speech in the presence of others, and not to himself, it’s a monologue, not a soliloquy.
Examples of soliloquy in theater and literature
Many of the world’s best-known soliloquies come from Shakespeare, though there are also plenty of contemporary examples. Let’s take a look at a few:
Example 1: Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” from Shakespeare’s Macbeth
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth—or The Scottish Play, depending on your superstitions—Lady M delivers one of the playwright’s most famous soliloquies. In Act 1 Scene 5, she’s alone onstage and calls on supernatural forces to make her ruthless enough to murder King Duncan, paving way for Macbeth to ascend the throne:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it.
Example 2: Berenger’s breakdown at the end of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros
One of my personal favorite pieces of theater ends in soliloquy. In the final scene of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, the main character, Berenger, is alone onstage, hysterically reflecting on being the last human standing. (Spoiler alert: Everyone else turns into rhinoceri.)
BERENGER: [still looking at himself in the mirror] Men aren’t so bad-looking, you know. And I’m not a particularly handsome specimen! . . . Now I’m all on my own. [He locks the door carefully, but angrily.] But they wont get me. [He carefully closes the windows.] You won’t get me! [He addresses all the rhinoceros heads.] I’m not joining you; I don’t understand you! I’m staying as I am. I’m a human being. A human being . . . I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating!
Example 3: “To be or not to be” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet
I’d be remiss not to mention what’s likely the world’s most famous soliloquy: “to be or not to be” from Hamlet. Here, the title character believes he’s alone and begins contemplating whether he’d be better off dead:
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 heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.
With that, you’re ready to pinpoint soliloquy the next time you see it onstage, read it in your next work of Shakespeare or somehow end up in deep conversation with yourself.
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An avid punster with a newfound hobby of exploring Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture.