I. What is a Soliloquy?
A soliloquy (pronounced so-LILL-oh-kwee) is a kind of monologue, or an extended speech by one character. In a soliloquy, though, the speech is not given to another character, and there is no one around to hear it. Instead of another character, the soliloquy is delivered to a surrogate, to the audience, or to no one in particular.
II. Examples of Soliloquy
Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)
One of the most famous scenes in all of Shakespeare occurs when Hamlet comes across the corpse of his former court jester, Yorick. Hamlet picks up the jester’s skull, holds it in his hand, and speaks to it directly, delivering a brooding meditation on death. Hamlet reflects on the fact that this once jovial and funny man has now been reduced to meager bones. Where have all his jokes gone? They have crumbled into dust, and every human being will one day do the same.
In the graphic novel Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan delivers a chapter-length soliloquy on his decision to leave Earth for the solitude of Mars. Of course, there is no one around to hear him speak, but nonetheless he narrates his thoughts out loud, reflecting on his memories of Earth and the demands being placed on him by petty, warmongering earthlings.
III. Types of Soliloquy
a. To oneself
This is probably the most common form of soliloquy – the character is simply “thinking out loud” or talking to an empty room. This is a way of taking their “inner monologue” and externalizing it.
b. To a surrogate
In some soliloquies, the speaker is talking to an object rather than a character. For example, they may be speaking to a stuffed animal, an inanimate object, or a pet. (Of course, if the pet can talk and is a character, as is often the case in cartoons, then this would be a monologue rather than a soliloquy.) In some cases, a character will speak to a corpse or part of a corpse – for example, the head of a slain enemy. This is still considered a soliloquy, since the corpse is no longer a living character capable of hearing the speech.
c. To the audience
Every once in a while, a character will turn around and speak directly to the audience. This may be part of a framing narrative, (e.g. “sit and listen while I tell you a tale…”), or it might be delivered at any point in the plot. This kind of soliloquy is a lot like an aside, but longer.
IV. The Importance of Soliloquies
A soliloquy allows your character to express his or her views without necessarily having anyone to talk to. If there’s another character in the scene, then suddenly the characters’ relationship with each other is at stake, and the speaker may have to be more careful about what he or she says. But if the character is simply thinking out loud, talking to a surrogate, or addressing the audience, then this doesn’t matter – he or she can just speak at length about the topic without worrying about anyone else’s reaction or perceptions. A soliloquy gives the audience an extended look at what the character is thinking and feeling, in his or her own words.
In addition, the audience soliloquy is often a feature of “trickster” figures in literature. The trickster is someone who can cross boundaries – legal and illegal, life and death, day and night, male and female, dream and reality. By speaking directly to the audience, these characters can demonstrate their ability to transcend the divide between the fictional world of the story and the real world of the audience.
V. Examples of Soliloquy in Literature
If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended: that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear. (William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy Puck constantly delivers brief asides and soliloquies to the audience, keeping them informed about everything that’s going on. Puck is a great example of a “trickster” figure, one who is able to cross all sorts of boundaries – even the fourth wall. By talking directly to the audience, Puck breaks down the barriers between fiction and reality, which is one of the major themes of the play.
There she goes! To think how entirely my future happiness is wrapped up in that little parcel… Now then, what is it? Can’t you see I’m soliloquizing? (Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado)
This is perhaps the ultimate version of lampshading (acknowledging something ridiculous that’s happening in the plot) a soliloquy. In this line from The Mikado, Ko-Ko is about to launch into a soliloquy about his love for Yum-Yum, when two other characters enter and interrupt him. He immediately (and angrily) lampshades his own behavior, drawing an instantaneous laugh from the audience.
VI. Examples of Soliloquy in Pop Culture
The video game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time has a running voice-over by its main character, the Prince. While he’s running through various palaces and dungeons, he speaks his mind out loud and reflects on what’s going on in the story through brief soliloquies. At one point, the Prince lampshades this behavior: he pauses for a moment, then shouts, “Stop talking to yourself!”
In musicals, at least one of the songs is often a “musical soliloquy,” and this is a common trope of Disney films. For example, in Mulan the title character sings a song about her reflection and her true identity. There’s no one there to hear her sing, but she pours her heart out nonetheless.
In Cast Away, Chuck Noland is stranded for years on a deserted island. With no one to talk to, he slowly becomes desperate for companionship, and ultimately starts talking to a volleyball that he names “Wilson.” Noland delivers many surrogate soliloquies to Wilson, and is devastated when the volleyball washes away in a storm.
VII. Related Terms
Any time a character speaks at length without interruption, it’s a monologue. Most of the time, a monologue is not a soliloquy, because it’s delivered to another character. When there is no other character in the room, though, then a monologue becomes a soliloquy. (Note that if a character thinks there’s someone else there, then it falls into an odd grey area between soliloquies and regular monologues.)
Most of the time, characters are separated from the audience by “the fourth wall.” But sometimes, a character will break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. This is called an aside. In general, an aside is a brief interruption, just a sentence or two, or even something as subtle as a wink. But when the aside is extended into a long monologue, it becomes a soliloquy.
Soliloquies are a little ridiculous – they just don’t match up with the way people act in real life – but they’re often necessary to advance the plot or show character development. So it’s very common to see lampshading in soliloquies. Lampshading is when a character openly acknowledges something ridiculous that’s happening in the plot. For example, he might interrupt his soliloquy to a pet and say, “Man, am I really talking to my hamster right now?”