"What is a Soliloquy?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is a Soliloquy? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Rebecca Olson, Oregon State University Associate Professor of British Literature

12 September 2022

When two or more characters in a play are talking to each other, it’s called dialogue. When one character is talking for a while, it’s called a monologue. Soliloquy is the word we traditionally use to refer to a monologue that is delivered when the character is alone. In Shakespeare’s plays, for example, there are many speeches that begin with a character saying something like “Now I am alone.” And you know you are about to experience a soliloquy.

Soliloquies tend to have the effect of making you feel like you are getting access to the character’s true inner state. We assume they are being honest because they are talking to themselves. At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Richard III, for example, Richard is delivering a soliloquy and when he notices that someone is coming he says “Dive thoughts, down to my soul.” The implication is that playgoers have heard things he doesn’t actually want everyone to know.

Many people find that the intimacy created during a soliloquy makes it easy to empathize with the speaker or can even make us complicit in whatever scheme the character has been plotting out loud. But sometimes that intimacy is itself a performance. For instance, in a later soliloquy in that same scene of Richard III, Richard says he plans to marry Lady Anne not because he loves her, but “for another secret close intent”; basically, for private reasons. At that moment playgoers are hearing more than the other characters, but we’re not getting totally direct access; Richard is still keeping some things to himself.

Some people would say that not all soliloquies are delivered when the character is alone on stage. The scholar James Hirsch defines them more broadly as “speeches not directed by a character at the hearing of one or more other characters.” We might, for example, consider an extended aside as a kind of soliloquy. An aside is a speech that at least one other character onstage is apparently not supposed to hear.

Whether we define soliloquy as a monologue delivered when the actor is alone onstage or as simply “self-addressed speech,” what seems important is the effect soliloquy has on the audience’s connection with the character. This affective impact is something playwrights manipulate in really interesting ways. 

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Olson, Rebecca. "What is a Soliloquy?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 12 Sept. 2022, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-soliloquy-definition-and-examples. Accessed [insert date].

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms