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Most of us "talk to ourselves" (aloud) on some rare occasions, but few if any have a practice of sustained oral self-address in private. Yet that is what a soliloquy consists in. Soliloquy - literally "talking alone" - derives from the theater, where early on the need was felt to be able to give an occasional inside view of the private thinking of a character. In the theater, no thinking can be made directly available to the audience unless it is brought to speech, so it was necessary to propose a convention: the character would speak aloud, and the audience would understand that what they were to imagine they were hearing was what the character was saying to himself, or what he would say if he were to give voice to his thought. In other words, the audience was invited to imagine that the character was "thinking aloud," but was expected to agree not to import into its judgments about the character those considerations it might import in real life if it were to hear a person carrying on aloud with himself. That is, the audience is not to suppose that the character is necessarily unbalanced just because he is speaking aloud to himself, however vehemently. Of course, at the same time, this does not necessarily mean that the audience is expected never to suppose that the character is balanced! Everything depends on the nature of the thinking put before us for inspection!
A soliloquy, in other words, is a type of dramatic discourse. But it differs from a dramatic monologue in that, with the latter, we are to suppose not only a particular scene and situation, but that in this situation is another person, an addressee who is not the speaker, but an additional concrete character who, however, does not speak. In a dramatic monologue we are challenged to imagine this other person's reactions, expressed and unexpressed, whether anticipated or unanticipated by the speaker, and whether the speaker addresses these or, apparently, does not. In a soliloquy, we are invited to suppose that no other person is actually present, that the speaker is in complete privacy as far as he knows.
Again, though, there can be complexities. In soliloquy the speaker may suppose he is alone and yet the audience (as often in a play) is aware that some other character is secretly observing him. In such a case, that character can either be imagined to overhear actual talking aloud, or imagined to be able merely to see the person pacing and "reflecting." We will not know until the scene is over and the secret observer shows by his own speech and action what he has derived from watching the scene.
A different possibility is that, in the course of the soliloquy, the speaker imagines himself as addressing this person or that group (definite or general). We are all acquainted with this in our own lives: many are the occasions, when we feel that we have been mistreated or otherwise "burnt," that we later on rehearse, often over and over, with variations and refinements, what we would like to have said to the offending party, or to the judging consciousness, regardless of whether we could have thought this up on the occasion or whether we would have had the courage (or the impudence) to say it if it had occurred to us at the time. In other words, soliloquies can flow in and out of "dramatic monologic" moments - with the difference that the addressees are not actually present, but to be understood as fantasized by the speaker. In other words, in soliloquy, a character may "do battle with" others - telling them off, manipulating them, remonstrating with them. But these "others" are phantoms, figments of the speaker's mind, however closely we are to suppose these figments to correspond with the fictional realities to which they refer.
Whenever we realize we are confronted with a soliloquy, we need to start exploring a series of questions concerning its motivation:
- What is driving the speaker/thinker to this inner monologue that is really a dialogue?
- What factors in some larger imaginable scene of action have precipitated this conflict? What, that is, are we to understand as the circumstantial situation?
- What values and general factual beliefs -- what assumptions about the way the world is and should be -- can we infer the speaker is committed to?
- What traits of character are expressed by the speaker's carrying on with himself or herself in the way we witness?
- And how are we invited to feel about such an individual?
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This page last updated 28 March 1999.