Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Art of the Soliloquy

I had the (ahem) privilege the other day to be marking student writing.  Included in the mix were some pieces from a colleague’s class.  They had chosen to write soliloquies in the voice of Gertrude or Claudius from Hamlet.  As a passing comment, I remarked to the teacher concerned that the soliloquies were uniformly ranty.  While freely acknowledging that her class isn’t all that capable, she said, “But that’s what soliloquies are.”

This gave me food for thought.  Is this what a soliloquy is?  My standard definition is that a soliloquy is a stage convention, akin in modern cinema to a voice-over, whereby a character speaks his or her thoughts aloud.  They always speak the truth of how they’re feeling and who they find themselves to be in that moment.  This does, indeed, I suppose, lead itself to ranting.

And yet.  What the students concerned have failed to grasp is how Shakespeare manages to heighten his characters’ soliloquies to more than mere angsty venting of trapped hot air.  The use of imagery is key to a solioquy; it graces the monologue with art and passion.

By way of example, let us examine the kind of soliloquy the students were (theoretically) attempting to emulate, one from Hamlet, let’s say, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I”.  Even in the opening line can we see the imagery, the selection of diction Shakespeare chooses to illustrate how low Hamlet is feeling about himself – not a prince, but a “peasant slave”.

Hamlet continues the speech by comparing himself grossly unfavourably to an actor who is able to counterfeit life-like emotions in response to a fiction, whereas Hamlet himself is undergoing true horrific events and can seem to do nothing.  The famous line “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba” encapsulates this idea beautifully.  Not only this, but the alliteration and inversion of the words further illustrates Hamlet’s frustration, his feelings of things being topsy-turvy.

And while the extensive listing that follows in the soliloquy, such as “cleave the general ear with horrid speech, / Make mad the guilty and appal the free”, and “Am I a coward? / Who calls me villain?” does give the ‘ranting’ tone the teenage writers could reproduce, the choice of language, the use of techniques such as the rhetorical questions, and the fact that there is an argumentative purpose to the listing, as it builds to a point of climax and decision, is far more skillful than just venting one’s spleen.

The way Shakespeare uses simile and metaphor gives weight and substance to his soliloquies.  Hamlet sees himself like a “whore”, “unpack[ing his] heart with words”, and murder “though it have no tongue, will speak…”.  The image of the disingenuous prostitute using meaningless words to ply her trade, or of dumb murder whose crime will find a way to be heard, is powerful and more than Hamlet just speaking his feelings aloud.

There is also logic and argument – rhetoric – to a soliloquy.  There is shape to it that a good old moan does not have.  This particular soliloquy of Hamlet’s moves from him, yes, ranting about how useless he is, to a cry for vengeance for his “dear father” against the “remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless” villain Claudius (note how the sibilance allows an actor to rave but also to suggest ClaudIUS without having to speak his name – pure genius), to figuring out a course of action with its own justification.  Hamlet recalls that just as the actor he has seen portraying Hecuba has so moved him, that murderers, when confronted by their own actions in dramatic form, may be similarly moved.  He reasons that he must have some kind of proof against Claudius in order to kill him, that the words of a spirit are not enough as it could have been sent from the Devil to tempt him into sin.  The final lines of the soliloquy, the rhyming couplet, ends the speech on a note of triumphant decision: “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The diction, the imagery, the rhetorical shape to a soliloquy, these are the key aspects that means that Shakespeare’s characters do more than rant.  They are the art of a soliloquy.


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The Zombie Argument

Love this metaphor – the zombie argument that refuses to die.  Shakespeare did write his plays.  That is all.

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July 24, 2013 · 10:24 pm

Ten Underrated Shakespeare Plays

Ten Underrated Shakespeare Plays.

via Ten Underrated Shakespeare Plays.

I threw the link up to this blog quickly without having sufficient time to digest myself.  Now that I’ve read it, I’d like to add some of my own thoughts to the list of ‘underrated’ Shakespeare plays.

Firstly, I wholeheartedly concur with the calls for CymbelineTimon of Athens and All’s Well that Ends Well.  All’s Well is one of three plays I wrote on for my MA thesis looking at folktale motifs in Shakespeare, and I still find it a deeply fascinating yet troubling play (ditto one of the other plays I examined: Taming of the Shrew – a year wrapping my head around that one, and I still don’t know whether it’s farcical or misogynistic…). At the end of the day, Bertram is such an unsatisfactory hero that it’s hard to see past his flaws to genuinely embrace or endorse the ending.  However this deeply puzzling nature is part of what draws me back to Shakespeare again and again, so it’s a double thumbs up for me.

Timon of Athens is a fantastic companion piece to something like The Merchant of Venice (the third of the three plays I wrote on for said thesis).  I think it’s an important read in this era of ‘post’ Global Financial Recession, with its commentary on money and friendship and gifts.

I love Cymbeline.  It’s a fairy tale wrapped in a history, with a twist of the Roman plays alongside.  I’ve never seen it live, but would love to.  It’s a definite must-read, in my opinion.

However, two plays that didn’t make it onto the above blogger’s list, but I think are worthy mentions are The Winter’s Tale and Titus Andronicus.  The former also makes a wonderful companion piece to the likes of Othello and Much Ado About Nothing, with the family reunions of PericlesComedy of Errors and Twelfth Night too.  I saw a version of this last year as part of an arts festival.  Although I had crap seats and didn’t totally love the version, the sheep-shearing festival, complete with rock’n’roll sheep, were pretty amusing.

And as for Titus…Quentin Tarantino eat your heart out.  You think you’re doing something original by staging violence? Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare were wayyyy ahead of you.


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Mal Peet’s “Exposure”

This is what the author himself has to say about his own book.

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July 17, 2013 · 10:35 pm

Book Review: “Exposure” by Mal Peet

As any good librarian associated with me knows, the way to my heart is via Shakespeare.  So, I was excited when this teen novel was brought to my attention.  Othello in the world of football, celebrity, and street kids in an unspecified city in South America.  I’m there!

What appears particularly interesting is that this book seems to be part of a series, centred around the sports journalist Paul Faustino.  Faustino’s personal journey of realisation which involves an evolving relationship with orphaned street child Bush (and his sister Bianca), is interwoven with his association star football player Otello and his own rise … and fall.

I like the title.  “Exposure” works well as a modern version of ‘reputation’ which Shakespeare’s play is so concerned with.  In a world of tabloids, social media and political innuendo, the extent to which one is exposed (positively or otherwise…there’s no such thing as bad publicity, remember?!) does indeed dictate one’s reputation.

Ultimately though, I struggled with this novel.  I don’t deny that Peet has done a good job of weaving together Shakespeare with his own storyline and characters.  However, I found it difficult to really settle into the book.  I was waiting for the ‘true’ Othello plotline to come through, to the detriment of the story Peet was wanting to tell.  I am happy to admit the fault may well lie with me, rather than Peet’s storytelling ability.  In fact, Peet’s interpretation of Othello is sound.  Although Diego (great name for the Iago-character!) remains almost as motivationless as his original.  And his companion Emilia…hmmm.

I think I would recommend this novel to someone who didn’t know the play that well.  A looser connection to the original would be preferable than someone who is impatiently waiting for certain events to unfold.  Peet doesn’t let us forget that he is basing his novel on a play though, with chapter titles given as act and scene numbers, and key conversations printed as script.  For all his relatively skillful interweaving, it seems Peet can’t quite get away from Shakespeare either.

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