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.