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Understanding Soliloquies

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Gemma VandePeer

on 23 July 2015

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Transcript of Understanding Soliloquies

The Soliloquy
Important Information
• Understanding a soliloquy takes time. Soliloquies are long speeches. The example we will look at is 28 lines long, twice the length of a sonnet and at least as complicated.

• In a major tragedy such as Macbeth the tragic hero is seen in two main ways;
(i) as a complicated character who is composed of contrasting characteristics and complex inner states of mind and makes a series of complicated responses to the events that lead to his death
(ii) the tragic hero is seen by the audience in terms of conflicting perspectives and different ways of understanding his choices and his identity.

• The soliloquy is very much a device that suited the conditions of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouse with its emphasis on theatrical speech, spectacular action and a combination of entertainment through sensational events and appeal to an audience interested in ideas, values, politics, history and religion.
The Soliloquy
A soliloquy is a solo speech. The character speaks aloud to himself or herself, as if speaking their thoughts and feelings aloud, with the effect that what is said is shared either consciously or unconsciously with the audience. Shakespeare developed the soliloquy as one of his main dramatic devices in his tragedies. In the earlier soliloquies the character tends to perform to the audience, with the effect that the soliloquy is a grand performance by the character as well as an occasion for the character to indulge in telling the audience about their motives and intentions.
Macbeth deep in thought
After the first reading
Survey the main issues and difficulties with the soliloquy as you understand it at this point:

• Difficult words and phrases: trammel (l.3), surcease, success (l.4), jump the life to come (l.7), ingredience of our poisoned chalice (l.11). Others? Cherubin, sightless couriers?
• Read the first two lines over. They are like a tongue twister combined with a riddle? If you are really going to understand how the soliloquy is to be performed then you need to deal with this. What is Shakespeare doing here?
• Make notes about the repetition and echoing of words in the first ten lines.



Note the sentence structure that builds up a pattern of argument and debate: ‘If … then … But … First’ and so on.

Make notes about the heavy use of imagery and how it can be difficult to decode. Shakespeare’s imagery can be one of the main difficulties for a beginner. For example: this bank and shoal of time (l.6); jump the life to come (l.7); poisoned chalice (l.11), and the grand parade of imagery at the end: angels … a naked new born babe … heaven’s cherubin … tears shall drown the wind’ and so on. Is this easy to understand? Whatever does all this mean? What do you make of the meaning and imagery of the ending, lines 18 – 28?
Act 1, Scene 7: If it were done when 'tis done
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends th' ingredience of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips. He's here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on th' other - .
Inner Identity and Performance
In the major tragedies the character tends not to be aware of the audience. The character speaks their thoughts aloud and the soliloquy becomes an intimate revelation of the character’s mind and identity, an opportunity for the audience to see the character in the process of making decisions in a way that reveals their inner identity.

The major soliloquies are some of the great records of Shakespeare’s interest in character and the process of the mind and imagination in relation to events, choices, values and belief.

The major soliloquies are also virtuoso performances by Shakespeare as a dramatist. They are as interesting as his sonnets as displays of his command of poetry for the theatre. Shakespeare’s display of his virtuoso ability in turn leads to a medium for virtuoso performances by the actors.

The major soliloquies are complicated versions of performance. They are written as major speeches for the actors, as an opportunity for a virtuoso performance. The actor commands the stage with his voice and physical presence in a long speech. The soliloquy is an opportunity for the actor to display his ability to create a grand theatrical spectacle and the illusion of a complex character with complex states of mind that the audience reacts to in different ways.

The Christian View
For the Jacobean Christian audience witches are agents of Satan and Shakespeare writes the play in a way that evokes the Christian view. To follow the temptation of witchcraft is to sell your soul to the Devil for power in the world. Much of the effect of the play is that it evokes the horror of witchcraft and sin that lead to damnation, to a life of hell on earth, and hell after death. That Christian view is fundamental to the play and the view of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
On the other hand, the first view of Macbeth as a warrior hero is followed by a series of revelations about his inner identity that reveal that he is a contradictory figure and encourage conflicting points of view. He is a Renaissance man with the magnificence of intelligence, mind, imagination, complexity and sense of himself that was valued so highly in the Renaissance. He is not simply a Scottish barbarian who is taken in by witches and murders the King. Shakespeare also gives him the imagination and intensity of a poet and he gives Macbeth soliloquies that are complex poetry and highly theatrical, thereby evoking the paradox of horror and pathos in audiences.

• A basic condition of the soliloquy is that it is presented in a context of events in the play that encourage the audience to take a double interest in the speaker and their identity – the fact that you are taken inside the mind and feelings of the character in such an intimate way tends to create sympathy for the speaker and even identification with the speaker; on the other hand, the audience sees the character from different perspectives – for example, the speaker can seem at once sympathetic, admirable and sinister.

• Listening to a soliloquy is a mixture of sharing the character’s identity and being impressed by them and making judgements about them.

• A soliloquy involves judging a character’s arguments and the character tends to be involved in a debate about their life and their choices.

• But the soliloquy is always a piece of dramatic poetry that works through virtuoso variations on words, images, ideas and argument, and the basic matter of versification and the combination of the metre and speech stress of blank verse.


Macbeth now seems even more clearly a complicated character: a pragmatic murderer looking at the pros and cons; confused; a man of conscience and pity – that he speaks about pity here is because he has the ability to see the murder in terms of pity and horror; with a sense of religious horror that is apocalyptic; someone duped by witches and fallen into the snare of Satanism and sin, and so on. Furthermore, he speaks with the imagination and eloquence of a poet, at the end largely through images.
Tragic ambiguity
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