Young actors can often get confused about the differences between a soliloquy and monologue. Soliloquies and monologues are widely used by one of my favorite playwrights, William Shakespeare.
Approaching Shakespeare as an actor is both thrilling and intimidating. Most thrilling is that you can allow Shakespeare’s brilliant language to do a lot of the grunt work for you. Most intimidating is that before you can rely on the language, you have to identify and excavate the clues within it. I once had an acting teacher explain to me that a play by Shakespeare is like a bottle of premade marinara sauce– all the spices are already inside, so your job is to heat it all up and add your own spin (alphabet macaroni, anyone?). There are going to be future blogs here on Stage Agent about the many different “clues” Shakespeare provides in his plays (scansion, rhetoric, prose and verse, alliteration, etc.). With this post, I’m going to talk about just one: soliloquies.
I’m currently in rehearsals for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream off-Broadway at the 47th Street Theater in New York City. As we enter tech this week, I find myself returning to the basics of my work as an actor– the clues Shakespeare leaves in his language.
I’m playing the role of Helena. If you’re not familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the most basic description of Helena is that of the four young lovers in the play, she is the only one who is not loved by anyone else. Lysander loves Hermia, Hermia loves Lysander, Demetrius loves Hermia, and Helena loves Demetrius. As Puck, our sort-of narrator and lead fairy, says, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
Helena is interesting because she is the only character in the play besides Puck who speaks to the audience. This isn’t a coincidence– it’s a clue.
Let’s jump into some definitions really quickly.
Monologue: A speech given by one character that is heard by another character (or many). A famous example: Marc Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral in Julius Caesar:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
Soliloquy: A speech that is given to oneself; it is a voiced expression of a character’s thoughts and feelings. Soliloquys can be delivered to the audience, to a god, or to the character’s own conscience. The most famous example is Hamlet’s soliloquy in Hamlet:
To be, or not to be; that is the question
The distinction is pretty clear– in a monologues, a character speaks to another character. In a soliloquy, a character speaks to the audience, or God, or him or herself.
So, why does Shakespeare use soliloquys? How do they inform us as actors?
Let’s jump to the example I’ve been working on for the past three weeks: Helena.
Helena’s first soliloquy is early in the play: Act I, Scene 1. In the scene, Helena’s best friend, Hermia, has just announced that she is running away to elope with her other friend, Lysander. The man she loves, Demetrius, hates her. After Hermia and Lysander leave the scene, Helena is left alone onstage. She speaks:
(note: the version I’m performing is a 90-minute version, so many of the soliloquys have been cut shorter. For the sake of space and consistency, I’ll only include the cut I’m performing, though the speech is longer in the uncut play)
How happy some o’er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
He will not know what all but he do know:
And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities.
I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight:
Then to the wood will he to-morrow night
Pursue her; and for this intelligence
If I have thanks, it is a dear expense:
But herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again.
So: why does Helena soliloquize? In working with my director, the brilliant Tamilla Woodard, we came to a mutual decision. Helena soliloquizes because she’s alone. Everyone she loves has left her. Helena speaks to the audience because she needs an ally; she needs someone to be her friend when her friends are gone. She needs validation (as all of us do from our allies). She needs to confess, and the only person to hear her is the audience.
More practically, it’s also important that the audience know what Helena’s plan is (since it sets many events into action). I can’t play that as an actor, but it’s something to notice.
There are a million ways to justify and play a Shakespearean soliloquy: Hamlet has to work through major life questions, Macbeth is trying to free himself from hallucinations, Juliet is daydreaming about the consummation of her relationship with Romeo. The one crucial point here is this: in both soliloquys and monologues, you have an objective or a want. No one speaks “just because.” Whether you’re talking to another person, to God, to a ghost, or to the coffin of your murdered husband, you need something from them. Helena needs an ally. What might Hamlet, Macbeth, and Juliet need?
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see till my (or your) next off-Broadway show.