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Bloom, Harold. Hamlet: Poem Unlimited: Riverhead Books, 2003

Champion, Larry S. "'By Indirections Find Directions Out': The Soliloquies in Hamlet." Journal of General Education, 27 (1976), pp. 265-80

Clemen, W. Shakespeare’s Soliloquies. Folcroft Library Editions, 1977

Eissler, K. Discourse on Hamlet and HAMLET. International Universities Press, 1971

McDonnell, William E. "The Shakespearean Soliloquy: A Problem of Focus." Text and Performance Quarterly, 10:3 (1990 July), pp. 227-34.

Prosser, E. Hamlet and Revenge Stanford University Press, 1971.

Skiffington, L. The History of the English Soliloquy: Aeschylus to Shakespeare: Rowman and Littlefield, 1985.

Click here for on line resources.


THE SOLILOQUIES IN HAMLET CAN BE ANALYZED ACCORDING TO THE FOLLOWING SCHEME: place the soliloquy somewhere between the alternatives and justify...






Using the chart, classify the soliloquies of Hamlet according to the following. Which are...

B-examples of intense verbal fury?
D-delay orientated?

Medieval--part of the dramatization of consciousness as in Everyman, especially the turning point passage in which he finally admits culpability

Renaissance--(what Shakespeare inherited): Traditional Exposition in terms of:

A-PLOT--how to dramatize intrigue as in Macbeth:Our fears in Banquo stick deep", that is, what action follows this passage?
B-ROLE OF ?--the opening of Richard III-- “Now is the winter...”

Note that although both passage advance the plots: to kill Banquo and Clarence, they nonetheless show Shakespeare's ability to blend the dramatic and psychological, as will be discussed below

Psychological development--more unique to Shakespeare:

PERSONALITY IDENTIFICATION--Iago and Edmund, but note as explicated in the Othello pages of this site, that Iago's pose special difficulties. "I am not who I am," he warns. The Othello passages offer differing interpretations of the "motiveless malignancy" issue posed by Coleridge. Edmund - Iago-like in some respects can simultaneously invoke Medieval metaphysics and curse it depending on the circumstances as does Iago on "reputation."

REFLECTIVE--i.e.: “perturbation of the mind:” Hamlet: “Now Might I...,” and Macbeth: “Two truths...” Hamlet, in a scene so horrible, according to Dr. Johnson, that it should barely be dramatized wishes Claudius truly damned [or is it that he would now rather "...speak daggers but use none,]" to Gertrude? Macbeth, in the theme passage of the play, reveals the depth but narrow focus of his imagination. He sees Duncan alive and dead simultaneously, so "Nothing is but what is not.".

THE DIDACTIC SOLILOQUY--as in Everyman who goes to the grave knowing that Good Deeds alone save [Luther notwithstanding], or Macbeth's warning that the very angels will plead "trumpet tongued against..." the death of Duncan.

Dynamics of the Soliloquy:

1. usually the dramatization of consciousness--a character on the stage reveals ? Shakespeare made the soliloquy more of a psychological device than an expository one.

2. A soliloquy may be addressed to:

a-the audience--the traditional textbook read--The Fool in Lear at the end of Act I
b-the self--an easy way to read Hamlet if the introspective, philosophical Prince of Olivier is studied
c-a thing (dagger)--Macbeth's "heat oppressed" brain may indeed be diseased, although the passage could be didactic too in that this is the last warning he allows himself before the murder.
d-nature--obviously the best example is Lear's Act III storm scenes, during which the microcosm reflects the macrocosm: the "tempest" in his mind.
e-another character--or perhaps an aside, as the Iago - Roderigo conversations are little more than sounding boards for Iago, since Roderigo knows little of Iago's intent, but the best example follows the murder of Duncan" "Macbeth doth murder sleep..."Although seemingly a conversation, he is so introspectively horrified that her presence is not noticed. Try reading the lines omitting her 'responses.'

Some critical perspectives:

McDonnell quoting Clemen:

"Today we tend to associate the soliloquy primarily with mediation and the expression of emotion, with introspection, and with what Matthew Arnold called “the dialogue of the mind with itself” Yet, in pre-Shakespearean drama it was only occasionally used for purposes which had to do with reflection or inner conflict: more often if fulfilled the function of the chorus...of clarification of the plot

“To what extent does the soliloquy now also give expression to a false or distorted self-image, to an element of self-deception, or even a deliberate attempt to deceive others?”

Observation of McDonnell:

Should the soliloquies be addressed to the audience or remain introspective?

Clemen notes:

There are more than 300 soliloquies total in all 37 plays, and 61 cluster in the tragedies ranging from a half a line to 581/2 lines (Hamlet: “Oh what a rogue...”)

“Shakespeare’s soliloquies became an organic part of his dramatic compositions, and this process began early on...the soliloquy expresses something which has all the appearance of inevitability and credibility. Shakespeare lets his soliloquies confirms what the audience and reader already know, fulfilling at once the expectations of the audience and the demands of dramatic art.”

Champion’s classification scheme for Hamlet’s soliloquies:

1. Change happens from the expository to the philosophical.
2. “...agony of self-knowledge gained through error.”
3. Champion rejects 1 and 2 for Hamlet, believing that the soliloquies are devices for “complication,” not for clarity.”
4. Seems to acknowledge the Bowers’ idea of how Hamlet changes in the latter acts of the play.
5. The soliloquies from I,ii to IV,iv a personality that is less coherent than #4 suggests.
6. Murder? revenge? determination? procrastination? suicide? choleric or melancholic?
7. The soliloquy is the key to Hamlet’s vacillating personality

Clemen on Hamlet’s Soliloquies:

1. They how Shakespeare at the peak of his powers
2. They link between the inner and outer action of the play
3. Why are the needed? (Instructor note: remember what Gibson did)
4. Hamlet is lonely, and the antic-disposition motif makes its impossible to know him directly.
5. After a dramatic moment, a soliloquy allows the emotions to break out.
6. Each soliloquy gives new information and forces us to confront contradictions.
7. Do the soliloquies deal with the delay issue?
8. Self-dramatization is important--1-2-3 and the last, the actor explores the theatrical potential of the lines. That means they have information of a dramatic value.
9. Dramatize how Hamlet deals with the external world and the environmental circumstances.
10. His thoughts tend toward the universal embodied in the individual (see the Arden edition; note on the passage)
11. Hamlet focuses on details that impact him, and the soliloquies explore this.
12. Soliloquies 1 and 4 predict what will happen in an imaginative sense.
13. Often the Hamlet at the beginning of the soliloquy is not the same as the one at the end.

Clemen on the "To Be:"

1. Here it seems that the audience is invited to see new possibilities--weak dramatic context?
2. Shakespeare seemed to have made this one deliberately ambiguous.
3. Note that this once comes right after the “Rogue and peasant slave” one of the end of II.
4. Hamlet does not seem to refer to th is or the Claudius-Polonius conversation.
5. This one is a caesura of contemplation when contrasted with what came before it.
6. Did any thing characteristic of Hamlet’s thinking foreshadow this one?
7. Does not use the first person, and we seem to be at the genesis of thoughts predicated on what
has come before, and what he imagines what may come after.
8. Does it dramatize an active man who wants to weigh the consequences?

Suppose as an initial reader of Hamlet, you were given a text with no soliloquies. What would you think? How would your opinions change if then you then examined the standard text? Look at the difference between the Olivier and Gibson film versions of the text.

We need to come to some understanding of what the soliloquies contribute to the meanings of the play and our understanding of Hamlet's character.

For each of the soliloquies, consider the following:

1. Dramatic context--why is it where it is; what just happened or is about to happen--should it be located somewhere else?

2. Philosophical context--does the passage offer a metaphysical or epistemological or axiological view of the microcosm or macrocosm?






3. What is the intention of the speaker--go beyond the "being alone on the stage revealing inner thoughts to the audience" idea. What else is involved?

4. What is the meaning--such a question is almost impossible to answer due to its vagueness, so refine it--meaning in what sense, on what level etc. Henry James made the comment that characters are not interesting unless they are placed in dramatic situations that allow consciousness to grow. How do the soliloquies contribute to that process?

5. Style--look for motifs and themes in the soliloquies. Can you determine the way Hamlet thinks? Is the Coleridge charge of "excessive reflection" justified?

7. III,i,56-to be----This one passage has probably generated more comment than any other in Shakespeare. A useful critical summary is in the Appendix of the Arden Edition. What follows are two interpretations, one suggesting a very metaphysical reading, and another more pragmatic. What is your view?


Before I can form any rational scheme of action under the pressure of distress, it is necessary to decide whether after [before] our present state, we are to be or not to be Is it nobler mentally to suffer from arbitrary fortune, or to resist our troubles and end them? To die is no more than to go to sleep, and when we sleep we end the horrors we must endure. Such an ending would be wonderful. To die is to sleep and perhaps to dream, but there's a problem. What reality we dream of that exists after death must make us hesitate. A long life therefore, must be endured. Otherwise, who would endure time's trials, arrogant men, unreturned love, legal obstacles [etc.] when one could resolve all the problems with a dagger? Who would accept life's horrors but for the fact that beyond the grave from which no one returns, we know not what to expect? The will becomes paralyzed, and we have to accept our present torment rather than risk the life to come. Therefore, our [moral] understanding makes us cowards, and thus our resolve to act is sickened by excessive thought [melancholy], and significant moments that require a response are left unanswered and unacted upon.


Before I can form any rational scheme of action under the pressure of the ghost's command to revenge, it is necessary to decide whether after [during] my present state, I am to act or not to act. Is it nobler mentally to suffer from the time being out of joint or to oppose the growth of Claudius' vicious mole and kill him? To die is no more than to go to sleep, and when sleeping, I can forget the horror of murder and incest. To forget would be wonderful. To die is to sleep and perhaps to dream, but there is a problem. What reality I dream of after death constitutes bad dreams, and that causes hesitation. A long life, therefore, must be endured. Otherwise why should I endure time being out of joint, arrogant kings, my girl's rejection, "legally" being kept from the throne...when I could end it all with a dagger? Who would accept horrors such as these but for the fact that beyond the grave from which no one returns, we know not what to expect? My wit is diseased, and I have to accept my present torment rather than kill myself and risk the life to come. Therefore my evaluation of my situation makes me a coward, and my resolve to act is paralyzed by excessive thought, and significant calls to revenge are left unanswered and unacted upon.

In Shakespeare, there is usually a passage spoken by a major character usually in act one that seems to encapsulate the play's key themes. Stylistically, the passage embodies the major motifs/figures of speech in the play. Its function is a lot like a thesis paragraph in a paper, allowing you to focus your intentions in one place, and affording the reader an opportunity to know what you are about. See if you can locate and explicate the theme passage in Hamlet

Instructor comment:

Does Hamlet think dialectically [Click here for Plato], treating first concepts as assumptions. Does he pose a thesis, antithesis, synthesis which, Hegel like, continuously evolves to...?

If Harold Bloom is correct in Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, his consciousness is so vast that it even races ahead of his creator: "It is Hamlet's Triumph over Shakespeare...that the prince implicitly persuades us he knows more than his creator does...Hamlet longs for a mighty opposite, and discovers he has to be his own." (pp. 112/136)