dcsimg Full Document - ProQuest Learning: Literature
ProQuest Learning: Literature View My List
Search for: Search for Authors Search for Criticism Search for Reference Search for Multimedia Search for Literary Works

 Quick Search:


Cite Article Link to this page See this article in print format Email this article Add this page to my My List

Use this text
See a Table of Contents for this publication.

Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies

Margaret Maurer, Shakespeare Quarterly(Washington) , Winter 2005, Vol. 56, Iss. 4, pg. 504

PDF PDF Format

Full Text:
(Copyright Johns Hopkins University Press Winter 2005)

Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies. By JAMES HIRSH. Madison and Teaneck, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2003. Pp. 470. $75.00 cloth.

Twenty-five years ago, the Modern Language Quarterly published James Hirsh's discussion of Hamlet 3.1, the "To be or not to be" scene, in which he put forward the argument that the famous speech is a feigned soliloquy. Intending what he says to be overheard by his enemies, Hamlet is using the speech to mislead Claudius:

If he had enough resolution to engage in enterprises of great pitch and moment, he would-so the speech suggests-commit suicide. Lacking the courage and resolution to commit suicide, therefore, he also lacks the courage and resolution to engage in enterprises of great pitch and moment, lacks the fortitude, if he ever came to suspect Claudius, to take revenge on a king.1

This interpretation of the scene is within the grasp of any thoughtful reader of the play, but Hirsh is right to feel that his 1981 essay staked a claim to the argument by carefully working out its elements.

Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies contextualizes this reading by defining the conventions of soliloquy in early modern drama, Hirsh argues that when persons on the Shakespearean stage speak to themselves they are characters in a fiction speaking in character; soliloquies are occasions of self-address. Hirsh stresses that they are speaking. That is, soliloquies and asides are audible in the fiction of the play, liable to be overheard by any other character in the scene unless elements of an episode make it clear that the speech is protected or "guarded" (23). Consequently/experienced Renaissance playgoers"-the phrase becomes formulaic-"who were familiar with the dramatic convention of their own time" (122) would have been alert to"To be or not to be" being overheard by the other characters in the scene and to Hamlet's expectation that it might be overheard.

To define the conventions of the soliloquy, Hirsh discusses situations in which characters speak to themselves in Homeric epic through the poetry of Virgil, Ovid, and Milton. He also surveys the drama of ancient Greece, Rome, medieval England, and the theater contemporary with Shakespeare, with two chapters devoted to a discussion of Shakespeare's use of soliloquy and aside. He notes examples of feigned soliloquies in Shakespeare (Iago in Othello, Edmund in King Lear, Helena in All's Well that Ends Well). A feigned soliloquy in George Chapman's The Conspiracy of Charles, Duke of Byron, is particularly relevant to Hirsh's point about "To be or not to be," seeming to allude to that moment in Hamlet.2

Saying what an early modern soliloquy is, Hirsh is equally emphatic about saying what it is not: it is not the externalized workings of a character's mind and heart. Hirsh supports his conviction on this point by excavating the language and rhetoric of poetic and dramatic texts. His argument is also theological."The Reformation emphasized the individual's private relationship with God" (115), so poets and playwrights would not create simulations of speech that impute to their readers or audiences anything like the godlike power of knowing a character's inward thought: "All of Shakespeare's plays in one way or another dramatize the consequences of the fact that human beings do not possess the divine power of reading minds" (189).

Hirsh's study of the device of the soliloquy has interpretive consequences for many of Shakespeare's plays. This aspect of his book is not always convincing. He is emphatic about the significance of his argument about soliloquized speech for a reading of Hamlet: "That the'To be, or not to be' speech is a feigned soliloquy is not merely a clever 'interpretation.' It is the only explanation of what happens in the episode that makes sense" (237). Though he concedes that this interpretation does not resolve all the questions that arise about Hamlet's behavior (254), the reading of the play he draws from it simplifies some of those questions. Claudius never comments on "To be or not to be." What effect the speech, feigned or not, might have on him is quickly overridden by Hamlet's encounter with Ophelia, on which Claudius does comment, concluding that love is not the cause of the prince's melancholy and that he is dangerous and must be sent away. Hirsh sees "To be or not to be" as Hamlets attempt to exert control and the encounter with Ophelia as the loss of it; but outrage can be as feigned as debilitating lassitude. Taken together, the two extremes of Hamlets conduct in the scene enact the polarities of the melancholic humor, out of which Shakespeare fabricates the complex character of his hero by having Hamlet both profess it to be his actual condition and adopt it as a pretense. Suggesting that "To be or not to be" might be a ruse is a valuable contribution to the reading of Hamlet; but it opens up rather than precludes the possibility that the subsequent manic behavior with Ophelia is likewise a ruse.

Hirsh is surely right to see the loss of suspicion that "To be or not to be" might be feigned as the beginning of the Romantic Hamlet. His book describes the process whereby Hamlet's most famous speech came to be understood as the representation of his thought by documenting the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century contempt for self-addressed speeches. Misunderstanding the dynamics of 3.1, then, becomes the almost inevitable result of changing theatrical conventions. Hirsh's insight, however, into what he believes to be the original dynamic of the scene will not allow him to appreciate interpretations of the play that have lost track of the conventions of the early modern soliloquy; and he can seem preoccupied with how his point has been neglected or misunderstood:

No one in his right mind would suggest that the most eloquent, revered, and famous passage in world literature was originally staged as a deceptive ploy. (The present writer is clearly not in his right mind, if being in one's right mind entails accepting without question what everyone else accepts without question.)


Hirsh gives way to this tone more and more often as the book proceeds.

His argument about soliloquies in other Shakespeare plays is also sometimes reductively absolute. The speaker of a soliloquy, Hirsh believes, is not only in character; he is in character entirely within the fiction of the play. Asserting repeatedly that audience address was an outmoded convention by Shakespeare's day, Hirsh acknowledges few occasions when a Shakespearean speech might involve the audience in recognizing the simultaneous reality of the stage and the world the stage is representing. Outside of twenty-nine speeches delivered by designated choruses (prologues) or characters who revert to that condition as epilogues after the action of the play has concluded, Hirsh recognizes only three instances of audience address in Shakespeare's plays, "all in very early comedies, in which audience address is introduced specifically to ridicule the practice as antiquated and amateurish" (199).

Thus the experienced playgoers of Shakespeare's day would have registered Petruchio's address to them on how to tame a shrew (end of 4.1) as "an outrageous violation of the prevailing convention of the theater," marking him as "someone who outrageously violates conventions" (203). Experienced Renaissance playgoers would have also understood that in 5.3 of Richard III, Richmond and Richard do not hear one another "not merely because they are in different fictive locations but because each is asleep during the other's speech" (141). And the audience of King Lear

would have hoped and expected that Kent would awake at some point during Edgars soliloquy [in the editorially invented 2.3 of King Lear, a scene break rationalizing the imposition of Edgars speech on the episode of Kent in the stocks] and overhear Edgar describe his situation and that these two sympathetic characters would join forces. When Edgar leaves without interacting with Kent, Renaissance playgoers would have suffered disappointment in response to this lost opportunity.


At this point, if not before, those experienced Renaissance playgoers, as Hirsh imagines them, seem implausibly naïve.

Advance praise for Hirsh's book describes it as "a long overdue" study of the convention of soliloquy. A study of a dramatic device that has been employed so variously in the history of theater is indeed welcome. The value of Hirsh's execution of this project is, however, compromised by his defensiveness about his reading of Hamlet 3.1. Preoccupied with the significance of his argument about "To be or not to be," Hirsh will admit no nuance to the practice of soliloquy in Shakespeare that might undermine the premises he assembles in support of that argument.


1 James E. Hirsh, "The 'To be or not to be' Scene and the Conventions of Shakespearean Drama," MLQ, 42 (1981): 115-36, esp. 127.

2 Hirsh credits Stephen Booth with having alerted him to this connection (439n).


MARGARET MAURER, Professor of English at Colgate University, has published essays on Shakespeare's comedies.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
Part of the Literature Online family