Soliloquy - monologue

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Take care to use the words monologue and soliloquy correctly. Both words have their primary use in the context of the theatre, but they do not have the same meaning.

  • A monologue is a long speech delivered without interruption by a single actor: it may, but need not, be addressed to another person, e.g., another character in the play. The word monologue is also used to describe a play written for delivery by a single actor. Talking Heads, for example, is a series of such monologues written by Alan Bennett for performance on television.

A play written for a single actor is sometimes called a dramatic monologue, but the term dramatic monologue is also used to describe a poem in which the speaker is not the poet but some other figure whose identity is clear from the context. For example, the poem Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) is a dramatic monologue in which the Greek hero Odysseus (in Latin Ulysses), bored by the uneventfulness of life after his return to Ithaca from Troy, addresses the crew of his ship before they set sail together on one last voyage of adventure and discovery. Other well-known poems which are dramatic monologues are Musée des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden (1907-1973) and My Last Duchess by Robert Browning (1812-1889).

The word monologue is also used, often rather jocularly, to describe a long, and usually boring, speech made by an individual in every day life. For example, if I am asked 'Did you enjoy meeting John Smith at the party yesterday?' I might reply 'No, I had to listen to a monologue about his recent operation and the state of the National Health Service'.

  • A soliloquy is a speech which is delivered by an actor not to others but to himself or herself: it is the actor talking to himself, expressing his private thoughts in speech. A soliloquy may tell the audience what the speaker is thinking, but it is not meant to be heard by the other characters in the play, even though they may be on stage at the time. Two well-known examples of soliloquies in Shakespearean plays are Macbeth's speech beginning 'If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well/It were done quickly ... ' (Macbeth, I vii, lines 1-28) and Hamlet's speech beginning 'To be or not to be: that is the question ...' (Hamlet, III i, lines 56-90).

In summary, what is distinctive of a monologue is that it is a long speech delivered by a single person, while what is distinctive of a soliloquy is that it is a speech addressed by the speaker to himself or herself. It follows that some monologues will also be soliloquies - when they are addressed by the speaker to himself or herself; and that a soliloquy will be a monologue - unless it is very short.

Despite having different meanings, the words monologue and soliloquy have similar etymologies. Monologue comes from the Greek monos (μόνος, alone) and logos (λόγος, speech), while soliloquy comes from the Latin solus (alone) and loqui (to speak).