What’s in a soliloquy?

Research Associate, Sean Murphy, offers his thoughts on what makes the soliloquies of Shakespearean comedy different to those in a history play or tragedy…

Is the language of a soliloquy in a Shakespearean comedy different from that of a soliloquy in a history play or a tragedy? You would think so. But how? Intuitively, you might say that soliloquies in comedies are all about love, in histories, they’re probably about the King, and in tragedies, characters are always saying O. And you’d be right. But could you go any further than that? What other words mark out soliloquies in each genre as distinct from the other two genres?

I set out to find the answers by comparing frequency lists of soliloquies in comedies, histories and tragedies, and identifying statistically significant words. My comparisons produced some predictable and some surprising results.

As expected, comedies contain almost two-thirds of uses of the word love in soliloquies. Apart from conventional uses such as I do love thee, love is often personified implicitly as the goddess, Venus or the god, Cupid, as in Love, lend me wings. The relative overuse in comic soliloquies of love, and the pronouns I, she and her, contrast with a relative underuse of thy and thou. This confirms our idea of the typical soliloquist as an introspective lover, and also reminds us that second-person pronouns are more likely to be used in conversation, at least in comedy.

In history soliloquies, the most significant words are Henry and King – hardly surprising since seven of the ten history plays in the First Folio concern a king called Henry, and there are no characters called Henry in comedies or tragedies! Male names and titles (York, Edward, Richard and Clarence) are very significant in histories, whereas the female pronoun ‘her’ is statistically rare. As the critic Juliet Dusinberre says, in Shakespeare’s history plays, women stand for permanence and fidelity against shifting political sands but are essentially impotent.

Sometimes research reveals a word that appears to be significant, but is used repeatedly by one character, so is not necessarily representative of that genre. In the following soliloquy, Richard III, who is a rather self-absorbed character, uses myself nine times in as many lines of soliloquy:

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by;
Richard loves Richard, that is I, and I,
Is there a murderer here? No — Yes, I am.
Then fly — what, from myself? Great reason, why?
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself — Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself:
I am a villain — yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well — fool do not flatter,
– Richard III

Interestingly, the repetitions of myself contrast with the one instance of thyself in the last line, perhaps suggesting that Richard is suffering from what we now call a multiple personality disorder.

Tragic soliloquy accounts for over half the uses of the expression O, as in O Brutus! – just the kind of passionate style you might expect in tragedy. But perhaps the most curious finding is the frequency of ‘t’, the contracted form of ‘it’. Maybe Shakespeare intended it to represent the speech style of a character speaking alone and affected by circumstances such as bereavement or destitution: Fie on’t! O fie! (Hamlet I.ii); Who is’t can say, “I am the worst?” (King Lear IV.i).

Thou, thy and thee are characteristic of tragic soliloquies (unlike in comedy, remember). They usually refer to absent characters, places, nature or objects (such as a candle): If I quench thee, thou flaming Minister, / I can again thy former light restore (Othello, V.ii). Why are thou, thy and thee so common? It may be because tragedy involves forces beyond a character’s control (even though it is their failings which lead to the tragedy). Perhaps Shakespeare is suggesting that characters are trying to communicate with the wider universe in an attempt to justify their feelings and actions.

To Shakespeare lovers, that which we call a soliloquy will always be special. Knowing a little bit more about the kind of language that makes up different kinds of soliloquies can perhaps help us to appreciate the artistry that lies within.

About Mathew Gillings

PhD Linguistics student at Lancaster University.
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