Performing a Soliloquy—delivering text to an audience whilst alone on stage—can be daunting. It can be confusing as to whom you are directing the text, and even though your character is expressing their inner-most thoughts, there is no guarantee that they are being decisive … or even truthful. While they’re a theatrical device commonly associated with Shakespeare, soliloquies are increasingly prevalent in modern theatrical texts: in verbatim work, moments of direct address in post-modern work and, naturally, in one-person plays. Therefore, knowing how perform a soliloquy is an important part of any actor’s skill set.
Updated 23 August 2021
What Is A Soliloquy?
In short, a soliloquy is a monologue spoken to oneself. Usually, a character will deliver a soliloquy while alone on stage and outline their current thoughts, feelings or desires: it is an opportunity for a playwright to clarify aspects of character/plot to the audience, who are either spoken to directly or indirectly as a result.
Take, for example, Hamlet’s most famous speech ‘To be or not to be”. Hamlet tackles thoughts of death and suicide, and debates whether or not to take immediate action and revenge on his uncle Claudius. As he is not speaking to any other character than himself, his discourse is frank and open; the soliloquy grants him an opportunity to express himself, and for Shakespeare to give his audience an insight into the young Prince’s mind.
However, even in this most famous example, there is ambiguity in both character and writing that forces the actor portraying Hamlet to make some interesting choices. What is Hamlet trying to achieve by saying these things? What is his motive to speak these words? Which ‘Hamlet’ is speaking in this scenario: the avenger? The son? The hero? The murderer? And where the hell is the audience while all of this is happening?
How To Bring Your Soliloquy To Life
A soliloquy is a deeply intimate part of a performance. That said, when you are performing a soliloquy it must always be accessible: find ways of sharing this deeply personal moment for your character with the audience—allow them into your mind and invite them to follow you on the journey. As we mentioned above, there are certain considerations unique to the soliloquy that will help lift your your performance. However, there are also some simple, foundational processes actors should look to to best prepare the piece.
Finding The Objective In A Soliloquy
One of the most damning mistakes an actor can make with a soliloquy is to think that because there is no scene partner, there is no conflict or objective. An objective is still there—we guarantee it. But it is often more about the character wrestling with themselves than another person in the play. “What does your character want in this scene?” is always a good departure point for finding your objective. In the context of a soliloquy, a better question is perhaps “What is this character trying to convince themselves of in this scene?” Think back to Hamlet’s soliloquy, and how the very first line introduces the audience to its life-or-death conceit.
Once your objective is clear, plot strong actions as you would in any other scene. These will give you the ammunition you require to tack through the words and help your character find some kind of insight or reach a decision. The sharper and more logical you are in your thought pattern, and the actions that inform them, the easier it will be for the audience to stay engaged. Plotting strong actions towards your objective will also help your soliloquy develop a forward, upward momentum. As famed British director Peter Brook once said: “The journey is the destination.” So let your soliloquy build. Every new thought/beat must be strong and must draw you closer to the piece’s conclusion. The audience should be leaning forward to find out what your character’s final decision might be.
Who Is Your Character Speaking To?
A harder question to answer than you might think. Often, in a soliloquy, a character can fragment into the different versions of themselves—giving distinct voices to each side of their argument. Returning, again, to Hamlet’s famous speech, we can view this as him wrestling with the different facets of his being he struggles to reconcile his troubled mind: Hamlet the avenger, Hamlet the philosopher, the son, the Prince, the nephew, the murderer, even the coward…
When performing a soliloquy, try finding every version of your character and addressing them: allowing yourself and the audience to crawl deeper under your character’s skin. You might also wish to experiment with directing specific lines to different versions of your character—linking the content with an appropriate character trait.
Where Is The Audience In A Soliloquy?
And always, always, think about the audience. If your soliloquy is centred around an important question, try asking the audience. If your character is trying to convince themselves of something, try convincing the audience. And if your character has done—or is about to do—something truly heinous, try justifying your actions to the audience. (You may have noticed how helpful an actor’s thesaurus of action words can be.)
Often, when performing a soliloquy, an audience can act as a sort of “jury” that sits in judgement of your character’s words/thoughts/actions. They can offer up a strong counterpoint in the pursuit of your objective. Even if your character doesn’t address the audience directly, think about using them as a conversational tool. If anything, this will help them feel engaged with the work you are doing onstage as your efforts are employed directly into helping them understand your character’s primary concerns.
Above all, enjoy the creative freedom performing a soliloquy can offer: how ambiguity can result in some fascinating choices. In a soliloquy, your character is not just pouring out their innermost hopes and fears, they are threatening to burst out of the play and into the real world! The soliloquy represents the dangerous, exciting space in theatre where the line between ‘imagined’ and ‘real’ is so fine it almost blurs. Learn to experiment in this space—learn to respect and enjoy it. There are few areas in all of drama that can yield quite so intriguing and unexpected results.