The Use of Soliloquy in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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A Soliloquy is a dramatic convention, in which the character stands alone on stage, speaking. Originally it was a plot device, to enable a character to tell the audience what he planned to do next, for example, in the course of revenge. But the device is heightened in Shakespeare as it enables a character to reveal the ‘inner soul’ to the audience without telling the other characters. It is usual that one discovers more of a character from a soliloquy than from the action of the play alone. Shakespeare uses the soliloquies in ‘Hamlet’ to great effect; with Hamlet’s state of mind, his indecision and his use of imagery.

Hamlet’s state of mind in his first soliloquy is deeply nihilistic; Shakespeare presents the world as an ‘unneeded garden’, ‘rank in nature’. In the first soliloquy and the third, Hamlet is particularly nihilistic. In the first he says;

‘Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve into a dew!’

He clearly has suicidal tendencies, which crop up again in the third soliloquy;

‘When he himself his quietus make
With a bare bodkin’

Clearly, Hamlet is unhappy, but it may be because he has too little to do (He is briefly happy when things take his mind off his problems - e.g. when the players arrive - but even this, on reflection, leads to more soul searching in a soliloquy). Other aspects of Hamlet’s character for the most part get swallowed up by this consuming depression, but certainly he is oppressed by the hypocrisy of his uncle.

‘O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!’


‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’

are two fine examples, which do not bring out anger in him. It is not clear as regards Hamlet’s state of mind prior to the play, but the hasty marriage between Gertrude and Claudius, so soon after old King Hamlet’s death could be seen as a primary cause for his depression (‘That it should come to this! But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not two’). Perhaps their union has undermined Hamlet’s faith in people to such an extent that everyone and everything is tainted, thus he feels life is worthless;

‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to ...

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... whilst Claudius is, somewhat appropriately, compared to a satyr, a half man, half goat which symbolised lust without conscience. Such epic comparison seems unrealistic, as it probably is, but it does amplify the point Hamlet tries to make.

‘My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules’

is clear - Claudius and old King Hamlet were very different, as different as Hamlet to Hercules, the Greek hero who later became a God. Unrealistic, yet once again, it brings home the point.

This juxtaposition of euphemism, using the softer images in place of death, and amplification, using unrealistic mythological representations, by Shakespeare is a very effective tool, and he uses it to help the audience to feel the bulk and power of the feelings - the two play off each other to increase their power.

Shakespeare uses the soliloquy to its full power, using a wide range of techniques and images. We, the audience see far more of his ‘inner soul’ than perhaps is comfortable, and by doing so, ironically we are just as confused as Hamlet is, regarding the cause of his life should take as well as the inner workings of his soul.

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