Ritika Sureka discusses the use and effectiveness of monologues in popular fiction and drama.
As I sat at home, watching Skyfall (a guilty pleasure of mine), Daniel Craig and his jawline had me mesmerised at first. Nevertheless, it was Judi Dench who made me pause and consider what was happening in the scene. Facing a public inquiry because of her questionable methods surrounding how she handled a case, she defends herself in a dramatic monologue addressing the board. Scornful stares, dry humour, and a quote from Tennyson as the cherry on top, this was classic Dame Judi Dench. There was obviously no doubt about its effectiveness, but what made this monologue stand out?
Before discussing the technique, we must first understand what a monologue is. There are broadly two types of monologues: internal and external. An external monologue is a speech made by one character to an audience, be that other characters or the actual audience of the play. Internal monologues on the other hand, sometimes referred to as soliloquies, are a means for one character can externalise their thoughts to the viewer or reader. The difference is that soliloquies are the only time one can know the true nature of the character’s thoughts. External monologues are filtered by the very presence of the audience, and so we cannot tell if the character is misleading us and phrasing their intentions to put themselves in a good light.
“When a character delivers a monologue, they hold the complete attention of the audience, which would be otherwise diluted if a similar speech were made in dialogue.”
One of the most infamously misleading or ironic monologues is Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech in Julius Caesar. It is so manipulative in fact, that it has been compared to various political speeches in history. Aside from the rhetorical discourse that makes it so powerful, how does the format itself add to its effectiveness? When a character delivers a monologue, they hold the complete attention of the audience, which would be otherwise diluted if a similar speech were made in dialogue. Hence, the character is the focal point where all the different energies on stage converge. This would then be the most effective way of getting through to an audience.
“Since the character reveals some of their most innermost feelings, soliloquies render them completely vulnerable to an audience”
Structure therefore is of vital importance, and one could say that Hamlet’s performance of “To be or not to be” in soliloquy form, is the primary reason why it is one of the most important pieces of writing and performance in theatre and indeed, literature. The reason why Shakespeare chose this format is evident; there is no way one can express a private thought as vulnerable as the desire to commit suicide without fully occupying the stage. This is exactly kind of the freedom a monologue gives a character. Since the character reveals some of his most innermost feelings, soliloquies render him completely exposed to an audience. The viewer engages in an intimacy with the character. It makes the former feel strong empathy, concern, or even discomfort at the confidentiality of the latter’s thoughts. The aim is to stir the emotions of the audience, regardless of what they are. Any actor worth their salt should be able to perform this soliloquy in an original way, as effectiveness lies in the genuine delivery.
Monologues in novels share a similar goal, but have different methods of conveying them. Examples of these range from the discourse on power in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to internal stream-of-consciousness monologues in the works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. However, there is a difference between how the reader feels when they read it and what an audience experiences when they watch it being performed. Despite an actor’s best efforts, the accessibility of the audience to the speech is still second hand and therefore more distant than the first-hand experience of the words the reader absorbs when they read a novel.
External monologues can hide a character’s true motives and present a false reality to the audience. On the other hand, internal monologues can stir emotions in the audience, by both offering a real glimpse into the character’s thoughts and by informing the audience of their true intentions, despite what the character may present to world.