Approaching plays
Approaching plays

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Approaching plays

7 Dramatic conventions

7.1 Soliloquy

A soliloquy is a speech, usually quite lengthy, delivered by a character who is alone onstage. It is a convention of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in particular, apparently giving direct access to that character's thoughts and feelings, divulging their intentions and reactions to events and to other people, and thus making that character more intimately known to the audience.

Activity 15

Read the following soliloquy (Othello, Act III, scene 3, 255–76) and think about what we learn about Othello.

OTHELLO This fellow's of exceeding honesty,
And knows all qualities with a learned spirit
Of human dealings. If I do prove her haggard,
Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings,
I'd whistle her off, and let her down the wind 5
To prey at fortune. Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have; or for I am declined
Into the vale of years – yet that's not much -
She's gone: I am abused, and my relief 10
Must be to loathe her. O, curse of marriage!
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love 15
For others’ uses. Yet ‘tis the plague of great ones;
Prerogatived are they less than the base.
‘Tis destiny unshunnable, like death:
Even then this forkéd plague is fated to us
When we do quicken. Desdemona comes: 20
Enter Desdemona and Emilia
If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself
   I'll not believe't.


Othello refers to two other characters in this speech, praising the honesty of one, Iago (whom we, the audience, know, is far from honest), and showing his distrust of the other, his wife, Desdemona, in the metaphor of lines 3–6, in which he compares her to a hawk. The comparison suggests a desire for control, which is emphasized later (ll.11–13) when, exclaiming against the trials of marriage, he bewails the fact that men can never entirely possess women. He thinks of reasons for Desdemona's presumed decline of interest in him – his race, his lack of a courtier's eloquence, his age – thus revealing his own insecurities. The repugnance of the metaphor of a toad in a dungeon reveals the violence of his emotions and his attempt to convert love into loathing. The next few lines (16–20) are difficult, but the general meaning seems to be that cuckoldry (‘this forkéd plague’) is as inevitable as death, a fate that comes at birth, though the metaphor of disease also implies contagious suffering, as though infidelity is ‘caught’ from others. As Desdemona enters, however, he quickly changes his mind, and distrust is banished.

Through this speech, his first soliloquy, we see Othello's vulnerability and the precarious nature of the unwitting Desdemona's relationship with him. He reveals to the audience his state of mind, taking us with him through the tortuous twists and turns of his emotional suffering. But the audience, privy to Iago's machiavellian plans, realize that Othello, a man of action rather than of political intrigue, has been well and truly duped. Desdemona, who loves him for reasons other than the physical attributes he mentions, has no thought of infidelity.

Activity 16

Now read Iago's soliloquy from Act II, scene 3. What function is it fulfilling?

IAGO If I can fasten but one cup upon him,
With that which he hath drunk tonight already,
He'll be as full of quarrel and offence
As my young mistress’ dog. Now my sick fool Roderigo,
Whom love hath turned almost the wrong side out, 5
To Desdemona hath tonight caroused
Potations pottle-deep; and he's to watch.
Three else of Cyprus, noble swelling spirits –
That hold their honours in a wary distance,
The very elements of this warlike isle – 10
Have I tonight flustered with flowing cups,
And they watch too. Now ‘mongst this flock of drunkards,
Am I to put our Cassio in some action
That may offend the isle. But here they come;
If consequence do but approve my dream. 15
My boat sails freely both with wind and stream.


Iago tells us about his plans for the evening. Drink is going to be important. In the first place, he intends to make Cassio drunk and therefore quarrelsome – an easy task, since he (and the audience) knows already that Cassio cannot hold his drink. Secondly, he has set Roderigo, who has already drunk to the bottom of a two-quart tankard (a ‘pottle’), to be on the alert. He has also set up three Cypriots in a similar way. In this alcohol-fuelled situation, Iago intends to provoke Cassio to some as yet undefined offensive action. The soliloquy ends as Cassio and his companions enter with wine; a rhyming couplet neatly clinches Iago's reflections as the action runs into the fulfilment of his plan.

This is a different sort of soliloquy from the one discussed above, since Iago is not telling us about his emotions and feelings. He has other soliloquies in which he purports, at least, to explain his motivation and inner feelings, but here he is explaining how he intends to further his plot against Othello. In this period, soliloquies are frequently given to the villain of the play, the manipulators of the plot. Their soliloquies, therefore, are a means by which the audience's knowledge can be kept ahead of that of the characters who are being duped or manipulated. The audience is made complicit, and put in a position of being able to judge the effectiveness of the plan.


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