Definition of Monologue

A monologue is a speech that one character delivers aloud to express his or her inner thoughts. Monologue examples are most frequently found in drama, though can be found in movies and poems as well. Characters generally present their monologues either to another character or to the audience in the understanding that other characters are able to hear them.

The word monologue comes from the Greek word μονόλογος (monologos), which means “solitary speech” or “a speech made when alone.” The definition of monologue dates back to Ancient Greek drama, where it was a foundational element of theater.

Difference Between Monologue, Soliloquy, Apostrophe, and Aside

The literary devices of monologue, soliloquy, apostrophe, and aside are all quite similar in that that involve a single character saying something for at least a slightly extended period of time. There are key differences between them, however:

  • Monologue: Delivered by one character to other characters, or at least overheard by other characters if delivered to the audience.
  • Soliloquy: Delivered alone by one character without any other characters overhearing.
  • Aside: Delivered directly to the audience without any other characters overhearing, the aside is a very short observation, whereas a soliloquy is a longer explanation of the character’s thoughts.
  • Apostrophe: A character breaks off from addressing one character to address a third party who may either be present or absent in the scene, or even to an inanimate object or intangible concept.

Common Examples of Monologue

Though a monologue only occurs in works of literature and entertainment, a monologue is very similar to the majority of speeches made by famous people and politicians. The function is similar: to explain the orator’s thoughts, spur the listeners to action, or mark a transition such as someone new coming to power or someone retiring. Here are a few famous speeches with those functions:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

—Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, 1851 Women’s Convention

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

—Winston Churchill, “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech, June 4, 1940

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans….So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.

—Lou Gehrig, “Luckiest Man” speech, July 4, 1939

Significance of Monologue in Literature

Monologues have a very important role in the history of theater. Drama developed first with the convention of there being only one character on stage as well as a chorus. Thus, dialogue was not a part of the very earliest plays. Indeed, monologues were the only way that information was communicated in very early Greek drama. Playwrights later expanded the convention to have two characters on stage, accompanied by the chorus, which grew to three characters (the protagonist, deuteragonist, and the tritagonist).

Monologue has remained important in dramatic works. There are examples of monologues in plays both ancient and contemporary, and from many different cultures. Monologues are often used to stand in for the passage of time, which otherwise can be difficult to demonstrate in theater, and are also often used as entrances and exits by characters. Some monologues can be used to spur action in other characters, while others just tell a story or explain information.

Examples of Monologue in Literature

Example #1

OEDIPUS: I care not for thy counsel or thy praise;
For with what eyes could I have e’er beheld
My honoured father in the shades below,
Or my unhappy mother, both destroyed
By me? This punishment is worse than death,
And so it should be. Sweet had been the sight
Of my dear children–them I could have wished
To gaze upon; but I must never see
Or them, or this fair city, or the palace
Where I was born.

(Oedipus the King by Sophocles)

This example of monologue comes from just after the climax in Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus the King in which Oedipus realizes he has murdered his own father. Oedipus has blinded himself to begin his atonement. In this monologue he explains that his own actions constitute his punishment, as he will never be able to forgive himself for what he’s done. Thus, the function of this monologue is to describe his inner thoughts and emotions.

Example #2

KING HENRY V: This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

(Henry V by William Shakespeare)

King Henry V’s “St. Crispin’s Day speech” is one of the most famous monologue examples in all of Shakespeare’s works, and indeed of theater. The purpose of this monologue is to spur Henry’s men on to action and get them ready for the next day’s battle. This monologue gives the troops confidence and pride in order that they may triumph against difficult odds.

Example #3

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

(“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot)

This is an example of a dramatic monologue from a poem. The narrator of T.S. Eliot addresses someone who is not the reader, which is clear from the very first line when he says, “Let us go then, you and I.” Monologues are less common in poetry because they necessitate the inclusion of characters, which are not a fundamental part of poetry the way they are in plays and novels. T.S. Eliot demonstrates the dramatic possibilities of monologue in poetry in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in that the narrator expresses his true feelings for his lover.

Test Your Knowledge of Monologue

1. Which of the following statements is the best monologue definition?
A. A speech that a single character makes which reveals his or her inner thoughts.
B. An interruption in a conversation for a character to address another character, inanimate object, or concept.
C. A direct address to the audience.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following statements about monologues is true?
A. Monologues only occur in theatrical tragedy.
B. Monologues are presented by a single character without any other characters on stage.
C. Monologues predate dialogue in theater.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following situations from a William Shakespeare play is an example of a monologue?
A. Gloucester comes onstage alone during Richard III and presents his famous speech beginning with “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
B. Portia dresses herself as a lawyer in The Merchant of Venice and speaks to the courtroom about the nature of mercy in her famous speech beginning with, “The quality of mercy is not strained.”
C. Romeo goes to Juliet’s balcony, sees the light on inside and remarks, “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Answer to Question #3 Show

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