Style: Essays on Renaissance and Restoration Language and Culture in Memory of Harriet Hawkins

By Allen Michie; Eric Buckley | Go to book overview

Hamlet’s Dramatic Soliloquies
Richard LevinIT IS A COMMONPLACE OF SHAKESPEARE CRITICISM THAT THE SOLILOquies in his mature plays, unlike those in his earlier plays or in the plays of his predecessors, are highly “dramatic.” This involves two claims that are really distinct (although they may be related): that each soliloquy is integrated into the overall dramatic action, and that each one contains within itself a small dramatic action.1 I would like to test both these claims in an examination of the soliloquies of Hamlet, which will show that they are also dramatic in another sense, because they serve some very important functions in the play. There are eight of them, which I have numbered for convenient reference:
1. “O that this too too sallied flesh would melt” (1.2.129–59)
2. “My father’s spirit—in arms!” (1.2.254–57)
3. “O all you host of heaven” (1.5.92–112)
4. “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” (2.2.549–605)
5. “To be, or not to be” (3.1.55–89)
6. “ ’Tis now the very witching time of night” (3.2.388–99)
7. “Now might I do it pat” (3.3.73–96)
8. “How all occasions do inform against me” (4.4.32–66).2

When we apply the first claim—that these soliloquies are integrated into the overall dramatic action—we find that all of them except the fifth easily pass the test. They are all place-specific and cannot be moved, since they follow from the preceding action, or lead into the following action, or both. But if we ratchet up this claim by requiring them to be not only integrated parts of the action but also essential parts of it, then we find that many do not pass the test. In fact, we can locate them on a kind of continuum ranging from the most to the least dramatic in this sense. Only two of them qualify for placement at the most dramatic pole. The third soliloquy, which comes immediately after Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost, expresses his reaction to that encounter and his determina-

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