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Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies (review)

From: Shakespeare Quarterly
Volume 56, Number 4, Winter 2005
pp. 504-507 | 10.1353/shq.2006.0027

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Reviewed by
Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies. By James Hirsh. Madison and Teaneck, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2003. Pp. 470. $75.00 cloth.

Twenty-five years ago, the Modern Language Quarterly published James Hirsh's discussion of Hamlet 3.1, the "To be or not to be" scene, in which he put forward the argument that the famous speech is a feigned soliloquy. Intending what he says to be overheard by his enemies, Hamlet is using the speech to mislead Claudius:

if he had enough resolution to engage in enterprises of great pitch and moment, he would—so the speech suggests—commit suicide. Lacking the courage and resolution to commit suicide, therefore, he also lacks the courage and resolution to engage in enterprises of great pitch and moment, lacks the fortitude, if he ever came to suspect Claudius, to take revenge on a king.1 [End Page 504]

This interpretation of the scene is within the grasp of any thoughtful reader of the play, but Hirsh is right to feel that his 1981 essay staked a claim to the argument by carefully working out its elements.

Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies contextualizes this reading by defining the conventions of soliloquy in early modern drama. Hirsh argues that when persons on the Shakespearean stage speak to themselves they are characters in a fiction speaking in character; soliloquies are occasions of self-address. Hirsh stresses that they are speaking. That is, soliloquies and asides are audible in the fiction of the play, liable to be overheard by any other character in the scene unless elements of an episode make it clear that the speech is protected or "guarded" (23). Consequently, "experienced Renaissance playgoers"—the phrase becomes formulaic—"who were familiar with the dramatic convention of their own time" (122) would have been alert to "To be or not to be" being overheard by the other characters in the scene and to Hamlet's expectation that it might be overheard.

To define the conventions of the soliloquy, Hirsh discusses situations in which characters speak to themselves in Homeric epic through the poetry of Virgil, Ovid, and Milton. He also surveys the drama of ancient Greece, Rome, medieval England, and the theater contemporary with Shakespeare, with two chapters devoted to a discussion of Shakespeare's use of soliloquy and aside. He notes examples of feigned soliloquies in Shakespeare (Iago in Othello, Edmund in King Lear, Helena in All's Well that Ends Well). A feigned soliloquy in George Chapman's The Conspiracy of Charles, Duke of Byron, is particularly relevant to Hirsh's point about "To be or not to be," seeming to allude to that moment in Hamlet.2

Saying what an early modern soliloquy is, Hirsh is equally emphatic about saying what it is not: it is not the externalized workings of a character's mind and heart. Hirsh supports his conviction on this point by excavating the language and rhetoric of poetic and dramatic texts. His argument is also theological. "The Reformation emphasized the individual's private relationship with God" (115), so poets and playwrights would not create simulations of speech that impute to their readers or audiences anything like the godlike power of knowing a character's inward thought: "All of Shakespeare's plays in one way or another dramatize the consequences of the fact that human beings do not possess the divine power of reading minds" (189).

Hirsh's study of the device of the soliloquy has interpretive consequences for many of Shakespeare's plays. This aspect of his book is not always convincing. He is emphatic about the significance of his argument about soliloquized speech for a reading of Hamlet: "That the 'To be, or not to be' speech is a feigned soliloquy is not merely a clever 'interpretation.' It is the only explanation of what happens in the episode that makes sense" (237). Though he concedes that this interpretation does not resolve all the questions that arise about Hamlet's behavior (254), the reading of the play he draws from it simplifies some of those questions. Claudius never comments on "To be or not to be...