In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Interrogating the Soliloquist: Does It Really Go without Saying?
  • John C. Freeman (bio)

What is he [Hamlet] doing? (ROS repeats movement.)




To himself? (ROS starts to move. GUIL cuts in impatiently.) Is he alone?


No, he’s with a soldier.


Then he’s not talking to himself, is he?


Not by himself…

—Tom Stoppard (1967)

In his The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio surveys the contemporary fields of neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience, observing they have belatedly but “finally endorsed emotion” in their investigations (1999, 40). According to Katherine Wider, this upgrading of emotions is critical to understanding how “the affective nature of consciousness…makes all conscious states self-conscious” (2006, 70). Citing studies of people who have sustained neurological damage to areas associated with emotion, she notes that in such instances a diminution of the sense of self occurs. It is only the “emotional tinge,” she argues, “that produces a sense of the self as the owner of one’s present experience.” Lacking this affective component, “there is no sense of the ownership of experience, and with it there is always at least a minimal sense of ownership” (65). Central to how we take possession of the self is our oral interaction with others. As Lance Strate argues, we “sound out” others in our initial formation of a self:

The fundamental form of language is sound, and from the beginning we listen to the speech of others in our environment and make sounds of our own. Typically, this leads to speech acquisition. We learn language by speaking out loud and listening to others as they do the same. Only later do we internalize these voices as memory and other forms of thought.

(2009, par. 36) [End Page 131]

The origin of consciousness in our oral interactions suggests such speech can open a window into this interiorization process. In the figure of the soliloquist, we encounter the perfect clinical subject for obtaining what Damasio describes as a “sense of a self in the act of knowing” (1999, 308). Indeed, the work of discourse analysts and cognitive theorists, with their focus on the relationship between verbal behavior and cognitive processes, proves quite useful in this regard. Unfortunately, many literary critics would have us erase the earliest trace of this interiorization: speech itself. Although the clueless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail in their comic interrogations of Hamlet, we can at least credit them for having tried to sound him out from his lowest note to the top of his compass. Literary critics, on the contrary, have been altogether tone-deaf in this regard. Regarding their treatment of the soliloquy, what they offer is a veritable dumb show. James Hirsh, for example, separates speech from thought in claiming, “The words spoken by the actor do not represent words spoken by the character but words merely passing through the mind of the character” (2003, 13). Morris Arnold, too, poses a conundrum in describing the soliloquy “as a milieu for disclosing inaudible thoughts.” Here, the audience is instructed to divorce the medium from the message:

In that case, the soliloquizer is represented not as talking to himself but as thinking to himself, and we pass from the frank convention to one subtly suggestive. When this type of soliloquy is used with full effect…the auditor forgets the medium of speech, merely realizing that he is becoming aware of the thoughts and the emotions of the soliloquizer.

(1965, 21)

Attempts to split the soliloquy from its oral component by divorcing the actor’s speech from “words merely passing through the mind of the character” hearken to Petrarch’s privileging of interiority over speech. (One thinks, for instance, of St. Augustine’s amazement over discovering Ambrose silently reading a book instead of following the usual practice of reading it aloud.) Noting a shift from Petrarch’s privileging of interiority over speaking and eloquence, Robert Strozier identifies later humanists as assuming a “different theoretical position” in their belief that interior processes could be represented by the medium of language. Outward signs (verba) could be connected “to the unknown res: thought, intention, meaning, or the interiority of things in general” (2004, 203). “Oratory...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 131-154
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.