One of the earliest printed instances of the word “loneliness” in English literature can be found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. However, although Hamlet’s solitariness has been seen as one of the play’s central innovations, the new term does not describe the soliloquizing Prince, but instead, a silent Ophelia who reads a book while Hamlet speaks. Because Ophelia’s quiet, readerly loneliness frames Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy, the characters become foils to each other in Act III.i. Where Hamlet makes a confession of his thoughts, Ophelia disavows the stage tradition whereby supposedly solitary characters confess their thoughts to the audience. Shakespeare’s reference to “devotion” in conjunction with “loneliness” during this confessional scene reveals a theological dimension to his experiments with this new concept and the convention of the soliloquy. As the play proceeds, Hamlet undergoes a conversion that makes him more and more like Ophelia in her loneliness. The play culminates in Hamlet’s final refusal to confess himself, which I read as a lonely renunciation of the soliloquy form. Thus, Ophelia plays more of a role in the history of loneliness, and of lone-speaking, than has previously been recognized.


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pp. 521-551
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