By Matthew Jones
Matthew Jones’s literary analysis essay explores the soliloquy as a dramatic device in two of Shakespeare’s plays, King Lear and Measure for Measure. Written under the direction of Professor Paula Berggren, this essay was awarded the first annual Berlfein Prize for Best Undergraduate Nonfiction Writing in Spring 2010.
The paradox of Shakespearean theater lies in its ability to communicate plausible emotion and generate compassion while using artificial language and adhering to theatrical conventions: the use of the soliloquy is just such an example of this predilection for artificiality. Originating in Hellenic tragedy as speech uttered by a single character alone and generally addressed to the audience, the soliloquy survived throughout the Middle Ages as a dramatic device that bridged the gap between the play’s fiction and its audience’s reality, often with some didactic purpose in mind (Hirsch 78). Renaissance theater, however, relied on the soliloquy more as a self-addressed speech than an audience-aware one, thus reflecting the humanists’ emphasis on individuality and privacy as well as respecting the confines of the play’s fictitious world (Hirsch 116).
Notwithstanding conspicuous dissimilarities in tone and genre, both Shakespeare’s King Lear and Measure for Measure were written around the same time and include more soliloquies than other works of his œuvre. Both draw in varying degrees from a medieval theatrical heritage while following contemporary artistic trends. Yet both versions of the soliloquy, the medieval one and its Renaissance counterpart, are nonetheless examples of speech—soliloquies as the expression of interior thought would not be standard practice until the end of the seventeenth century (Hirsch 116)—that is not veridical, which the soliloquies in both King Lear and Measure for Measure emphasize by self-reflexively alluding to theatrical conventions. The soliloquy thus becomes both the most contrived as well as the most honest instance in King Lear and Measure for Measure: because the soliloquy is uttered alone, the need for pretense and disguise required in society is suspended and, consequently, Edmund and Edgar’s soliloquies inKing Lear and those of Angelo and the Duke in Measure for Measure feature the characters at their most uninhibited. However, differences in the treatment of the soliloquy must be noted: the soliloquies of Edgar and Edmund acquire an important explanatory power in King Lear, crystallizing the play’s thematic concerns and elucidating its allegorical qualities, whereas those spoken by Angelo and the Duke exemplify a moral ambiguity.
King Lear resembles other works in the Shakespearean canon in the way that multiple plot lines echo one another. Just as As You Like It features three versions of pastoral romance that imperfectly imitate the courtship of Rosalind and Orlando, King Lear’s Gloucester subplot mirrors and eventually intersects with Lear’s narrative of family dysfunction and moral dichotomy. However, Gloucester’s sons, the legitimate Edgar and bastardly Edmund, have the majority of the soliloquies in King Lear, and, in this regard, the subplot differs significantly from the main plot that boasts hardly any. Edmund’s soliloquies, for instance, are the occasion for an unrestrained indictment of “the excellent foppery of the world” (1.2.128) that anticipates Lear’s command to “crack Nature’s molds” (3.2.8). Similarly, Edgar’s soliloquy articulates a frankly pejorative view of society echoed by Lear on the heath: “the country gives me proof and precedent / Of Bedlam beggars” (2.3.13-14).
The soliloquy as a mode of speech shared primarily by Edmund and Edgar furthermore encourages a contrast of these two characters. Though their equal capacity for soliloquizing highlights an analogous discrepancy between their true identities and the social roles they inhabit, the nature of disguise differs for both Edgar and Edmund. Edmund’s first soliloquy details a Machiavellian plan of action to gain power, whereas Edgar’s monologue registers the unfortunate condition in which he merely reacts to his half-brother’s machinations, an illustration of the consequences of cruel ambition. Additionally, Edgar’s is a reductive disguise, one of “presented nakedness” (2.3.11): if “robes and furred gowns hide all” (4.6.167) in King Lear, then Edgar’s removal of his clothes symbolizes an instinct to have truth. Conversely, Edmund’s reference to his own “cue of villainous melancholy” (1.2.145-146) reveals the deliberateness of Edmund’s stratagems.
In addition, the contrasting soliloquies of Edmund and Edgar illustrate the polarity that characterizes the moral temperature of King Lear. Indeed, Edgar’s notion “to take the basest and most poorest shape” (2.3.7), to look like the Bedlam beggars with nails in their bare arms, like so many stigmata, recalls Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion. It is, moreover, a conspicuous association with Cordelia, who exhibits Christ-like features and even speaks like Christ in the New Testament when she says: “O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about” (4.4.24). It is apparent from Edmund’s soliloquy, however, that he embraces his natural impulses—“thou, Nature, art my goddess” (1.2.1)—and thus aligns himself with Goneril and Regan, whose unconscionable, sadistic mutilation of Gloucester certainly earns them Lear’s dehumanizing appellations: they are “wolvish” (1.4.315), “pelican daughters” (3.4.75).
Though the soliloquies of Edmund and Edgar allow them the most opportunity for introspection or self-justification, neither examines the kind of dilemma that is most often associated with the Shakespearean soliloquy. Instead, the tone of both soliloquies is largely presentational, even pragmatic. Lear poignantly asks: “is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?” (3.6.76-77), but Edmund offers no adequate answer for his roughness or lechery in his soliloquy, instead reasoning: “I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing” (1.2.142-144). Goneril likewise remains an unknowable, evil character until her own end, her last words being: “ask me not what I know” (5.3.163). The goodness of Edgar and Cordelia similarly goes unexplained. Ultimately, it is neither reasonable nor psychologically realistic to assume that Edmund, Regan and Goneril are extremely, organically bad or that Edgar and Cordelia are intrinsically and incorruptibly good. Yet King Leareschews any explanation of Edmund’s badness or Edgar’s goodness in their soliloquies: this portrait of unfettered evil threatening to overpower virtue thus confers upon the play an allegorical and even monumental quality, so much so that Kent’s question “is this the promised end?” (5.3.265) seems timely and appropriate.
If King Lear is memorable for its mythological dimensions, Measure for Measure instead defines itself by the prosaic. Lear’s understanding of impending death (“we unburthened crawl toward death” (1.1.43)) permeates King Lear; the travel to the coast of Dover—the edge of Albion and, as the planned site of Gloucester’s suicide, a locus of extinction—represents the narrative’s own inexorable movement toward death. Measure for Measure substitutes for King Lear’s thanatology and the sterility of castles and the heath a livelier locale, a contemporary Vienna marked by lifelike diversity and fecundity. Perhaps it is no less ambitious thanKing Lear in its exploration of human nature, but the psychology of Measure for Measure’s characters captured in the soliloquies is decidedly more nuanced: neither Angelo nor the Duke proves to be an entirely bad or purely good character.
Angelo is the character in Measure for Measure with the most soliloquies, which afford him the opportunity for his own defense though he is vilified by Isabella by the play’s end as “an adulterous thief, / An hypocrite, a virgin-violator” (5.1.40-41). His soliloquy (2.4.1-30) illustrates a spiritual turmoil that mitigates an otherwise sordid character. Unlike Edmund, who fully accepts his lechery and actively lives by it, Angelo’s sin lies in being tempted, vacillating between the heaven that has his “empty words” (2.4.2) and Isabella who has captured his interest and imagination. Yet the kind of agonized speculation that Angelo’s soliloquy lends itself to—“why does my blood thus muster to my heart” (2.4.20)—remains unanswered. Such is his moral confusion that he dispenses with binary Christian morality, suggesting: “let’s write ‘good angel’ on the devil’s horn” (2.4.16). Furthermore, the soliloquy’s ability to muster sympathy for Angelo’s case depends on the way in which he describes his experience as universal: Angelo counts himself among both the fools and wiser souls who are vulnerable to temptation in his soliloquy, whereas Edmund differentiates himself from the rest of the world by contrasting its “excellent foppery” with his own clairvoyance.
Angelo might in some regards be considered a representative example of Edmund’s foppish world: like the “whoremaster man” who lays “his goatish disposition on the charge of a star” (1.2.137-139), so too does Angelo make his apostrophized blood the responsible party in his lust. It is not mere goatish disposition, however, that compels Angelo to lust for Isabella: paradoxically, it is her virtue he desires, “to sin in loving virtue” (2.3.182). In the same way that Measure for Measure itself defies genre—for, though it ends somewhat happily, it lacks the light-heartedness of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies—Angelo resists easy judgment thanks to a soliloquy that humanizes him.
If Angelo’s soliloquies create a sense of intimacy and verisimilitude, the Duke’s soliloquy (3.2.264-285) is, conversely, alienating and impersonal. The change in rhyme and meter from iambic pentameter to iambic tetrameter confer to the soliloquy an incantatory quality, bespeaking a simplicity that ill befits a complex situation. The soliloquy captures a conspicuous change in the Duke’s temperament, from his former flexibility and generosity of expression—his tendency for enjambments in the first scene—to an orthodoxy that is reflected in the rigidity of his style. Yet the Duke’s soliloquy not only contrasts in style and tone from that of Angelo, but signals a shift in the play’s tone, by his planned interference—“craft against vice I must apply” (3.2.291)—that all but silences the rest of Measure for Measure’s cast.
Though the Duke’s soliloquy quite rightly indicts Angelo for his hypocrisy, it sheds no light on the Duke as a character. In this way, his soliloquy is self-effacing, offering no perspective on his motivations. Instead, it seems as though he has completely assumed his friar disguise by infusing his soliloquy with religious vocabulary, with such borrowed expressions as “the sword of heaven” (3.2.264). The Duke fails in his soliloquy to recognize his own part in creating the circumstances for potential tragedy, by lending his power in absentia to Angelo and thereby neglecting his ducal duties. Moreover, it might be considered hypocrisy on the Duke’s part to criticize Angelo for being an “angel on the outward side” (3.2.275) even as he misappropriates a sacred capacity.
It is, furthermore, a kind of dramatic irony that the Duke, who in the play’s beginning tells Angelo that Nature is a “thrifty goddess” (1.1.39), neglects his ducal role and subsequently bungles his ecclesiastical one. Like Edmund, who refers to his half-brother Edgar as “the catastrophe of the old comedy” and to his own “cue of villainous melancholy” (1.2.145-146), there is a theatrical quality in the stratagems of the Duke, something of the playwright’s creative appetite: “craft against vice I must apply” (3.2.291). Yet the self-consciously theatrical mode in which Edmund operates throughout King Lear blurs the boundaries that separate the theater’s fiction from the audience’s reality, for he proves equally capable of eliciting his father’s unquestioning trust and inspiring the audience’s complicity. Though the Duke’s soliloquy proves him to be as versatile an actor as King Lear’s Edmund or Edgar, so completely does he inhabit the ecclesiastical role that its artifice is destroyed only when his friar’s cowl is forcibly removed by Lucio in the play’s last act.
King Lear and Measure for Measure testify to the versatility of the soliloquy, its ability to somewhat explain the particular speaker, as in King Lear, or to complicate and obfuscate the characters’ motives in Measure for Measure. However, both versions of the soliloquy ultimately cast doubt on the possibility of justice. The inability to make sense of the characters or their deaths in King Lear, which provokes Lear to ask the inanimate Cordelia: “why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life / And thou no breath at all” (5.3.308-309), invalidates the notion of divine fairness—instead, the gods have become “wanton boys” (4.1.36) by the play’s end.Measure for Measure’s denouement is no less disquieting, for the justice hinted at in the Duke’s soliloquy, which is doled out in the play’s last act, proves to be an unsatisfactory and hollow resolution.
Hirsh, James. Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2003. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure: with New and Updated Critical Essays and a Revised Bibliography. Ed. S. Nagarajan. New York: Signet Classic, 1998. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear: with New and Updated Critical Essays and a Revised Bibliography. Ed. Russell Fraser. New York: Signet Classic, 1998. Print.
Published December 16, 2014