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A. D. Cousins and Daniel Derrin, eds., Shakespeare and the Soliloquy in Early Modern English Drama
by Richard Danson Brown

A. D. Cousins and Daniel Derrin, eds., Shakespeare and the Soliloquy in Early Modern English Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 288 pp. ISBN 9781107172548. £75 hardback.

What is a soliloquy? This is an ambitious collection of essays which provides many overlapping, complementary, and at times, contradictory answers to this question. As the editors state at the outset in defence of their endeavour: ‘there is no single scholarly volume that examines the soliloquy’s antecedents, diversity of form, theatrical functions […]. The aim of this book is to offer a comprehensive, albeit not complete, response to that need’ (1). In the course of these sixteen essays, readers are given access to significant literary and philosophical contexts, discussions of the practice of key dramatists from Marlowe to Davenant and what might be called a polyphonic conversation, of asides and feigned soliloquies (223), about the rights and wrongs of soliloquy as a term. In what follows, I focus on those essays and moments of disagreement which are likely to be of most interest to readers of Spenser Review.

Though not explicitly structured as such, the volume can be divided into three discrete sections: the first three chapters are devoted to contextual accounts of soliloquy. Instead of the habitual summary of the contents of the volume, Cousins and Derrin’s introduction instead explores soliloquy in terms of Quintilian and Roman rhetoric leading to the first – and in many ways leading – definition of this volume: soliloquy is ‘dramatically situated oratory’ and ‘a hybridized mode of speech: an oratorical moment set in a particularized dramatic situation’ (11-12). This is followed by chapters on ‘Roman Soliloquy’ (Joseph Smith) and ‘Tudor Transformations’ (Raphael Falco) which situate Elizabethan practice first in Roman drama, and then in patristic thought (Augustine) and late medieval drama. By far the largest portion of the volume follows, with twelve essays on the work of individual dramatists; of course, these chapters necessarily entail some contextual aspects, some of which I note below. Finally, James Hirsh’s ‘Empirical Approach’ to the question of definition upends some of the assumptions both of leading critics and of some of the essays in the rest of the volume.

Though Smith’s and Falco’s chapters are both valuable contributions to the literary antecedents of soliloquy – I would flag here in particular Falco’s suggestive account of potential connections between the Wakefield Second Shepherds Play and Gorboduc (38-41) – in general, the volume’s account of the literary antecedents of soliloquy risks being too compressed. There is no chapter which considers the connections between poetic speech broadly conceived and dramatic soliloquy. Nevertheless, one of the highlights is Catherine Bates’s stringent and compelling chapter on ‘Shakespeare and the Female Voice in Soliloquy’. This moves adroitly from a theorised understanding of soliloquy as a mode which is intrinsically ‘deviant, aberrant, and strange’ (57) through to a persuasive mapping of its origins in the female complaint tradition. For Bates, Shakespeare’s female voices never articulate any ‘real’ subjectivity, but are rather ‘imitation[s] of an imitation’ (65, 62); as she puts it, soliloquy discloses  ‘a “castrated” subjectivity: a subjectivity that is not organised by – and is, indeed, demonstrably the victim of – those illusions of a subjective “fullness”, “wholeness”, “truth”, “meaning”, “existence”, “presence” and “depth” that in some quarters the soliloquy is still taken to celebrate’ (60). Since some of those quarters are other chapters in the volume, this is a debate which reverberates throughout the collection, if seldom as directly as here. Though I was sympathetic to this reading, the essay nonetheless underlines the gap in the volume as a whole in terms of the ‘crossing point[s] from poetry to drama’ (60). In this light, the influence of Spenser and contemporaneous poetry in general on dramatic practice is a felt absence.

There is much to enjoy in the chapters on individual dramatists. Shakespeare inevitably dominates: Daniel Derrin considers Benedick and Malvolio in the contexts of forensic and deliberative rhetoric. Similarly, A. D. Cousins compares Hamlet’s first soliloquy with Bacon’s ‘Of Truth’ in terms of related uses of rhetoric to underline ethos. More traditionally, David Bevington celebrates soliloquy in the History plays as a development in the representation of subjective interiority. Patrick Gray reads the tragedies in terms of a tension between different value systems: ‘Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Lear find themselves caught between the claims of two incongruent value systems: one Roman, medieval, and aristocratic; the other modern, Christian, and democratic’ (107). In a minor key, Gray’s chapter provides a counterbalance to Bates’s ‘aberrant’ version of soliloquy in his rather charming admission of finding himself talking to himself ‘especially at moments of fraught indecision’ (113). Yet the richest essay on Shakespeare for this reader is Kate Aughterson’s systematic and empirical account of soliloquy in the late plays. With tabulated frequency lists for each of the six plays (including the collaboratively written Pericles, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen), she considers issues such as metre and poetic construction to offer useful conclusions about the ‘interruptive’ character of soliloquy. For Aughterson, such soliloquies are both ‘implicit stage directions’ (131) and ‘markers of key imagistic moments in the play’ (138). More of this kind of thoughtful, historically-informed formalism throughout could have been valuable.

Beyond Shakespeare, the reader is left with a tally of chapters which mimics current canonical standings: there are two chapters on Ben Jonson, one each on Marlowe, Middleton, Ford and Davenant. The omission of The Spanish Tragedy is partly covered by some suggestive remarks in Hirsh’s essay, but cases could certainly be made for the inclusion of commentary on the Beaumont and Fletcher canon, Webster, Heywood and others. Nevertheless, the essays here are rich and varied. L. E. Semler’s essay on Marlowe is particularly valuable on Tamburlaine’s appropriation of Ovid and Marlowe’s ‘jarring aesthetic values’ in the narrative context of the butchering of the virgins at Damascus and the wooing of Zenocrate (48). The two chapters on Jonson’s are complementary. For James Loxley, Jonson excels in ‘“infradrama”, the deictic insistence on the spatiotemporal moment of performance’ (141). In both Poetaster and Sejanus, the sparing use of soliloquy underlines that Jonson is very much a theatrical poet rather than a dramatist for reading, for whom the device is ‘not about crafting an appearance of psychological complexity’ so much as a way of revealing a more complex cultural poetics (142). Brain Woolland also insists on Jonson’s plays as scripts for performance in a participative theatre (153-54); in this view, Jonson’s comparatively sparing use of soliloquy, especially in The Alchemist, underlines the absence of stable selves in his plays (162). A particular strength of these two essays is their acknowledgement of the felt absence of modern theatrical traditions on which commentary might draw: as Loxley remarks in the context of Poetaster, assessing the play’s tone in relation to key roles like that of Ovid is particularly difficult without ‘any significant modern stage history’ (148).

Huw Griffiths’s essay on Ford does similar work in reconstructing non-Shakespearean soliloquy, characterising him as essentially a backward-looking dramatist (180), who nevertheless updates the device by showing that characters’ impulses to privacy are always being socially frustrated in the complex worlds of his plays: Ford is a specialist in the ‘interrupted soliloquy’, a form which might have particular resonance in later Jacobean and Caroline society (181). A. D. Cousins and Dani Napton pursue a related line in their reading of Davenant’s Macbeth, which they argue is not a failed attempt to modernise Shakespeare, but is rather a Hobbesian rewrite aimed at ‘healing’ seventeenth-century ‘national trauma’ (204), which reorients Shakespeare’s soliloquies ‘away from the personal and private towards the sociopolitical’ (203). Maybe so, yet the extensive chunks quoted in the essay don’t fully persuade that the Davenant version is ripe for a full-scale rehabilitation. Against this, Andrew Hiscock’s chapter on Middleton offers a fascinating discussion which sheds light on the animating tension within the volume between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ or ‘sociocultural’ readings of soliloquy. For Hiscock, Middleton’s soliloquies do very different cultural work from Shakespeare’s; Middleton is ‘less reassuring to spectators anxious […] to engage with heroic characterisation’ (169). Taking in both further reconsideration of the sources of soliloquy – which usefully stresses complaint and lament as well as rhetoric – Hiscock presents Middleton as an astute student of tradition, who manipulates both the Shakespearean model and the pliable device of the aside, as well as modes inherited from medieval theatre. Overall, Middleton is a dramatist who shows ‘the multi-valency of soliloquising on stage, determined to respond with suppleness to its abilities to offer resources for narrative, descriptive, didactic, motivational and supplemental information’ (176).

This leaves one chapter. James Hirsh’s essay returns to the question of definition and his preferred methodology: ‘What Were Soliloquies in Plays by Shakespeare and Other Late Renaissance Dramatists? An Empirical Approach’. As the title suggests, this is a counterblast to some aspects of recent criticism, privileging as it does the careful reading of primary evidence over theory or indeed later performance evidence. Hirsh serially dismantles assumptions about the device, rejecting first the idea that soliloquies represented ‘unspoken thought’ (206-08). The meat of the essay attacks the thesis that soliloquies were addressed to the audience, rather than that they were (in his preferred term) ‘self-addressed speeches’ (208-17). He concludes with further refutations of the notions that soliloquies represent characters’ ‘innermost thoughts’ (217-18) or ‘objective truth’ (218-21). Finally, he disposes of the truism that ‘To be, or not to be’ is a soliloquy: it is rather a ‘feigned soliloquy’, designed to fool Polonius and Claudius (223). As a reading experience, this is tremendously enjoyable, not least for its dismissive accounts of various eminent critics who have at one time or other espoused some of these positions. Yet in places, I do suspect it stretches even an empirical approach more than it can bear. For example, consider the contention that apostrophe can’t also take in aspects of audience address (212). This isn’t to dispute Hirsh’s central claim that in the main most Early Modern soliloquies were primarily self-directed address on which we eavesdrop; to use Cousins and Derrin’s opening formulation, ‘We as the audience are always the truly significant others who witness the soliloquy’ (11). It is rather to query whether self-address automatically excludes the canard of audience address. Reading both this terrific essay and the Introduction reminded me pleasurably – if not empirically – of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (BBC) with its generatively ‘deviant, aberrant, and strange’ rebooting of the soliloquy for modern TV drama. For Fleabag the character, the unheard-by-other characters piece-to-camera speech in the thick of some familial or sexual catastrophe (or ideally both) is always directed to us, the audience, those ‘truly significant others’, who can’t reply, but can richly empathise with her complaints, gleeful celebrations of poignant almost-victories, and underpinning it all, her pervasive tone of puzzled lament. And indeed, even as Waller-Bridge transmuted the soliloquy into a device for TV sitcom, in the final series she almost subverted it as the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) alone of all the characters almost overhears her deviant speeches.


                                                                                                            Richard Danson Brown

                                                                                                            The Open University


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Cite as:

Richard Danson Brown, "A. D. Cousins and Daniel Derrin, eds., Shakespeare and the Soliloquy in Early Modern English Drama," Spenser Review 50.2.8 (Spring-Summer 2020). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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