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Using Streamed Content in the Shakespeare Classroom: Spotlight on Soliloquies

by Stephen Purcell
Associate Professor (Reader), University of Warwick

Exploring the same play through different performances helps us to deepen our understanding, challenges any assumptions about meaning, and demonstrates many possible interpretations. There are multiple filmed performances of individual Shakespeare plays here on Drama Online which can be used to support teaching and learning.

Below, Stephen Purcell examines the performance of selected Shakespeare soliloquies, comparing those filmed at the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe with those recorded in very different surroundings. He considers the ways in which they illustrate the range of possibilities open to the actor, as well as the impact on our interpretation of the plays as a whole.

When we use the word “soliloquy” to describe a speech that a character makes when he or she is alone onstage, we are, perhaps, already implying something about how that speech should be played. Derived from the Latin solus, meaning “alone”, and loqui, “to speak”, the word literally suggests a speech act in which the speaker addresses nobody but themselves – essentially, an instance of “thinking aloud”. In modern performances, we might typically see such speeches performed on a picture-frame stage, the audience in darkness, the actor staring into the middle distance.

However, when we consider the stage conditions for which Shakespeare wrote, the notion that such speeches are simply instances of characters “thinking aloud” becomes harder to sustain. At playhouses like the Globe, there was little to separate the fictional world from the here-and-now of the audience: performances took place in shared light, often on thrust stages, with spectators surrounding the actor on multiple levels. Such conditions invite actors to make direct contact with the audience, addressing them directly, responding to their reactions. Bridget Escolme has found it helpful to think of Shakespearean characters as having “performance objectives”, aims and desires which are inseparable from those of the actors playing them: for example, to persuade the audience “to listen to them, notice them, approve their performance, ignore others on stage for their sake” (2005: 16).

Henry IV Part 1 : Falstaff – A “catechism”

Towards the end of Henry IV Part 1 just before the Battle of Shrewsbury, Sir John Falstaff has a soliloquy in which he reflects on the emptiness of honour. He calls it a “catechism” (5.1.140) – a method of teaching, usually religious in nature, that is structured as a series of questions and answers. In the TV series The Hollow Crown (2012) , Simon Russell Beale’s performance of this monologue emphasises Falstaff’s interiority. He speaks it as a voiceover while Falstaff wanders through the soldiers’ camp. A mournful soundtrack complements Beale’s softly-spoken delivery, and Falstaff looks lost in thought as he contemplates his mortality. The presence of the busy soldiers around him, all oblivious to his musings, makes him seem an especially lonely figure, and his detachment from the business of the battle preparations suggests that his cynicism about the value of military honour is not shared by those around him – and, perhaps, that he is saddened by his comrades’ unquestioning readiness to die for honour.

Simon Russell Beale as Sir John Falstaff, Henry IV Part 1 (The Hollow Crown, Series 1, Episode 2)

A very different Falstaff emerges in Roger Allam’s performance in a 2010 production at Shakespeare’s Globe. Left alone onstage, Allam turns to the audience, provoking murmurs of laughter as he confesses his unwillingness to risk his life. He seems to be about to exit when a thought strikes him, and he returns to share it with the audience, asking them a series of questions about whether honour has any practical uses. The answer to many of his questions is obviously “no”, and although Allam’s Falstaff provides these answers, at some performances, spectators would join in – especially in response to his penultimate, most subversive question, “But will it not live [on] with the living?” (5.1.137-8). Whether the audience respond verbally or not, Allam’s Falstaff is clearly using this call-and-response sequence to forge a powerful complicity with them, and in this clip, their laughter and applause seems to indicate that they are persuaded by his deconstruction of honour. Unlike Beale’s isolated figure, Allam’s Falstaff goes into battle – where he will be comically cowardly – with the audience on his side.

Roger Allam as Sir John Falstaff, Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare's Globe on Screen (2008-2015)

Julius Caesar : Brutus – “It must be by his death”

Tom McKay engineers a different kind of complicity in his performance as Brutus in a 2014 production of Julius Caesar at Shakespeare’s Globe. In 2.1, Brutus weighs up the question of whether the assassination of Caesar can be morally justified. McKay speaks the first line of his soliloquy, “It must be by his death” (2.1.10), with a gesture towards the audience as if he imagines that they are already objecting to his plan. He picks out specific audience members over the following lines, like a politician at a public hustings. Pointing at a spectator in the middle gallery as he says the line “How that might change his nature, there’s the question” (2.1.13), he almost seems to imply that the spectator themselves had asked the question, and that they had a very good point. He crouches at the edge of the stage, teaching the spectators in the yard about the dangers of Caesar’s power. Over the course of this speech, McKay casts specific spectators as both his allies and his critics. By implication, the audience as a whole becomes a political public, a body whom Brutus needs to persuade.

Tom McKay as Brutus, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's Globe on Screen (2008-2015)

The same speech works differently in Ben Whishaw’s performance for the 2018 production at the Bridge Theatre. For this production, the Bridge Theatre was configured as a modern version of an Elizabethan playhouse, its central acting space being surrounded on four sides by audience members in raised galleries. The pit was filled with modern “groundlings”, who stood around several platform stages that were raised and lowered as necessary. As Whishaw’s Brutus begins his speech, he looks up from his desk to address the spectators in the galleries. This Brutus does not seem to be listening to the audience so much as lecturing them, making precise gestures with his fingers as if to illustrate the specificity of his points. He grows in confidence as his lecture progresses, swivelling to address larger sections of the audience and springing up to read them a pertinent passage from one of his books. It is striking that he seems interested only in the galleries, virtually ignoring the standing playgoers in the pit. Whishaw’s Brutus is thus less a “man of the people” than McKay’s, a member of an intellectual elite who is dabbling dangerously with a public about which he is comfortable theorising, but less able to engage directly.

Ben Whishaw as Brutus, Julius Caesar, National Theatre Collection 1

Othello : Iago – “Divinity of hell!”

So far, we have looked at figures who attempt to make the audience complicit in their actions – a cynical coward, and an idealistic would-be political assassin. In both cases, Shakespeare is inviting his audience to entertain, however temporarily and provisionally, the arguments of men with subversive ideas. Such complicity between the audience and the soliloquising figure becomes more problematic when we look at Iago in Othello. Iago dominates the direct address in this play, with more than double the number of soliloquies and lines of direct address allotted to Othello himself, and ten times more than any other character in the play. As he goes about trashing the reputations of Othello’s wife Desdemona and his lieutenant Cassio in order to manipulate Othello into thinking, falsely, that Desdemona has been unfaithful, Iago shares his plans with the audience, effectively casting them as co-conspirators.

This clip from Tim McInnerny’s performance at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2007 demonstrates some of the effects that a performer can achieve in the role, especially under shared light conditions. McInnerny’s Iago raises a laugh from the audience even before his speech begins, simply by sharing a satisfied smile at the successful unfolding of his scheme. He immediately starts to goad the spectators, playfully at first, daring them to accuse him of being “a villain” (2.3.331) as he points out, with a thick layer of irony, that the advice he has given Cassio is “directly to his good” (2.3.345). His eyes scan the crowd, looking for anyone who will dare to accuse him. His jovial demeanour suddenly drops as he spins around to tell a different section of the audience that this is “Divinity of hell!” (2.3.345), a malicious use of seemingly friendly advice. He seems almost to be defying the audience here, unconcerned by what he takes to be their condemnation of his behaviour.

Tim McInnerny as Iago, Othello, Shakespeare's Globe on Screen (2008-2015)

Notice how, just before the speech, the audience laughs at Cassio’s description of his comrade as “honest Iago” (2.3.330). This is indicative of a problem that productions sometimes have as audiences share privileged knowledge of the plot that Iago is spinning. When, a few scenes later, Othello begins his first major soliloquy, spectators are fully aware of the nature of Iago’s plan. Othello’s first line to the audience – “This fellow’s of exceeding honesty” (3.3.262) – is so palpably untrue that playgoers sometimes laugh at it, forcing the actor either to pretend he has not heard them, or to double down in order to defend Othello’s faith in Iago. Othello confides his fears to the audience, concluding that his blackness, his age, or his (as he thinks) unsophisticated manners must have weakened Desdemona’s love for him. If, as in this clip of Eamonn Walker’s performance from the same production, Othello makes eye contact with spectators when he shares these thoughts, seeking confirmation for his suspicions from them, it places the audience in an ethically impossible quandary: their silence, as theatrical convention demands, serves to confirm Othello’s baseless suspicions and to fortify Iago’s wicked scheme.

Eamonn Walker as Othello, Othello, Shakespeare's Globe on Screen (2008-2015)

Clint Dyer’s 2022 production for the National Theatre countered this aspect of the play’s dramaturgy by giving Paul Hilton’s Iago an onstage audience for his soliloquies. This chorus seems to be a figment of Iago’s own imagination. He wakes them up, one by one, as he touches them, and they pay him such direct, unwavering attention – at one point, leaning forward as a group to hear what he has to say – that it is not hard to interpret them as Iago’s wish-fulfilment fantasy, a manifestation of the sort of recognition he believes he deserves but does not get in life. Though Hilton’s Iago also addresses the theatre audience here, there is less of a sense that they are complicit in his plans. It is the onstage chorus, not the real audience, who nod in eerie approval of Iago’s scheme – the audience Iago wishes he were addressing, rather than the actual audience who sit before him in the theatre.

Paul Hilton as Iago, Othello, National Theatre Collection 3

Antony and Cleopatra : Cleopatra – “You’re caught!”

Another dramaturgical problem presents itself in Shakespeare’s distribution of soliloquies. In many plays, for example – though by no means all – the soliloquies are predominantly spoken by male characters. Iago and Othello, for instance, are given multiple opportunities to share their thoughts and feelings with the audience, but Desdemona gets a paltry three lines of soliloquy (4.2.109-11). In Antony and Cleopatra, the direct address is dominated by Antony and his right-hand man Enobarbus – Cleopatra gets no more than two brief asides (1.1.42-5 and 3.13.160), and even these are not necessarily played out to the audience. The effect of such unevenness can be to present the events of the play through a “male gaze”, inviting audiences to share the subjectivity of the soliloquising men but to view the female characters from an external perspective which is less interested in their interior lives. Productions can, however, counter such dramaturgical bias by finding opportunities for direct contact with the audience during other speeches. In this 2014 production of Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe, for example, Eve Best’s Cleopatra shares her delight in her seductive capabilities with the audience – but in her clowning with spectators, she makes them complicit in her strategies, rather than, as might be the case in a less interactive production, being objectified and displayed for the audience’s judgment.

Eve Best as Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare's Globe on Screen (2008-2015)

As these brief examples indicate, Shakespeare’s texts are open to a variety of different effects. Choosing to address spectators directly at key moments – or, indeed, choosing not to – can have profound implications for the interpretation of the play as a whole. The videos availables in Drama Online’s collection offer a wealth of performances that illustrate the effects of such decisions.


Escolme, Bridget (2005) Talking to the Audience: Shakespeare, Performance, Self, London & New York: Routledge.

All quotations from Shakespeare are from the Arden Third Series editions available on Drama Online.

Visit our Previously Featured Content page to view other topics including Interpreting Shakespeare: Discover the First Folio, The Plays of Caryl Churchill, Women in Shakespeare, Drama without Borders: Stories of migrants and refugees, The Climate Crisis in Theatre, Black British Playwrights, and LGBTQ+ Playwrights.