Shakespeare's Use of Soliloquies to Reveal the Characters of Macbeth and Hamlet

Categories: William Shakespeare


William Shakespeare, often regarded as one of the greatest playwrights in history, masterfully employs the technique of soliloquy to offer profound insights into the characters of Macbeth and Hamlet. A soliloquy, a form of monologue where a character expresses their innermost thoughts and feelings, allows the audience to delve deep into the psyche of the characters. In this essay, we will explore the diverse ways in which Shakespeare employs soliloquies to delineate the personalities, emotions, and psychological transformations of Macbeth and Hamlet in two of his iconic tragedies: "Macbeth" and "Hamlet.

" The opening scenes of both plays present starkly different portraits of these characters, and as the narratives unfold, the soliloquies serve as windows into their evolving states of mind.

I. Initial Impressions: Macbeth and Hamlet's Contrasting Beginnings

At the onset of "Hamlet," the audience encounters a melancholic and brooding Hamlet, profoundly affected by the recent death of his father, King Hamlet, and the hasty marriage of his mother, Queen Gertrude, to his uncle Claudius.

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Hamlet's demeanor is characterized by bitterness, skepticism, and a palpable disdain for his uncle, in sharp contrast to Macbeth's initial portrayal in "Macbeth." Macbeth, a valiant and loyal warrior, begins the play with a sense of purpose and devotion to King Duncan. Unlike Hamlet, who harbors resentment towards Claudius and Gertrude, Macbeth's loyalty is unshaken.

A. Hamlet's First Soliloquy

In Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet delivers his first soliloquy, where he laments the world's corruption and his inability to end his own life. His famous lines, "O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!" reveal not only his profound grief over his father's death but also his contempt for his mother's hasty marriage.

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Hamlet's scathing remark, "Frailty, thy name is woman!" underscores his disillusionment with Queen Gertrude's actions. This soliloquy not only highlights Hamlet's deep attachment to his deceased father but also sheds light on the hasty and, in his eyes, incestuous nature of Gertrude's marriage to Claudius.

Additionally, Hamlet's indecisiveness is subtly introduced here, a tragic flaw that will play a pivotal role in the unfolding drama. This soliloquy invites the audience to empathize with Hamlet's emotional turmoil while providing critical insights into his character.

B. Macbeth's Ambition and Imagery

In "Macbeth," Act 1, Scene 7, Macbeth's first soliloquy unveils a different facet of his character. Here, Macbeth grapples with his ambition and the idea of assassinating King Duncan to fulfill the witches' prophecy. The imagery in Macbeth's soliloquy is striking, as he envisions a dagger leading him to Duncan's chamber. He yearns for a swift and decisive murder, saying, "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly." This soliloquy offers a glimpse into Macbeth's inner conflict, as he battles his ambition against his moral reservations.

Macbeth's thoughts on the "bloody business" he is about to commit reveal his growing turmoil. The soliloquy underscores the power of his imagination, which becomes a source of torment as he envisions the dagger dripping with blood. Unlike Hamlet, who grapples with his internal dilemmas and moral quandaries, Macbeth's soliloquy reveals his ambition driving him toward a dark and irrevocable path.

II. Hamlet's Evolution: From Contemplation to Action

As the "Hamlet" narrative progresses, the character of Hamlet evolves from a contemplative and melancholic prince to a decisive and revenge-driven individual. This transformation is evident in his soliloquies, particularly in the famous "To be or not to be" speech.

A. Hamlet's Existential Dilemma

In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet delivers one of the most iconic soliloquies in literature, the "To be or not to be" speech. This soliloquy encapsulates Hamlet's profound philosophical contemplations about the nature of existence, suffering, and death. The opening line, "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles," highlights Hamlet's propensity for overthinking and introspection. He grapples with the idea of enduring life's hardships passively or taking action to confront them.

Hamlet's consideration of suicide, marked by the line "Or to take arms against a sea of troubles," demonstrates his intellectual depth and awareness of the moral and religious implications of such a choice. The soliloquy not only showcases Hamlet's internal conflict but also reinforces his tendency to weigh the consequences of his actions thoroughly.

B. Hamlet's Strategic Use of Theater

In Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet employs another soliloquy to reveal his evolving character and his strategic approach to exposing King Claudius's guilt. He chastises himself for not displaying genuine emotions while watching the play within a play, which mirrors the murder of his father by Claudius. Hamlet's words, "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her?" reflect his frustration at the actor's ability to feign deep emotions for a fictional character while he himself remains paralyzed by his emotions.

This soliloquy marks a shift in Hamlet's character from excessive contemplation to calculated action. He recognizes the potential of the play within a play to elicit a reaction from Claudius that could confirm his guilt. Hamlet's strategic thinking and his ability to adapt his behavior highlight his transformation from a grieving son to a shrewd avenger.

III. Macbeth's Tragic Descent: From Ambition to Desolation

In "Macbeth," the soliloquies chart the tragic descent of the titular character from a courageous warrior to a guilt-ridden and paranoid tyrant.

A. The Dagger of Macbeth's Imagination

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth delivers a soliloquy as he contemplates the murder of King Duncan. The soliloquy revolves around Macbeth's hallucination of an invisible dagger leading him to Duncan's chamber. This vivid imagery reflects Macbeth's susceptibility to the power of his own imagination, which torments him with visions of the impending murder. Macbeth's soliloquy in this scene reveals his inner conflict between ambition and morality.

The phrase "If it were done when 'tis done" emphasizes his desire for a swift and conclusive act, while the imagery of the "dagger of the mind" symbolizes the intrusive and haunting nature of his thoughts. Macbeth's vulnerability to his own imagination foreshadows the psychological torment he will endure as the consequences of his actions unfold.

B. Macbeth's Desolation: "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow"

In Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth delivers a soliloquy that encapsulates his tragic descent into desolation and despair. His lines, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time," reflect a profound sense of hopelessness and nihilism. Macbeth has come to view life as meaningless, a series of monotonous and unrelenting tomorrows.

The metaphor of "a brief candle" illustrates the fleeting nature of life, and the broken iambic pentameter at the end of the soliloquy underscores Macbeth's emotional turmoil. This soliloquy serves as a poignant commentary on the consequences of unbridled ambition and unchecked violence. Macbeth's transformation from a brave and loyal warrior to a despairing and tormented ruler is laid bare in this soliloquy, marking a tragic arc in his character development.

IV. The Influence of Relationships: Hamlet, Gertrude, and Ophelia

The relationships that Macbeth and Hamlet share with other characters in their respective plays significantly impact their character development and the soliloquies through which they express themselves.

A. Hamlet's Complex Relationship with Gertrude

Hamlet's relationship with his mother, Gertrude, plays a pivotal role in his character development. His feelings towards Gertrude oscillate between anger, disappointment, and grief. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet's bitterness towards his mother is evident when he exclaims, "Frailty, thy name is woman!" His disillusionment with Gertrude's hasty remarriage to Claudius fuels his inner turmoil. However, as the play progresses, Hamlet's emotions towards Gertrude become more complex.

B. Ophelia's Impact on Hamlet

Ophelia, the object of Hamlet's affection, also influences his character and soliloquies. Hamlet's emotional turmoil intensifies as he grapples with Ophelia's rejection and apparent madness. This emotional turmoil is evident in his soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 1, as he reflects on the deceptive nature of women and love. The soliloquy showcases Hamlet's vulnerability and disillusionment in matters of love.

C. Macbeth's Relationship with Lady Macbeth

In contrast, Macbeth's relationship with his wife, Lady Macbeth, plays a pivotal role in his descent into darkness. Lady Macbeth views her husband as a valiant and noble soldier but believes he lacks the necessary ruthlessness to seize power. Her manipulation and persuasion drive Macbeth to commit regicide. Macbeth's soliloquies reflect his internal struggle between ambition and morality, exacerbated by Lady Macbeth's influence.


In the works of William Shakespeare, soliloquies serve as powerful tools for character development and audience engagement. Through the soliloquies of Macbeth and Hamlet, we witness the evolution of complex characters, from their contrasting beginnings to their eventual fates. Hamlet's transformation from contemplation to action and Macbeth's tragic descent into desolation are underscored by their innermost thoughts and emotions expressed in these soliloquies.

Additionally, the influence of relationships, particularly with Gertrude, Ophelia, and Lady Macbeth, shapes the characters' development and adds depth to their soliloquies. While Hamlet's character evolves from melancholic contemplation to strategic action, Macbeth's trajectory descends from ambitious valor to desolate despair. These characters' journeys are brought vividly to life through the eloquence and depth of Shakespeare's soliloquies, offering enduring insights into the human condition.

Updated: Nov 13, 2023
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Shakespeare's Use of Soliloquies to Reveal the Characters of Macbeth and Hamlet. (2016, Apr 16). Retrieved from

Shakespeare's Use of Soliloquies to Reveal the Characters of Macbeth and Hamlet essay
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