Types of Utterance in Drama

Dramatic language is modelled on real-life conversations among people, and yet, when one watches a play, one also has to consider the differences between real talk and drama talk. Dramatic language is ultimately always constructed or ‘made up’ and it often serves several purposes. On the level of the story-world of a play, language can of course assume all the pragmatic functions that can be found in real-life conversations, too: e.g., to ensure mutual understanding and to convey information, to persuade or influence someone, to relate one’s experiences or signal emotions, etc. However, dramatic language is often rhetorical and poetic, i.e., it uses language in ways which differ from standard usage in order to draw attention to its artistic nature (see Language in Literature). When analysing dramatic texts, one ought to have a closer look at the various forms of utterance available for drama.

Monologue, Dialogue, Soliloquy

In drama, in contrast to narrative, characters typically talk to one another and the entire plot is carried by and conveyed through their verbal interactions. Language in drama can generally be presented either as monologue or dialogue. Monologue means that only one character speaks while dialogue always requires two or more participants. A special form of monologue, where no other person is present on stage beside the speaker, is called soliloquy. Soliloquies occur frequently in Richard III for example, where Richard often remains alone on stage and talks about his secret plans. Soliloquies are mainly used to present a character in more detail and also on a more personal level. In other words: Characters are able to ‘speak their mind’ in soliloquies. That characters explain their feelings, motives, etc. on stage appears unnatural from a real-life standpoint but this is necessary in plays because it would otherwise be very difficult to convey thoughts, for example. In narrative texts, by contrast, thoughts can be presented directly through techniques such as interior monologue or free indirect discourse. Consider the famous soliloquy from Hamlet:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause – there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.
(Shakespeare. Hamlet, III, 1: 56-88)

As soon as Ophelia enters the stage ("Soft you now, / The fair Ophelia", line 86f), Hamlet’s speech is technically no longer a soliloquy. Critics often refer to it simply as monologue, as this is the more general term. In case of a monologue, other characters can be present on stage, either overhearing the speech of the person talking or even being directly addressed by him or her. The main point is that one person holds the floor for a lengthy period of time. Hamlet’s soliloquy reveals his inner conflict to the audience. We learn that he wavers between taking action and remaining passive. The fact that he contemplates the miseries of life, death and the possibility of suicide shows him as a melancholic, almost depressed character. At the same time, his speech is profound and philosophical, and thus Hamlet comes across as thoughtful and intellectual. This example illustrates one of the main functions of language in drama, namely the indirect characterisation of figures.


pragmatic function
poetic function
symbolic meaning