Most of us associate the word “monologue” with the theatre. Some of the most famous monologues are part of the dramatic genre; Hamlet’s monologue, for example. Given this, what can a “dramatic monologue” possibly be? It is actually a type of poem. These poems in deed bare a relationship with the dramatic genre.
Just as in a novel, poems could not exist without an entity who utters them. Similarly to a narrator, please notice the use of the word “similarly”, a poetic voice is in charge of speaking the poem. This speaker has an unknown identity: “When I consider how my light is spent”. This verse comes from a famous sonnet by John Milton. Who is this “I” that is considering how his light is spent? We could speculate that it is Milton himself, but there is no way to be certain.
The first characteristic of a dramatic monologue is that this does not apply to the poetic voices of these poems: “This is my son, mine own Telemachus”. This verse comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses”. The speaker declares that he is Telemachus’ father, thus revealing his identity. Just as in a play, the audience or the listener of the poem knows who the speaker is. Having access to this information puts the text in a very specific context: now the listener associates the poetic voice with a set of characteristics. This leads us to the second aspect of the dramatic monologue: speakers are mostly famous characters. Contrary to what happens in lyrical poetry, the dramatic monologue surges within a specific context that is familiar to the listener. This allows us to have access to the extreme subjectivity of that character. We all might know the legendary Ulysses, but through this poem we have access to Ulysses’ own perception of himself.
Dramatic monologues also create a sense of place: “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall/ Looking as if she were alive […]”. This is the opening verse of Browning’s “My Last Dutchess”. The use of the word “That’s” is crucial. This word allows the listener to imagine the duke directly pointing out at the Dutchess’ portrait. This creates a sense of space: the Duke is uttering his monologue inside a room. Just as in most plays, we have a very clear sense of space.
This can also be applied to Tennyson’s poem: “There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail; / […] The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: / The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs”. Not only is Ulysses revealing to us where the port is, he is also indirectly stating the hour. The description of the lights, the personification of the moon that climbs and of the day who wanes allows us to conclude that Ulysses is giving his speech when the sun is setting.
The final characteristic of the dramatic monologue is that there is the evident presence of a silent listener. In Tennyson’s poem, he directly addresses his mariners: “[…] My mariners, / Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—“. In Browning’s poem, there is also someone listening: “[…] Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, […]”. Unlike poetic voices in lyrical poetry, these characters are uttering their poem because there is someone listening, there is someone who, in some way, demanded the information that they are providing. Ulysses gives his speech because his mariners still count on him; the Duke of Ferrara describes his relationship with his last dutchess because a family member of his new dutchess wants to hear about it.
In my opinion, dramatic monologues offer us an experience of extreme subjectivity. We all have general information about these famous characters, but when we have access to their perspective, we might change our own. The other characters who are listening to them never answer or have any participation in the conversation. Just like them, we have to listen and accept the information provided without questioning it.