If you ever read your “Shakespeare”—and no dramatist should despise the works of another dramatist; he may always pick up something in them which may be useful for his next play—if you ever read your “Shakespeare,” it is possible that you have come across this passage:
Ham. To be, or not to be—”
And, so on in the same vein for some thirty lines.
These few remarks are called a soliloquy, being addressed rather to the world in general than to any particular person on the stage. Now the object of this soliloquy is plain. The dramatist wished us to know the thoughts which were passing through Hamlet’s mind, and it was the only way he could think of in which to do it. Of course, a really good actor can often give a clue to the feelings of a character simply by facial expression. There are ways of shifting the eyebrows, distending the nostrils, and exploring the lower molars with the tongue by which it is possible to denote respectively Surprise, Defiance and Doubt. Indeed, irresolution being the keynote of Hamlet’s soliloquy, a clever player could to some extent indicate the whole thirty lines by a silent working of the jaw. But at the same time it would be idle to deny that he would miss the finer shades of the dramatist’s meaning. “The insolence of office, and the spurns”—to take only one line—would tax the most elastic face.
So the soliloquy came into being. We moderns, however, see the absurdity of it. In real life no one thinks aloud or in an empty room. The up-to-date dramatist must certainly avoid this hallmark of the old-fashioned play.
What, then, is to be done? If it be granted, first, that the thoughts of a certain character should be known to the audience, and, secondly, that soliloquy, or the habit of thinking aloud, is in opposition to modern stage technique, how shall a soliloquy be avoided without damage to the play?
Well, there are more ways than one; and now we come to what is meant by stagecraft. Stagecraft is the art of getting over these and other difficulties, and (if possible) getting over them in a showy manner, so that people will say, “How remarkable his stagecraft is for so young a writer,” when otherwise they mightn’t have noticed it at all. Thus, in this play we have been talking about, an easy way of avoiding Hamlet’s soliloquy would be for Ophelia to speak first.
Oph. What are you thinking about, my lord?
Ham. I am wondering whether to be or not to be, whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer—
And so on, till you get to the end, when Ophelia might say, “Ah, yes,” or something non-committal of that sort. This would be an easy way of doing it, but it would not be the best way, for the reason that it is too easy to call attention to itself. What you want is to make it clear that you are conveying Hamlet’s thoughts to the audience in rather a clever manner.