Princes, Patriarchs, + Pretenders: 6 Shakespeare Monologues for Men

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Anyone who’s seen Kenneth Branagh’s deliciously ambiguous take on the Prince of Denmark in his 1996 “Hamlet” or Ian McKellen’s iconic “spider in its nest” portrayal of the title villain in Richard Loncraine’s “Richard III” (1995) knows that Shakespeare’s repertoire affords actors the opportunity to take time-honored characters and make them their own. 

Whether you resonate with a prince’s existential musings or the diabolical machinations of a tyrant, it’s all about finding a piece that allows you to shine. Here are six of the Bard’s best monologues for men.

“Hamlet” Act I, Scene II: Hamlet 

While Hamlet is away at school, his father dies; shortly afterward, his mother marries his uncle, Claudius, which was considered incestuous in Shakespeare’s day. The night the play begins, the dead king tells his son that his brother murdered him and asks Hamlet to avenge his death. The next day in court, Claudius warns his nephew to stop mourning his father. Once Hamlet is alone, he mulls over his uncle’s admonition. 

This monologue is a beautiful example of the power words hold in Shakespeare’s plays. As he speaks, Hamlet begins to understand that something is amiss and confirms the depth of his emotions. As much as he resists admitting that what the ghost told him might be true, once he airs his suspicions out loud, he can no longer ignore them.

Tip: Resist the temptation to slow down the text; instead, perform its twists and turns at the speed of Hamlet’s thoughts.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ‘tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on’t--Frailty, thy name is woman!--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,Would have mourn’d longer--married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

“Hamlet” Act III, Scene III: Claudius

Determined to prove that his uncle really did murder the king, Hamlet arranges for a troupe of actors to perform a play in court that enacts a story mirroring Claudius’ own: killing his brother, marrying his widow, and assuming the throne. Overcome with guilt, Claudius flees the performance and talks through his guilt and fear: If he prays, will God forgive him for his sins?

Tip: The stage direction is right there in the script: “Bow, stubborn knees.” When you kneel, investigate how the action affects your performance.

O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will.
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin
And both neglect. What if this cursèd hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood?
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offense?
And what’s in prayer but this twofold force,
To be forestallèd ere we come to fall,
Or pardoned being down? Then I’ll look up.
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder”?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardoned and retain th’ offense?
In the corrupted currents of this world,
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ‘tis not so above:
There is no shuffling; there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compelled,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it, when one cannot repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limèd soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees, and heart with strings of steel
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe.
All may be well.

“The Merchant of Venice” Act III, Scene II: Bassanio

 This monologue begins, “So may the outward shows be least themselves.” No one knows this better than Bassanio, who isn’t what he pretends to be. The stakes are high: Even though he’s deep in debt, he’s determined to woo the wealthy Portia; what’s more, he’s roped his best friend, Antonio, into his predicament. In order to win Portia’s hand, Bassanio must choose correctly among three caskets. If he picks the wrong one, he has vowed never to marry.

Tip: As you think about how to approach this speech, consider whether you believe Bassanio’s love for Portia outweighs his love for Antonio.

So may the outward shows be least themselves;
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damnèd error but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts.
How many cowards whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars,
Who inward searched have livers white as milk,
And these assume but valor’s excrement
To render them redoubted. Look on beauty,
And you shall see ‘tis purchased by the weight,
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it.
So are those crispèd snaky golden locks,
Which maketh such wanton gambols with the wind
Upon supposèd fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulcher.
Thus ornament is but the guilèd shore
To a most dangerous sea, the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest. Therefore, then, thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee.
Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge
‘Tween man and man. But thou, thou meager lead,
Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught,
Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence,
And here choose I. Joy be the consequence!

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Act I, Scene I: Egeus 

When considering this oft-performed comedic romp, it’s easy to skip past its darker moments. But the circumstances that set the story in motion point to potential tragedy. Here, Egeus brings his daughter, Hermia, before Theseus, the Duke of Athens. He’s also brought along her intended husband, Demetrius, and the man she loves, Lysander. In order to force Hermia to marry Demetrius, Egeus invokes an ancient Athenian law dictating that if she doesn’t do as he wishes, he has the right to kill her. 

Tip: When you’re in character, don’t judge Egeus’ horrifically patriarchal perspective—fight for it. 

Full of vexation come I, with complaint
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.—
Stand forth, Demetrius.—My noble lord,
This man hath my consent to marry her.—
Stand forth, Lysander.—And, my gracious duke,
This man hath bewitched the bosom of my child.—
Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes
And interchanged love tokens with my child.
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung
With feigning voice verses of feigning love
And stol’n the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gauds, conceits,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats—messengers
Of strong prevailment in unhardened youth.
With cunning hast thou filched my daughter’s heart,
Turned her obedience (which is due to me)
To stubborn harshness.—And, my gracious duke,
Be it so she will not here before your Grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens:
As she is mine, I may dispose of her,
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

“Richard III” Act I, Scene II: Richard 

This history play is a stunning portrait of a sociopath: the soon-to-be king Richard, a physically disfigured duke who’s determined to murder his way up the ladder to the English throne. He performs this soliloquy following a scene in which he successfully woos the widowed Lady Anne beside the corpse of Henry VI after admitting to her that he himself was Henry’s killer.

This monologue is a rare moment of change for Richard, as he has what he believes is a revelation: If Anne thinks he’s a “proper man,” then maybe he isn’t as ugly and misshapen as he thought. This is quite a change from his words in the previous act, in which he laments:

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.

Tip: To get into the energy of Richard’s epiphany, try to engage with every moment of this speech: Ask yourself questions as you go along, and speak every word fully and with feeling.

Was ever woman in this humor wooed?
Was ever woman in this humor won?
I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.
What, I that killed her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of my hatred by,
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against
And I no friends to back my suit at all
But the plain devil and dissembling looks?
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!
Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I some three months since
Stabbed in my angry mood at Tewkesbury?
A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
Framed in the prodigality of nature,
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,
The spacious world cannot again afford.
And will she yet abase her eyes on me,
That cropped the golden prime of this sweet prince
And made her widow to a woeful bed?
On me, whose all not equals Edward’s moiety?
On me, that halts and am misshapen thus?
My dukedom to a beggarly denier,
I do mistake my person all this while!
Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marv’lous proper man.
I’ll be at charges for a looking glass
And entertain a score or two of tailors
To study fashions to adorn my body.
Since I am crept in favor with myself,
I will maintain it with some little cost.
But first I’ll turn yon fellow in his grave
And then return lamenting to my love.
Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass. 

“The Winter’s Tale” Act III, Scene III: Antigonus

What happens when a leader asks a person to perform an inhumane, soul-wrenching task? Leontes, the King of Sicily orders one of his lords, Antigonus, to leave a newborn baby, Perdita, in the wild to die. Not only that, but he threatens to kill Antigonus and his wife, Paulina, if he doesn’t do as he asks. 

In this speech, Antigonus addresses the infant Perdita as a sudden storm arises. Immediately afterwards, he flees the stage in what is probably Shakespeare’s best-known stage direction: “He exits, pursued by a bear.”

Tip: Since this is a longer monologue, be sure to check the time limit for the audition.

Come, poor babe.
I have heard, but not believed, the spirits o’ th’ dead
May walk again. If such thing be, thy mother
Appeared to me last night, for ne’er was dream
So like a waking. To me comes a creature,
Sometimes her head on one side, some another.
I never saw a vessel of like sorrow,
So filled and so becoming. In pure white robes,
Like very sanctity, she did approach
My cabin where I lay, thrice bowed before me,
And, gasping to begin some speech, her eyes
Became two spouts. The fury spent, anon
Did this break from her: “Good Antigonus,
Since fate, against thy better disposition,
Hath made thy person for the thrower-out
Of my poor babe, according to thine oath,
Places remote enough are in Bohemia.
There weep, and leave it crying. And, for the babe
Is counted lost forever, Perdita 

I prithee call ’t. For this ungentle business
Put on thee by my lord, thou ne’er shalt see
Thy wife Paulina more.” And so, with shrieks,
She melted into air. Affrighted much,
I did in time collect myself and thought
This was so and no slumber. Dreams are toys,
Yet for this once, yea, superstitiously,
I will be squared by this. I do believe
Hermione hath suffered death, and that
Apollo would, this being indeed the issue
Of King Polixenes, it should here be laid,
Either for life or death, upon the earth
Of its right father.—Blossom, speed thee well.
There lie, and there thy character; there these, 

          [He lays down the baby, a bundle, and a box.]

Which may, if fortune please, both breed thee, pretty,
And still rest thine. [Thunder.] The storm begins.
Poor wretch,
That for thy mother’s fault art thus exposed
To loss and what may follow. Weep I cannot,
But my heart bleeds, and most accurst am I
To be by oath enjoined to this. Farewell.
The day frowns more and more. Thou ‘rt like to have
A lullaby too rough. I never saw
The heavens so dim by day.

          [Thunder, and sounds of hunting.]

A savage clamor!
Well may I get aboard! This is the chase.
I am gone forever! 

          [He exits, pursued by a bear.]

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Author Headshot
Erin Roth
Erin is an NYC based Registered Rodenburg Teacher, trained and certified by master voice and Shakespeare teacher Patsy Rodenburg. She coaches and teaches in-person and online Shakespeare classes, and she is one of only 30 people in the world certified to teach Patsy Rodenburg’s method. Erin is also an actor, writer, director, and producer. Most recently she was cast as Rosaline in “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” and played Elinor Dashwood in “Sense & Sensibility.”
See full bio and articles here!

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