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Dramatic Monologue

Do I dare to read a poem?

Dramatic monologue. It might be a fancy term, but it describes something pretty simple: a dude or lady showing their true colors in a poem.

You could spend years studying dramatic monologues, but in this short course, we'll worm our way through intros, readings, and Common Core-aligned activities to get to the bottom of the Greatest Hits.

The goals?

  • Learn how to recognize the dramatic monologue and differentiate it from its close friend, the dramatic lyric (we think they're still on speaking terms).
  • Understand how poets use their speakers to poke fun at human behavior and/or societal values.
  • Learn how poetic form can reveal a speaker's character.
  • Improve as close readers while understanding how dramatic monologues reflect their historical context.

Now find a good hiding spot and get ready to eavesdrop.

Course Breakdown

Unit 1. Dramatic Monologue

There are more dramatic monologues out there than you can shake a stick at, but in this course, we'll zero in on some of the big hitting poets: Robert Browning, Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot, and plenty more of the gang.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 1: Mad Men Monologuing

A sepia-toned photograph of Robert Browning.
Robert Browning—poet, thinker, beard enthusiast.

Before we turn to Victorian poet Robert Browning—originator of the dramatic monologue as a self-contained genre—let's look at how this genre developed, mutated, and—coagulated.

Sorry—we got a new thesaurus this morning.

The origins of the theatrical monologue date as far back as the dramas of ancient Greece, which featured characters pouring out their feelings through orations—whether to the audience, themselves, or nearby characters. It's not all that different from soap operas where characters named Rock Boulder or Deborah Rose seem all too willing to openly discuss their personal feelings.

Moving through history, many Old English poems can also be seen as early precursors to the dramatic monologue. "The Seafarer"—we're looking at you. This 125-line poem written by an unknown author appears in a 10th century manuscript and features an old seafarer traveling in exile while thinking about his home and the nature of existence—just the light stuff, you know. The Seafarer presents the speaker's personal feelings in the form of a speech, and his performance reflects his inner emotions. This combination of the theatrical and the personal formed the basis for what would become the dramatic monologue in 19th century Britain.

Next stop—the Romantic Era, a movement from approximately the beginning of the 19th century to its mid-point. Romantic poets, from Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) to William Wordsworth (1770-1850), typically wrote highly personal lyric poems that involved in-depth self-analysis. These poets looked deep within their souls and put their feelings into words. We did that once in our high school poetry book, but it's probably not worth reading.

For example in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" (1798), the speaker reflects on his memory of rural surroundings, describing how they make him feel as he discusses the nuances of his emotional state. This type of poetry, which encapsulated the Romantic Movement, depended on an expression of feeling rather than on tradition—Romantic poets brought in the age of individual expression as a goal in itself.

These kinds of ideals gave later poets, like Robert Browning, the freedom to explore the mind in all its psychological complexity—rather than trying to just write according to established rules for poetry form, genre, or style.

And that, folks, was a revolution.

Head on over to the readings to see how Mr. Browning changed the game.