Many famous works of literature use asides to reveal a character’s true motivations. But what is an example of an aside, and how can you tell when you’re reading one? Keep reading to learn more about asides in literature with definitions and famous examples.
An aside is a comment that a character makes to him or herself in a play. It represents their inner thoughts in spoken form. Other characters can’t overhear these remarks; they are meant for the audience alone. It allows the character to break the fourth wall between the fictional world and the audience’s world.
An effective aside increases the dramatic irony in a story. The disconnect between what audiences know and what other characters know makes the audience feel tension, which makes the story more suspenseful. Asides often establish characters as dishonest; even though they’re being forthcoming to the audience, they’re probably not acting in an earnest way to the other characters.
Some characters make asides to other characters in a play, unheard by anyone except the intended recipient (and the audience). These asides let everyone know who is on which side, and who can – or can’t – be trusted.
Soliloquies are another literary technique that can expose a character’s true intentions. Unlike an aside, which interrupts previous dialogue and is only one or two lines long, a soliloquy is a lengthy speech. They enable characters to ponder parts of the story and come up with solutions without talking to other characters.
A character may also use a monologue to reveal what they are thinking. But while asides and soliloquies involve the character speaking to him or herself (and the audience), monologues are typically directed to other characters. It may also be directed to the audience, but it’s not a speech that a character is telling him or herself.
If you want to find examples of asides in famous works of literature, look no further than the writing of William Shakespeare. He expertly uses asides to reveal his supposedly loyal characters as traitorous villains, his hidden servants as woeful lovers, and his disguised protagonists as unmasked heroes. But there are several more examples of asides outside the Bard’s body of work, as well.
Iago is the quintessential two-faced character in Shakespeare’s Othello. On one hand, he is the loyal companion of Othello, only too happy to serve. But as he reveals to the audience, he is plotting Othello’s wicked downfall. These lengthy asides give Iago the most spoken words in the entire play – over 200 more words than the title character himself!
Here is an example of Iago spilling the beans to the audience after presenting himself as loyal to Othello, marked by the stage direction “aside:”
He takes her by the palm; ay, well said, whisper. With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her, do; I will give thee in thine own courtship. You say true, ’tis so indeed. If such tricks as these strip you out of your lieutenantry, it had been better you had not kiss’d your three fingers so oft, which now again you are most apt to play the sir in. Very good; well kiss’d! An excellent courtesy! ’Tis so indeed. Yet again, your fingers to your lips? Would they were clyster-pipes for your sake!
(Othello, Act 2.1)
Iago watches Cassio engage with Desdemona, Othello’s wife, in a way that he can use in a “web” to trick Othello into believing they are having an affair. It is the first step that Iago uses to “ensnare” Othello into his own downfall.
Hamlet from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is another character who wears two personas. He wants his mother and uncle/stepfather to believe that he has gone mad from grief over the death of his father. However, he uses asides to the audience to explain his real objective – to prove his uncle’s complicity in the murder of the king as seen in some of the main symbols from Hamlet.
For example, when describing his would-be stepfather, Hamlet notes in an aside:
A little more than kin and less than kind.
(Hamlet, Act 1.2)
This comment is directed to the audience as a co-conspirator in Hamlet’s plot. He knows that we know that Claudius has killed the king and taken the throne, and that Hamlet considers this act to be unnatural. Claudius doesn’t hear the remark.
Asides in Romeo and Juliet keep the audience aware of who knows what, who is acting with what information, and what each character truly fears. One such example of these asides is when Friar Laurence, having just married Romeo and Juliet, is faced with the idea of marrying Paris and Juliet:
Paris: Immoderately she weeps for Tybalt's death,
And therefore have I little talk'd of love
For Venus smiles not in a house of tears.
Now, sir, her father counts it dangerous
That she doth give her sorrow so much sway,
And in his wisdom hastes our marriage,
To stop the inundation of her tears
Which, too much minded by herself alone,
May be put from her by society:
Now do you know the reason of this haste.
Friar Laurence: [Aside] I would I knew not why it should be slow'd.
Look, sir, here comes the lady towards my cell.
(Romeo and Juliet, Act 4.1)
Friar Laurence reminds the audience that he knows why Juliet should not be married now, or at the very least, why her marriage to Paris should be “slow’d.” He also expresses his regret at having participated in the situation that now forces him to lie to Paris.
Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night is full of disguises and intrigue, which make it difficult to keep characters’ intentions clear to the audience. He uses asides to keep the audience aware of how different people, namely the protagonist, Viola, feel about different circumstances. Here, she interrupts her own line to make an aside:
I'll do my best
To woo your lady:
yet, a barful strife!
Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife.
Viola, dressed as the male Cesario, agrees to find Curio a wife. But one moment later she reminds herself – and the audience why this is such a difficult feat. Viola loves Curio, and wishes she could match him with herself.
Aaron Burr, the narrator of Hamilton, reveals his feelings to the audience through regular narration. But several other characters, such as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, use asides to let the audience know how they really feel about a situation. Take Washington’s aside in his own song “Right-Hand Man:”
Can I be real a second?
For just a millisecond?
Let down my guard and tell the people how I feel a second?
(Hamilton, “Right-Hand Man”)
He then begins a soliloquy about how the soldiers may consider him a venerated war hero, but they betray their respect when they flee at the sound of British cannon fire. Another example of an aside occurs when Angelica, Hamilton’s new sister-in-law, interrupts a flashback to address the audience:
So this is what it feels like to match wits with someone at your level.
What the hell is the catch?
It's the feeling of freedom of seeing the light.
It's Ben Franklin with the key and the kite.
You see it, right?
The “you” in Angelica’s last line refers to the audience; she knows that they have seen the connection between herself and Hamilton. She continues her soliloquy about what attracts her to Hamilton and why she ultimately must let him go.
You may be able to think of examples of asides in novel form, as well. Books like William Goldman’s The Princess Bride or Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief feature several asides in which the narrator directly addresses the reader. However, in prose form, these interruptions are called authorial intrusion, and differ from theatrical asides in that they are spoken by the narrator and/or author, not a character in the story.
Asides may have originated on the stage, but they’re quite prevalent on the screen as well. Many shows and movies involve a character speaking to the camera – the audience – with a well-timed comment that reveals what they are really thinking. They may even get their point across with a wink. You may be surprised to find asides in your favorite movies!
Asides keep a character in touch with who a character really is, and what they plan to do in the future. But writers can accomplish this dynamic with additional drama techniques. Read an article that explains the importance of soliloquies in Romeo and Juliet, or a list of the different types of drama in literature.