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Shakespeare’s Tragedies Reviewed

A Spectator’s Role

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Hugh M. Richmond

Shakespeare’s Tragedies Reviewed explores how the recognition of spectator interests by the playwright has determined the detailed character of Shakespeare tragedies. Utilizing Shakespeare’s European models and contemporaries, including Cinthio and Lope de Vega, and following forms such as Aristotle’s second, more popular style of tragedy (a double ending of punishment for the evil and honor for the good), Hugh Macrae Richmond elicits radical revision of traditional interpretations of the scripts. The analysis includes a major shift in emphasis from conventionally tragic concerns to a more varied blend of tones, characterizations, and situations, designed to hold spectator interest rather than to meet neoclassical standards of coherence, focus, and progression. This reinterpretation also bears on modern staging and directorial emphasis, challenging the relevance of traditional norms of tragedy to production of Renaissance drama. The stress shifts to plays’ counter-movements to tragic tones, and to scripts’ contrasting positive factors to common downbeat interpretations – such as the role of humor in King Lear and the significance of residual leadership in the tragedies as seen in the roles of Malcolm, Edgar, Cassio, and Octavius, as well as the broader progressions in such continuities as those within Shakespeare’s Roman world from Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra to Cymbeline. It becomes apparent that the authority of the spectator in such Shakespearean titles as What You Will and As You Like It may bear meaningfully on interpretation of more plays than just the comedies.
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Chapter One: Introduction: The Spectator and the Dramatists

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Introduction: The Spectator and the Dramatists

Recently I talked to a committed theatre-goer who told me that she had seen a widely-praised performance of a play by a leading modern dramatist which had made a profound effect on her: she was miserable for weeks afterwards. Apparently this was just the effect intended by the playwright, the director and actors, and endorsed by the reviewers. Looking at almost any review of a modern production of a Shakespearean tragedy the preferred outcome of most of those involved seems similar. At a production of King Lear by the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival a few years ago, the stage manager began the evening with the traditional list of prescriptions about cell-phones, taping and photography, ending with the rueful observation: “Well, I won’t wish you a happy evening tonight, because, after all, you are going to see King Lear!” It seems very strange to think of anyone deliberately spending considerable sums of money to be made miserable: at such prices one expects to emerge from a tragic performance exhilarated, more aware, better able to cope with the challenges of life—something along the lines of the expectations about poetry of the ancient Roman Horace: “dulce et utile” (which I will update as “delightful and instructive”). If a play-wright has a craft, like a wheel-wright or a ship-wright, it is to entertain, excite, even inspire a spectator, so that the first concern is to hold the viewer’s attention, and...

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