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Shakespeare’s Tragedies Reviewed

A Spectator’s Role


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 Five: Interlude: Mixed Modes Throughout Shakespeare


← 50 | 51 → CHAPTER FIVE

Interlude: Mixed Modes Throughout Shakespeare


The same considerations which Lope de Vega says should dictate the diversification of tragedies also bear on Shakespeare’s comedies: for such plays the boldest diversification of plot, characters and feeling ensures an audience’s attention. Any comprehensive discussion of Shakespearean tragedy ought therefore to take account of the presence and spectator-impact of tragic motifs in almost all his comedies, giving them a provocative diversity of tone and emotion that most spectators find significant and enriching. Lisa Marciano has observed that “Shakespeare’s comic characters repeatedly come face to face with mortality,” adding “Oddly enough, then, having a brush with death and urging others to live wisely are staples of Shakespeare’s comedies.” Yet, she says, “Few critics systematically examine how the awareness of death is a didactic tool in Shakespearean comedy.” (“The Serious Comedy of Twelfth Night,” 3)

Even if we consider a comedy with a preponderance of humorous elements such as such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play roughly contemporary with Romeo and Juliet, tragedy appears not only latent throughout, but determines the basic form of its climax. The 2014 production of the play by the California Shakespeare Theatre commenced with a violent physical struggle between Theseus and Hippolyta—legitimately so, because we are soon told by Theseus that these ← 51 | 52 → two lovers met on the battlefield trying to kill each other: “Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword, / And won...

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