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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 Seven: Hamlet: The Spectator as Detective


← 70 | 71 → CHAPTER SEVEN

Hamlet: The Spectator as Detective

T.S. Eliot called Hamlet the Mona Lisa of drama (Selected Essays, 124), claiming that Shakespeare had overworked it without achieving a finished artifact, by which he seems to have meant one that neatly matched some formula that only a dogmatist such as a Freudian could rationalize. However, the resulting uncertainty about how any production of such an enigma should evolve might in itself provide an attraction to a spectator, by offering the satisfaction of achieving any interpretation compatible with the work’s fluctuating patterns. Through its challenging of us to share in the hero’s problems we can recognize that the play follows a pattern seen most often in the modern form of the detective story, as W. H. Auden has argued in his essay “The Guilty Vicarage” in The Dyer’s Hand. A crime has been committed and some more or less well-meaning figure feels obliged to identify the criminal, prove guilt, and secure punishment. The pattern is at least as old as the Oedipus of Sophocles, which already involved the ironic twist of the investigator of a regicide discovering that he himself is the murderer he is pursuing.

Hamlet has a similarly tortuous pattern: an intuition that the king, the hero’s father, was murdered by his usurping uncle encourages Hamlet to seek revenge; but he hesitates because the hallucinations reinforcing his intuition do not present sufficient proof of his uncle’s guilt: “I’ll have grounds/ More relative...

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