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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 Eight: Othello: Iago’s Audience

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← 82 | 83 → CHAPTER EIGHT

Othello: Iago’s Audience

Modern theatrical technology has brought live theatre to a point at which it can often attempt to duplicate the lighting, acoustics, and location-resources of cinema production. Thus we may lose sight of the crucial distinction between stage and screen: a live performance is the unique result of the interaction of a particular audience and a live group of performers, in which the audience is an active determinant of the outcome through its sustained inter-communication with the actors. Experienced playwrights consider the enlivenment of this interaction their primary concern, as Lope de Vega stresses in his verse treatise on the art of writing plays for public theatres in the Renaissance. His audiences simply will not tolerate scripts that merely conform to neoclassical rules at the expense of lively and suspenseful action, variety of pace and tone, and a range of characters from the sublimely tragic to the farcical. The uncertainty of each outcome of a live performance, particularly one as diversified as Lope specifies, gives live theatre its excitement, perhaps verging on the uncertainty, even apprehension with which we watch the acrobatics of trapeze artists. Indeed, sometimes such skills are required of actors, for I recall a performance of Othello that I saw in Moscow in 2000 in which Iago’s manipulative dexterity was matched by his skill in playfully balancing on a high parapet. This feat certainly added to the audience’s sense of suspense. The divergences between successive performances of...

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