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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 Twelve: Antony and Cleopatra: Comical/Historical/Tragical


← 144 | 145 → CHAPTER TWELVE

Antony and Cleopatra: Comical/Historical/Tragical

If Shakespeare matched Lope de Vega in designing plays which perpetually surprise and challenge audiences by unexpected reversals of character and plot, it is only to be expected that these expedient discontinuities should challenge the ingenuity of academics pursuing the high rationality that the original Academy of Plato was designed to foster. Shakespeare sometimes even omits definite resolution of a plot line, as when Isabella fails to respond to the Duke’s offer of marriage at the end of Measure for Measure. In other, more historical plays, such as Henry V, the audience’s attitude to its hero oscillates from scene to scene. First they can see him as a dupe of the church. Next he seems childishly provoked, by French superciliousness, to threats of massacre, rape and pillage. In executing the threatened invasion he proves to be near apparent failure of the expedition against France, and even ruefully concedes to us his family’s guilt in seizing the succession to Richard II. Thereafter he is saved against all expectation by victory at the battle of Agincourt, but yet he finishes the play with a courtship providing vindication of our fashionable sixties aphorism, “Make love not war,” through a marriage reconciling the two nations. In a much-cited essay, “Rabbits, Ducks and Henry V,” Norman Rabkin does not see in this sequence of viewer variables a progression towards the at least momentary achievement of a fertile peace. Rather he detects a calculated...

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