One striking finding of this study was that although audience members identified with all the characters, with less than 25% separating the top from the bottom scores (for all characters), moral approval varied considerably. For instance Antigone was approved of more that twice as much as Creon, and Cordelia was approved of more than two-and-a-half times as much as Lear. As for attribution, for Antigone dispositional and situational attributions were of about the same, but in the first scene of King Lear, the actions of Lear were seen to be caused far more by his disposition than by the external situation.
The researchers were shocked and surprised to find very little difference in their measures of how people felt and thought about the characters between the two versions of the performances. They say that, “The texts seemed director proof.” In Antigone the character Antigone was identified with and approved about the same in the version sympathetic to Antigone as in the one played as sympathetic to Creon. In King Lear, Cordelia was identified with and approved about the same across both versions, and more than with Lear.
This seems to mean that even though performances of a play-as-a-whole can be very different, we audience members tend to focus on characters and draw our own conclusions about them. I am reminded of Chekhov’s letter to Alexei Suvorin of 27 October 1888, in which he says the that the role of the artist is to formulate questions correctly, not to answer them. He follows this by a legal metaphor:
It is the duty of the court to formulate the questions correctly, but it is up to each member of the jury to answer them according to his own preference (Heim & Karlinsky, p. 117).
Felix Budelmann, Laurie Maguire and Ben Teasdale (2013). The play’s the thing. Times Literary Supplement, 19 July. The online version includes quantitative data and is entitled “Audience Reactions to Greek and Shakespearean Tragedy.”
(If this link does not work directly, paste this address into your browser.)
Heim, M. H., & Karlinsky, S. (1997). Anton Chekhov's life and thought: Selected letters and commentary. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Image: Histogram from Figure 1 of the On-line version of Budelmann et al.’s study