In David Lodge’s novel Small World, the Irish scholar Perse McGarricle is unable to get his thesis about Shakespeare’s influence on T. S. Eliot published, until having had a few drinks at a conference, he asserts that it is about ‘the influence of Eliot on Shakespeare’, explaining
We can’t avoid reading Shakespeare through the lens of T. S. Eliot’s poetry. I mean, who can read Hamlet today without thinking of ‘Prufrock’? Who can hear the speeches of Ferdinand in The Tempest without being reminded of ‘The Fire Sermon’ section of The Waste Land?
In building on McGarricle’s ground-breaking study, I hope to show that another great twentieth century poet and dramatist, Bertolt Brecht, had an even more profound influence on Shakespeare. Indeed, in writing the two parts of Henry IV, Shakespeare was the inventor of what Brecht and his colleague Erwin Piscator later called the ‘epic theatre’.
I am far from the first to see Shakespeare as an epic dramatist, and the work of another distinguished critic – one who actually exists – needs to be acknowledged. In his delightful review of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human for The New Statesman, Terence Hawkes writes:
The concern of the so-called ‘history plays’, as well as of most of the others, is as much with public as with private matters: with politics, economic and social structure, the world of governance and power, and the stresses and strains inherent in the construction of the project called ‘Great Britain’. They constitute what Brecht called ‘epic’ drama: its function to confront its audience with the ‘outer’ public world and to probe the insistent demands that that makes on any ‘inner’ private counterpart.
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