Brecht and Shakespeare?

While recently reading some Brecht selections for class (“A Dialogue about Acting,” The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre,” and “The Street Scene”), my mind kept wandering to the multitude of Shakespeare plays that conclude with one of the actors stepping out of the stage action, “pulling the mask off” the illusion, and speaking directly to the audience. The examples that immediately come to mind are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or this epilogue to All’s Well:

“The king’s a beggar, now the play is done;
All is well ended, if this suit be won,
That you express content; which we will pay,
With strife to please you, day exceeding day.
Ours be your patience then, and yours our parts;
Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts.”
(All’s Well That Ends Well, Epilogue)

I wonder whether or not this constitutes something like the “demystified” theater that Brecht seems to be calling for – a theater that questions (and maybe critiques?) the very structure of its own operation. Obviously there are many differences between theater of the early 1900’s and the early modern theater, but it seems interesting to think about the ways in which Shakespeare, writing 350 years earlier, could be anticipating the kind of “aware” and “conscious” theater that Brecht is writing about.

This sometimes convention of Shakespeare’s seems to relate directly to Brecht’s notion that the apparatus, not the works themselves, is what needs to be questioned. In “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre” he questions the continued legitimacy of the great apparati that are currently producing the work of intellectuals – “the opera, the stage, the press, etc.” His main complaint with the way these apparati are working is that artistic works are being judged on the basis of their suitability for a particular apparatus rather than the apparatus being questioned regarding its suitability for the work. Consequently, the way these apparati operate can never truly change, because work has come to be produced for the specific apparati in existence – “an opera can only be written for an opera” (Willett 35).

My question regarding Shakespeare, then, is did he find a way to question the apparatus he was working within (the stage or the structure of early modern theater)? Can his use of epilogues – or concluding apostrophes or plays-within-plays – function as an interestingly (and pre-) Brechtian way of working to question the limits or structures of the theatrical apparatus? Does Shakespeare find a way to reach through the false consciousness of his audience, to break the “trance” as it were?

I want to say yes. I would like to think that Shakespeare and Brecht would have gotten along and would have found some mind-blowing way of reinventing the theatrical apparatus together (given that they both sort of did just that for their own time periods, it’s amazing to even think of what they could have done together). Granted, there are a lot of Shakespearian elements of drama that I’m sure Brecht would not have found as interesting or necessary. And, of course, the very distinct time periods and their contemporary formulations of the theater makes this fusion a difficult one and one that can probably only be made on very conditional terms. But I do think, regarding the consciousness of the theatrical apparatus and the stage, and the interesting social experiment of dislodging the audience’s sense of illusion, that Shakespeare and Brecht would have had much to discuss.

A quick MLA search for “Brecht AND Shakespeare” just produced 106 titles. So, my next task is going to be to root through those to see if anything really interesting and recent has been discussed on this topic. I’m sure perusing some articles will shed much more enlightening thoughts on these questions than the very provisional ones that I have offered here.

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