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HELEN M. WHALL The Case Is Altered: Brecht's Use of Shakespeare I Poet, dramatist, shrewd businessman, notorious magpie who borrowed and made better the work of others - the description fits both William Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht. Artistic and even biographical similarities shared by the two authors have often been mentioned, usually in search of praise for Brecht. Shakespeare, who once made comic use of Pythagoras's opinion 'that the soul of our grandam might happily inhabit a bird," would surely have been amused by the Observer's obituary for Brecht which called him 'the nearest equivalent to Shakespeare ever to appear anywhere - indeed, if one believed in the transmigration of souls, one would be tempted to think that he was Shakespeare reborn." The German dramatist, who himself fought long and hard against what he perceived as the comforting fiction of heaven, would doubtless have also been amused at finding his life judged Shakespeare's final reward, for Brecht's own attitude towards Shakespeare was quite inconsistent. He suggested in 1927 that we be 'prepared to admit that Shakespeare's great plays, the basis of our drama, are no longer effective.'3 In 1955 he wrote: 'In order to treat of great actions we need to study the structure of the classics, particularly that of Shakespeare." Brecht, to the dismay of critics, was often inconsistent. And yet there is a kind of consistency behind the ambivalence of his attitude towards Shakespeare. He despised the archaic and brutal contents of Shakespeare's plays, proclaiming him the great poet ofbarbarian art.> Yethe admired and emulated Shakespearean form, style, and technique. The intensity and frequency of Brecht's many direct and indirect references to Shakespeare suggest a literary influence too important to dismiss on the grounds of ambiguity, too ambivalent merely to affirm or deny Shakespeare's significance as a model.6 Perhaps we should study, then, the nature of Brecht's determined ambivalence to the English playwright who had long dominated the German stage. Indeed, by studying the ambivalence of his response to Shakespeare we may also discover much about Brecht's dramaturgy in general, for such a study reveals that, conSciously or not, Brecht struggled throughout his career with the organic relationship of form and content. To say this is not to jOin early Marxist critics who often threatened UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 51, NUMBER 2, WINTER 198112 0042-0247/8210100-0127-0148$01.50/0 C> UNlVERSJ1Y OF TORONTO PRESS 128 HELEN M. WHALL Brecht with the elusive charge of 'formalism.'7 Brecht's admiration for Shakespearean form and his dismay over Shakespearean contentdid lead him to artistic experiments ofa highly formal nature, but the conflict itself is rooted in a lifelong dialogue conducted by Brecht the intuitive artist with Brecht the political man. Brecht hlmself attempts to sustain rather than resolve this dialogue by incorporating the tension between his attraction to promising artistic forms and rejection of bourgeois content into the very method of his dramaturgy. The result is often that ofcomplex parody. In a series of 'anti-plays' and adaptations Brecht rejects what he must of the past but, through parody, saves what he can. When most original, as in such plays as A Man's a Man and The Good Person of Szechwan, he is also most Shakespearean and moves beyond parody, transforming his source material (A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It) into startling new plays for the modern stage. The general indebtedness of the German stage to Shakespeare is now a commonplaceofcomparativestudies. LeSSing, Herder, Lenz- key figures of eighteenth-century German literature - commented on, were inspired by, and wrote under the acknowledged influence of Shakespeare. Schiller, Goethe, and Schlegel (whose translations completed the German naturalization of the English playwright) carried Shakespeare into the nineteenth century, where his influence on Georg Buchner and Frank Wedekind, Brecht's early heroes, has long been seen as paramount. In fact, as Max Spalter has written, after Lessing 'the literary apotheosis of Shakespeare became the rule rather than the exception.,8 The German tradition of Shakespeare in production also grew in a fashion almost embarraSSing to English-speaking nations. In 1917, despite the impact of World...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 127-148
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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