The following is a part of the preparatory essay written for my comprehensive exams, exploring the conception of epic that can be applied to Shakespeare; this question seems intriguingly underexplored, with the one extensive example that I found going kind of Derridean and arguing, basically, that his use of epic is to foreground its absence. This was an enjoyable thought, but one that my own, still-brief exploration of this question argues against. It follows (and sorry for the weird lineation; it's something in the translation between Word and blog):
There are at least two senses in which Shakespeare can be considered an epic playwright: his use of techniques that Aristotle assigned to epic rather than tragedy, and his unique, reliquary way of engaging epic poems. His multiplicities of plot can be seen in the plays that comprise the Henriad, sometimes thought of together as a British historical epic. Richard II weaves the narrative of King Richard into Bullingbrook’s. Both of the Henry IV plays work against the neat
raveling together of narratives, though, since the two main threads have as their figureheads characters who don’t meet economically or in personality—Henry IV and Falstaff. The second, with its climactic fight between Harry and Hotspur, shows another epic trait that Northrop Frye sees in Shakespeare, “warfare of the Iliad: physical prowess by individual heroes fighting in pairs” (25). These loosely raveled narratives carry other subplots along with them, and pave the way for Henry V, in which an epic multiplicity of plots is prefaced with another epic convention
that also functions metadramatically, the invocation: “O for a Muse of fire . . ..” (Prologue.5). The prologue asks the audience’s pardon for the “unworthy scaffold” of the theatre (Prol.10), directing their attention to the physical theatre space. The three primary plot threads that follow, of Henry, the French court, and Henry’s
former friends, are only brought together in the fundamental figure of
Hamlet , believed to have been written in the couple of years following Henry V, is one of the plays in which Shakespeare uses parts of epic texts for an effect that can be called reliquary. As a reliquary holds the remains of someone whose life testified to the divine, and in that preservation of a fragment show the eternal manifested where the present falls away rather than present decay, so Shakespeare’s distanced, fragmented presentation of epic can be seen offering a kind of allure that engages the audience with epic tradition in glints that make it seem able to be both adored and handled. This effect appears most strikingly when Hamlet, rather
than asking the Players to demonstrate their talent for visually moving work that will stir the king to show his guilt, asks for the speech “never acted, or if it was, not above once” (II.ii.435), of Aeneas’ narration to Dido how Troy fell. Hamlet has nothing to gain from the performance that follows; it is a moment sublimating Shakespeare’s mastery of plot to a scene that points to an epic past rendered present long enough, with enough power, to “have made milch the burning
eyes of heaven, / And passion in the gods” (517-18). With King Lear, the epic reliquary functions as passing but pivotal invocations of gods long gone from the play’s world, and Gloucester’s resounding condemnation, extracted from Homer and delivered from his own, Homeric blindness: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport(IV.i.36-37)."
Looking at Shakespeare's use of epic as reliquary also helps to unravel the mystery of Troilus and Cressida, which centers on whether it was actually performed; the printers of the 1609 edition began a title page saying that it had been performed, then withdrew it in favor of another claiming it as a play “never stal’d with the stage” (qtd. in Riverside Shakespeare, 477). The medieval story adapted
by Chaucer has no precedent in Homer, but Shakespeare’s version weaves that story together with the Greeks’, making Homer’s heroes some of its main characters. The play doesn’t flatter its heroes; Achilles’ vanity lets him sit the battle out, but demand “Know they not Achilles?” of the men who slight him (III.iii.70). But, if Shakespeare did distance the play enough from the public that it could only be read, making the page reliquary to his work of epic drama, then it’s also possible that its characters are flat to better point to the epic that birthed them. They are
relics of Homer’s characters, blending epic and drama in a way that puts both into the audience’s hands, quietly and in the light of print.