Shakespearean problem play
In Shakespeare studies, the term problem plays normally refers to three plays that William Shakespeare wrote between the late 1590s and the first years of the seventeenth century: All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, although some critics would extend the term to other plays, most commonly The Winter's Tale, Timon of Athens, and The Merchant of Venice. The term was coined by critic F. S. Boas in Shakespeare and his Predecessors (1896), who lists the first three plays and adds that "Hamlet, with its tragic close, is the connecting-link between the problem-plays and the tragedies in the stricter sense". The term can refer to the subject matter of the play, or to a classification "problem" with the plays themselves.
The term derives from a type of drama that was popular at the time of Boas' writing. It was most associated with the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. In these problem plays the situation faced by the protagonist is put forward by the author as a representative instance of a contemporary social problem. For Boas this modern form of drama provided a useful model with which to study works by Shakespeare that had previously seemed to be uneasily situated between the comic and the tragic; nominally two of the three plays identified by Boas are comedies, the third, Troilus and Cressida, is found amongst the tragedies in the First Folio, although it is not listed in the Catalogue. For Boas, Shakespeare's "problem plays" set out to explore specific moral dilemmas and social problems through their central characters. Boas writes,
throughout these plays we move along dim untrodden paths, and at the close our feeling is neither of simple joy nor pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome, even when, as in All's Well and Measure for Measure, the complications are outwardly adjusted in the fifth act. In Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet no such partial settlement of difficulties takes place, and we are left to interpret their enigmas as best we may. Dramas so singular in theme and temper cannot be strictly called comedies or tragedies. We may therefore borrow a convenient phrase from the theatre of to-day and class them together as Shakespeare's problem-plays.
The problem plays are characterised by their complex and ambiguous tone, which shifts violently between dark, psychological drama and more straightforward comic material; All's Well and Measure for Measure have happy endings that seem awkward, artificial and perfunctory, while Troilus ends with neither a tragic death, nor a happy ending. Boas used the term for plays in which the resolution of the themes and debates seems inadequate, and in the final act the deliverance of justice and completion one expects does not occur. Other definitions have followed, but all center on the fact that the plays cannot be easily assigned to the traditional categories of comedy or tragedy. The three plays are also referred to as the dark comedies, since despite ending on a generally happy note for the characters concerned, the darker, more profound issues raised cannot be fully resolved or ignored.
Many critics have suggested that this sequence of plays marked a psychological turning point for Shakespeare, during which he lost interest in the romantic comedies he had specialized in and turned towards the darker worlds of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. The term has also been applied to other odd plays from various points in his career, as the term has always been somewhat vaguely defined and is not accepted by all critics.
- F. S. Boas, Shakespeare and his Predecessors, John Murray, Third Impression, 1910, pp. 344–408.
- E. M. W. Tillyard: Shakespeare's Problem Plays. Chatto and Windus, London, 1949.