Shakespeare’s “Problem” Plays

To most high school students, all of Shakespeare’s plays are considered “problem” plays. However, as scholars use the term, it refers to several of Shakespeare’s plays which cannot be neatly classified.

When Shakespeare’s plays were printed in the First Folio in 1623, his plays were divided into three categories: history, tragedy, and comedy. The history plays are those which are based on different English monarchs, such as Henry V, Richard III, and King John. His tragic plays follow the classic Greek structure, focusing on protagonists with fatal flaws which lead to their downfall, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. The comedies are the plays that end in marriage or betrothal, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Then there are the “problem” plays. These are mainly comedies that do not tie up neatly or arrive at the marriages in murky ways. All of Shakespeare’s plays have moments of comedy and drama; in fact, that is true for almost any play. In drama, moments of comedy serve to break the tension, and comedy derives from characters dealing with trivial matters the same way as drama. The “problem” plays go beyond a blending of comedy and tragedy into areas of uncertainty. These plays deal with too many complex moral issues to be comfortably labeled “comedy,” but also lack the essential ingredients of tragedy. Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida are the plays that typically fall into that category, but other plays also come under that heading: The Merchant of Venice, A Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, Timon of Athens, and The Tempest. The plays we are exploring over the next cycle of Classic Sundays, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Timon of Athens all fall into this “problem” category.

In Measure for Measure, Isabella is offered a choice: sleep with Angelo, the deputy governor, in exchange for her brother’s freedom from prison, or watch her brother be executed for a minor crime. On the other hand, there is a person in disguise, various tricks, and the play ends in betrothals. The heaviness of Isabella’s choice, matched with the typically comedic elements, and Isabella’s non-reaction to a proposal, are what make this play difficult to define.

All isn’t well in All’s Well That Ends Well. Though it ends in marriage, it comes about through trickery and bribery. Those themes are found in other Shakespeare comedies- however, in those the characters betrothed clearly like each other. Bertram’s quick turn from hatred to love is difficult to fathom.

As for Timon of Athens, it is listed as a tragedy rather than a comedy. This play does follow the tragic roadmap fairly faithfully. The problems with this play arise in authorship and publishing date. It is included in the First Folio, but there are no previous mentions of it, though the lack of act breaks suggest a publishing date prior to 1608. The varying skill level of authorship indicate that Shakespeare was not the sole author, but that he wrote it in partnership with Thomas Middleton.

Maybe because of their uneasy classification, the “problem” plays are intriguing to watch. These shows are less frequently produced, which means an audience can sit down in the theater and be surprised by each turn in the plot. These plays certainly inspire reflection and discussion, perhaps more so than something as well-known as Romeo and Juliet. How does an audience in 2019 ingest the sexual pressure in Measure for Measure or the celebrity worship in Timon of Athens?

Seeing a “problem” play can be a way of revitalizing Shakespeare. Instead of a known story that has been adapted almost ad-nauseam, one can experience Shakespeare as if he is new. Incredible for something written over 400 years ago. That does not seem like a problem at all.

 

Sources:

Shakespeare’s Problem Plays 

An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedy

Tragedy, Comedy, History? 

Photo Courtesy of New York Times

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