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Shakespeare's Problem Plays

The complex, open-ended morality plays of Shakespeare's middle years

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The first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays, the First Folio of 1623, subdivided them into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. While many of the plays comfortably fit one or other of those categories, a handful are less easy to pin down, as they deal with too many complex moral issues to be comfortably labelled 'comedy', but they also lack the essential ingredients of tragedy. The three plays usually labelled 'problem comedies' or simply 'problem plays' were all written roughly between 1602-04, and are All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. Many critics have applied a similar label to the earlier The Merchant of Venice and even to Hamlet, though few have followed the example set by the scholar Ernest Schanzer, whose book Shakespeare's Problem Plays (1963) ranked Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra alongside Measure for Measure.

The critic W.W.Lawrence offered a useful definition of the term in 1931. For him, a 'problem play' is one in which "a perplexing and distressing complication in human life is presented in a spirit of high seriousness ... the theme is handled so as to arouse not merely interest or excitement, or pity or amusement, but to probe the complicated interrelations of character and action, in a situation admitting of different ethical interpretations". He goes on to conclude that "the 'problem' is not like one in mathematics, to which there is a single true solution, but is one of conduct, as to which there are no fixed and immutable laws. Often it cannot be reduced to any formula, any one question, since human life is too complex to be so neatly simplified".

Ironically, the central situation in the best-known problem play, Measure for Measure, arises from just such an attempt at neatly formulaic simplification. Angelo, the deputy governor of Vienna, is temporarily put in charge, and resolves to clarify the law by enforcing it rigorously at all times. But when this means condemning Claudio to certain death (for getting his unmarried girlfriend pregnant), Angelo's steely logic gives way to all too recognisable human impulses, as he falls for Claudio's devoutly religious sister Isabella and risks both the abuse of his position and undermining the law that he is supposed to embody.

Superficially, All's Well That Ends Well seems more straightforward: the poor but honest Helen woos and wins the noble Bertram and lives happily ever after. But the characters are too complicated for this scenario to fit: the rule-bound, class-conscious Bertram is outraged by the very idea, and Helen has to resort to subterfuge in order to obtain the King's blessing of their union in the first place, and then outright blackmail in order to persuade Bertram to accept her as his wife. The play's title suggests a happy ending, but it's one of Shakespeare's most bitterly sardonic: by most yardsticks, it certainly does not end "well".

Troilus and Cressida is the hardest play to pin down: neither comedy, tragedy nor history but with elements of all three, it announces itself as a classic romance (the legend had had numerous adaptations prior to Shakespeare) but the play is primarily a deeply cynical analysis of human emotion and a highly critical depiction of the futility of war. Touted as the embodiment of courtly love, the title characters find themselves quite unable to live up to expectations, not least when Cressida is literally used as a human bargaining chip during the endless Trojan war. The two most recognisable characters are not Troilus and Cressida but Pandarus and Thersites, the one a barely disguised pimp (despite his blood ties to Cressida), the other the most cynical misanthrope in the Shakespeare's entire output.

For understandable reasons, the problem plays have never ranked among Shakespeare's most popular, and they have consequently been somewhat neglected by both cinema and television. Indeed, there have been no big-screen adaptations of any of them, though Measure for Measure has had a healthy life on television, with four broadcasts of the play itself (including two specifically conceived for the small screen) and an unusual number of in-depth analytical workshops. Troilus and Cressida has had three airings, though the (thankfully excellent) Jonathan Miller production of 1981 is the only one that was recorded. All's Well That Ends Well is the least known of the trio, but even this has had two made-for-television productions. It is worth noting that the BBC Television Shakespeare adaptations rank amongst that highly variable series' best-regarded achievements.

Michael Brooke

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