Sunday, 4 March 2012

What Are Shakespeare’s Problem Plays?

The Cover of The First Folio, Which Doesn't
Mention Problem Plays, Funnily Enough.
What is a problem play? What were Shakespeare’s problem plays and, more to the point, what was problematic about them?

The term problem play began as a label for a form of 19th century drama, which contains contentious social quandaries. These ‘problematic’ subjects are debated by the play’s characters, who have opposing points of view on the topic.

When it comes to problem plays, the man was, arguably, Ibsen, whose An Enemy of The People or A Doll’s House illustrate perfectly the kind of subjects debated in problem plays.

So, how did a 19th century dramatic term come to be applied to some of Shakespeare’s plays?

How Do You Solve a Problem Like…Shakespeare?

English critic, Frederick Samuel Boas was the first to apply the term ‘problem play’ to any of Shakespeare’s work. He did so, because he saw a similarity between a group of the Bard’s plays and those problem plays of 19th century playwrights.

In other words, Boas believed that some of Shakespeare’s plays centred around, or at the very least touched on, subjects that were highly contentious. Moreover, the characters of the plays take opposing views on these topics and the audience is, effectively, encouraged to make up its own mind.

However, as well as being used to describe a social or moral problem that is discussed within a work of drama, the term 'problem play' can be used to describe a play that shifts, often uncomfortably, between the tragic and the comic - in the end, landing on neither one side nor the other.

In other words, it is a problem, simply because it cannot be neatly squeezed into one genre.

What Are Shakespeare’s Problem Plays?

Originally, Boas applied the term to only three plays, penned in the latter 16th and early 17th centuries: All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida.

Subsequently, critics and Shakespearean scholars would add to that list: The Winter’s Tale, Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice.

Thanks to the ambiguous shifts in tone mentioned above (which is present in all of Shakespeare’s problem plays), they are sometimes known as the ‘dark comedies’.

Swings between tragic and comic are fairly widespread in modern television programmes, films and plays. However, when it comes to Shakespeare, these shifts seem to make us much more uncomfortable - but they shouldn’t. And I would argue that almost every single one of Shakespeare’s plays has at least one ‘problem’ element, he certainly had a habit of sticking gags in seemingly inappropriate places, such as the gravediggers in Hamlet, the Porter in Macbeth or the Fool in King Lear.

What’s The Problem With Shakespeare’s Plays?

All’s Well That Ends Well - After saving the life of the King of France, Helena is given the right to choose the hand of any man she wishes: she chooses Bertram, who ain’t thrilled by the match. After the wedding, he runs from France, informing his new spouse that he will never be her husband, unless she manages to get his family’s ring and become pregnant with his child.

Distraught, she ventures on a religious pilgrimage, and accidentally meets her husband, who is trying to seduce a young virgin named Diana, in Florence. Between them, the girls fool Bertram, get his ring and, thinking that his spending the night with Diana, he beds his wife.

Eventually, the trickery is revealed and Bertram finally accepts Helena as his spouse.

Problem: There is a huge question mark over whether or not there is a ‘happy ending’ in All’s Well That Ends Well. Some productions do choose to show it as one, whereas others maintain the bitterness between the pair.

In addition, the fact that Helena is beguiled by a character who seems so completely unlovable, means that we are left feeling more sorry for her than pleased that she finally got her man.

In terms of a moral or social problem, there are a couple to grapple with. Firstly, the fact that Helena is attempting to marry a man ‘above her status’. Secondly, the play throws up lots of questions about the roles of men and women, the function of marriage and fidelity.

Claudio and Isabella From
Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure - The Duke of Vienna announces that he’s going to leave (actually he remains, but in disguise) and places a judge named Angelo in charge in his stead. Angelo decides to imprison the nobleman Claudio for fornication - Claudio is unofficially married to Juliet (some technicalities mean they are not seen as married in the eyes of the law).

Claudio’s sister, Isabella (a novice nun) visits Angelo and pleads for her bother’s life. Eventually, the very moral and pious Angelo offers her a deal: if she agrees to relent her virginity to him, he’ll spare her brother’s life.

At first, Isabella refuses, but the Duke (disguised as a friar) plots a way to trick Angelo and get him to consummate his marriage to Mariana.

Problem: The play contains the social debate over what ‘marriage’ really is - Claudio and Juliet were married, but for a technicality. It also delves into moral and religious debates over sex and the soul. Isabella refuses Claudio’s insistence that she should bed Angelo to save his life, because she fears for her, and her brother’s, immortal soul.

And, like All’s Well That Ends Well, the ‘happy ending’ we expect from Shakespeare’s comedies is decidedly dubious, as the Duke claims that he will take Isabella’s hand in marriage. She, however, makes no response. Her silence can, and has been, interpreted in various ways. However, it strikes me that if she were even slightly pleased by the notion, she would have at least said something!

Troilus and Cressida - During the Trojan War, a Trojan prince, Troilus, falls for the daughter (Cressida) of a man who has defected to the side of the Greeks. Eventually, Troilus finds her and the pair vow eternal love for each other. However, Cressida’s father, Calchas, makes a deal with the Greek leaders to exchange a Trojan prisoner to get his daughter back.

Troilus Watched Cressida Agree to Become Diomedes' Lover
Torilus and Cressida
The next day, Cressida is taken away by a Greek lord, Diomedes, much to the dismay of Troilus. That afternoon, after some fighting between the Greeks and Trojans, Troilus and his brother Hector feast (in truce) with the Greeks. After the meal, Troilus discovers that Cressida has consented to be Diomedes’ lover.

The next day, the two armies engage in battle, with Achilles eventually killing Hector. The Trojans are forced to retreat and the play ends with them mourning the death of their hero.

Problem: The play fluctuates wildly between tragedy and bawdy comedy. In fact, the categorisation of the play varies, with some calling it a tragedy and others labelling it a comedy. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays Troilus and Cressida is possibly the most difficult to define in those terms.

In terms of socially contentious issues, there is of course the debate, between the Trojan princes, about the validity of the war and whether there was a battle worth fighting.

The Winter’s Tale - The King of Bohemia, Polixenes, visits his friend the King of Sicilia, Leontes. All is well, until nine months into his stay, Polixenes wishes to return home. Leontes, however, wants him to stay and, after failing to convince him to do so, sends his wife, Hermione, to plead with him. Hermione, seemingly simply, convinces the Bohemian king to stay, prompting instant jealousy from Leontes, who becomes convinced his wife and friend are having an affair, and that her unborn child is Polixenes'.
Perdita from The Winter's Tale

Polixenes, fearing for his life, flees for home and Hermione, who gives birth prematurely in prison, is placed on trial for treason. During the trial, Leontes is told by the Oracle that Hermione is innocent and several prophecies are made. Leontes refuses to listen, and immediately receives word that his young son has died from grief (one of the prophecies). Hermione promptly faints and we’re lead to believe that she is dead, too. Leontes, distraught, realises the error of his ways.

Meanwhile, Hermione’s daughter, Perdita, has been abandoned on the coast of Bohemia and is found and raised by a shepherd. Fast forward sixteen years, and Polixenes’ son, Florizel, is infatuated by the young shepherdess. With the help of a clownish rogue, Peridita’s true parentage is revealed and the families of Bohemia and Sicilia visit the statue of Hermione, which was erected after her death. The statue comes to life, as Hermione reveals that she was not dead after all.

Problem: The Winter’s Tale is almost like two plays for the price of one. The first three acts are filled with quite intense drama and dark psychological exploration.

However, the final two acts are filled with comedic moments, including bawdy humour. And, undoubtedly, the play offers a happy ending with the marriage of the young couple and the reunion of daughter, father and mother.

Timon of Athens - Timon is a wealthy Athenian, who is generous to a fault. He is so generous that not only does he give all of his money away, but also finds himself in debt supporting his friends. However, when he needs some assistance in paying off his creditors, they refuse to return the favour.

The philanthropic Timon turns misanthrope and, after giving some of his ‘friends’ a few home truths, curses the city of Athens and disappears into the wilderness, making his home in a cave. In his new hideout, he discovers a trove of gold and offers the majority of it to Alcibades, who is planning an attack on the city.

Envoys from Athens attempt to seek Timon’s help in assuaging Alcibades attack, but he refuses to help them. Shortly afterwards, he dies. The play ends with Alcibades reading the epitaph that Timon wrote for himself.

Problem: Timon of Athens is probably Shakespeare’s most confusing play, it’s disjointed and it has been asserted that it was probably co-written with another playwright. Within the play, there are numerous debates over philosophy and the nature of humankind.

The Merchant of Venice - A wealthy Christian merchant, Antonio, is approached by his good friend, Bassanio, who requests money to enable him to travel to Belmont and woo the lovely Portia. Antonio has no money, his own being tied up in his merchandise, which is at sea, but agrees to borrow from the Jewish usurer, Shylock.
Shylock and Portia from
The Merchant of Venice

Shylock, who has been tormented by the Christians, inducing Antonio, suggests a ‘merry bond’ in which, if Antonio is unable to pay the money back, a pound of his flesh will be forfeit. Antonio agrees and off Bassanio goes.

Meanwhile, another Christian, Lorenzo, has fallen in love with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, and plans to run away with her. When Antonio’s shipped are wrecked, Shylock, angry about the loss of his daughter, for which he blames all of the Christians who aided her elopement, is determined to take his revenge and demands his pound of flesh.

At the trial, a disguised Portia, who has married Bassanio, appears and finds a loophole in the bond - there must be no blood spilt. Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity and his worldly goods must be passed to Lorenzo.

Problem: The Merchant of Venice is certainly not all laughs, although there are some to be had. There are some intensely dramatic scenes within the play, too.

Of course, today, the added problem is the portrayal of Jews, which would not have caused any offence in Elizabethan England. However, I would assert that Shakespeare offers a sympathetic view and, arguably, questions the Christianity of the Christians.

Nevertheless, there is certainly an uncomfortable end, once again indicated by a silence, this time Jessica’s, as she says nothing when told of her father’s fate.

What’s With All This Genre Business Anyway?

Personally, I question the value of labelling any plays, but especially with the narrow categories of: tragedy, comedy and history. There are actually elements of all three, and dozens more, in most of Shakespeare’s plays. Therefore, I would make an argument for all of Shakespeare’s plays being, at least somewhat, problematic.

However, in terms of how they are officially categorised, those listed above are Shakespeare’s problem plays.

Any thoughts or questions, feel free to write them below. I’d love to hear from you!

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