Understanding Shakespeare’s Problematic plays

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Throughout the extensive criticism written on Shakespeare plays, the definition of these problematic plays has been a constant topic for debate. Kiernan Ryan suggests critics focus either on these plays all having in inherently ‘political implications’, or a form of deconstructive, or psychoanalytical analysis. Yet the potential for another opinion could still be valid as expressed by critics such as Jonathon Dollimore and Kathleen McLuskie who have implied that the plays are not at all problematic in the ways previously suggested. This then draws light on the problematic nature of defining problem plays at all; the defining of the plays is arguably as much of a problem as the plays themselves. This essay will try and look at some of the viable ways that the plays do connect and stand as a group of problems, but also try to expose the dangers of naming these connections, and the wider problems with genre and the categorization of Shakespeare’s plays.

When looking for examples that link the plays together, of course there are obvious connections. Similar themes, paralleled characters, and the formal conventions of the plays can all be seen as viable links to grouping the three plays as problem plays. As Nicholas Marsh notes in the final pages of his book Shakespeare: Three Problem Plays, ‘critics…seem to be in agreement about one thing: that the problem plays cause problems…they reflect an experience of plays which are not solved: not susceptible to, or provided with, a unified and stable resolution.’ Their refusal to not be resolved and remain unsatisfactory can be seen in the formal elements of the three plays. In All’s Well that Ends Well the play could have easily finished in the first act with Helena’s decision that Bertram ‘is the man’ of her choosing and the King’s declaration, ‘take her young Bertram, she is thy wife.’(II. 3. 106); creating the perfect ending to the chivalric quest of love that Helena embarked on, and Bertram’s hand as her rightful prize. Yet, Shakespeare continues and the remainder of the play can be seen as a doubling of the previous plot. This doubling causes Helena, again to travel to seek her husband, and culminates in her again successful wining of Bertram’s hand. An act that is approved of by everyone in the court and by Bertram’s, perhaps begrudgingly, ‘I’ll love her dearly, ever ever dearly’ (V. 3. 316). In this phrase we can also see a doubling occur in the very language uttered by the characters further expressing the notion that Bertram is ‘doubly won’ (V. 3. 314). The use of the plot doubling and going back on itself suggests that the play is dragging its audience back to unanswered or unexplained problems, forcing us to re-evaluate the situation presented to us, thus robbing the audience of a satisfying comedic ending. Similarly, a breaking up of form can be seen in the sporadic scene jumps between Troilus and Cressida’s tragic love story and the cynical war setting; and the constant need for re-assertion of positions in Measure for Measure, juxtaposed with the plays linguistic inabilities to place Mariana within a status, ‘maid, widow, nor wife’, mirrors the wider world and the inability to resolve anxieties about problems of society.

There are of course other things that have been championed as links between the plays. For example, religious dogma and the obsession with human spectacle are both heavily present in the plays. The final theatrical act of the Duke at the end of Measure for Measure, embodies both of these as he publically shames Angelo and Lucio by binding them in marriage, ‘Marry her instantly’(V. 1.370), and his unmasking of himself addresses issues of public spectacle. His political role as Duke and his guise of a friar, raises heavy questions about religious right to rule and suggests that the audience experienced a disillusionment and unmasking of religious dogma parallel to the literal unmasking of the Duke. This disillusionment is also present in Troilus and Cressida through the complete lack of religion in the play and resetting of the classic story into a secular scene. The treatment of Cassandra is a key scene highlighting the disillusionment with religious dogma, and even by the end of the play when the prophecy is fulfilled, we as an audience do not look back to Cassandra’s ‘Cry, Trojans, cry!’, or ponder over the fact it was fate that caused the death of Hector, as one may do with the ‘fickle fortune’ of Romeo and Juliet. Hence further highlighting a disassociation with religion.

However, despite these similarities with the plays, we should not forget to also view them in relation to Shakespeare’s whole canon; something that arguably weakens the idea of the three plays being a separate group in the same way that the comedies and tragedies are separate. By viewing all the plays in relation each other it helps highlight the problematic qualities of all plays. In his book Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, Tillyard mentions many other potential problem plays: The most obvious being Hamlet which is Tillyard’s whole reason for dubbing the group ‘problem play’ rather than ‘problem comedies’ He argues that the links between Hamlet and Troilus are too strong to ignore; in particular, the ‘doughy’(IV. 5. 3) male characters of both which present ‘unbaked’ (IV. 5. 3) males not ready for the responsibilities spaced on them. Here he also brings in Bertram, and to an extent Angelo, as other doughy characters; they are lacking something that makes them not yet fully a man and Tillyard suggests this is a factor that links the four plays together. Indeed, strong connotations of Angelo’s ‘What’s this? What’s this?’ (II. 2. 167) can be seen in Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ highlighting the use of interiority to address areas of lack in the unbaked males of these plays.

Whilst this connection may seem obvious, Tillyard also mentions other plays that have a similar vein to the so-called problem plays. For example, during a slight tangent, Tillyard mentions the crucial theme of forgiveness in The Winter’s Tale and how wonderfully it fits in with the play’s plot as a whole, the finale being the ultimate act of forgiveness, something he states, Measure for Measure attempted but ultimately failed to achieve. However, in a previous chapter of the book he suggested that the contemporary Elizabethan audience would have preferred finales where everything is revealed in a big scene, (as seen in Measure for Measure, All’s Well, and arguably even with Troilus’ discovery of Cressida as unfaithful). If we were to place the plays in contexts of the audiences viewing them as he did, then would it not be acceptable to the suggest that The Winter’s Tale rather than being about great forgiveness, has the same problems as Measure for Measure? The forgiveness in The Winter’s Tale is not earned. To a modern audience it feels bitter, in a very similar way to Isabella’s fate to be silently married, seemingly against her will, does in Measure for Measure. Yet despite this connection which Tillyard makes so clear, The Winter’s Tale, is not a problem play. therefore, we must question just how much do the ‘similarities of the problems plays’ cause them to stand out from the rest of the canon and how much they actually create a notion of continuity between Shakespeare’s already extremely varied works.

According to Nicholas Marsh ’we must not spend our time trying to classify them [the problem plays as such]. or even assume that they are a group at all.’ This statement does call into question our need to group these three into a deliberate group, especially in light of the many similar aspects in the plays. The label “problem” is shown to be an incredibly unstable one. Ironically, the instability is incredibly fitting for the plays, yet one cannot say that these plays are a group purely on the content, as they all share much in common with other plays. Tillyard suggest that the plays were in the development stages for Shakespeare where he was developing ideas seen in his previous plays, and expressing them fully in the plays after and around the problem plays. This provides a good explanation for the similarities in the plays rather than intentional decision by Shakespeare to create problematic plays. Though Tillyard’s suggestion of a development is valid, thinking of these plays as developments is not as enjoyable as supporting the idea that they still have substance in their own right. Furthermore, the category of problem plays is awkward to use because it assumes that like all the other categories, that they will follow a specific pattern. For example, the romantic comedies all have a period of freedom before converting back to society and of course the marriages at the end. An assumption which Kiernan Ryan states is ‘the problem with most criticism …[and] its compulsion… to reduce them to a recognizable version of a creed…. that is already known’. If this assumption of Shakespeare as the ‘champion of aesthetic common sense’ must be avoided when discussing plays in the romance genre then, likewise, the problem plays risk a similar generalization. These plays are together for exactly the reason that they do not conform, which begs the question why give them a category in the first place? Critics attempts at trying to pins them in a specific genre or find connections suggests an attempt to de-problematize the plays, something that if was ever successful, would deny the plays of their only investing factor: their problematic nature.

So to conclude, quite simply, these plays all present problems and can be seen as having both formal and plot driven connections that suggest the plays are addressing similar topics. Un-resolvable predicaments in an anxious commentary about the constructs of society, that cannot be solved no matter how much the play tries, is what makes them problematic. However, this does not necessarily give us a right to label them as problem plays, separate from the canon because they were experiments or failures. Furthermore, looking again at Shakespeare’s wider canon, to suggest these plays are problematic for the reasons suggested would be to in part accuse all of Shakespeare’s work as a problem. There is unquestionably an abundance of plays that appear more problematic to a modern day audience, causing, to some extent, a watering down of the problem plays harsh problems in a modern context. Therefore, if the plays require a label at all, it should be that they are problematic but not problems. In other words, rather they are problematic in their content, and force the audience to question their own moral opinions, but this is merely a shifting scale in Shakespeare’s plays in which Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well are further along.


Byville, Eric, ‘Aesthetic Uncommon Sense: Early Modern Taste And The Satirical Sublime’, Criticism, 54, no.4 (2012), 583-62 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/41850884> Last accessed 13 Dec 2016

Marsh, Nicholas, Shakespeare: Three Problem Plays (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)

Ryan, Kiernan, Shakespeare: The Last Plays (London: Routledge, 2014)

Shakespeare, William, All’s Well That Ends Well, ed. by Susan Snyder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

“ “, Measure for Measure, ed. by Brian Gibbons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)

“ “, Troilus and Cressida, ed. by David Bevington (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)

The Norton Shakespeare, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt and others, 3rd edn (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016)

Tillyard, E.M.W., Shakespeare’s Problem Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1951)

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