Shakespeare’s Problem Plays


Shakespeare’s plays can generally be categorised into three genres; comedy, tragedy and history plays. His so-called problem plays may fall in to one of these categories but do not match exactly. 

Shakespeare Comedies

The Comedies usually end in marriage (Beatrice and Benedick marry in Much Ado, the young lovers in Midsummer Nights Dream also marry at the end of the play).The main characters are reinstated to their former positions.

 (In The Tempest, Prospero returns to his position as the Duke of Milan, having been usurped) The comedies often use mistaken identity and gender reversal (The twins in Comedy of Errors are mistaken for one another, Rosalind dresses as and is mistaken for  a man in As You Like It as does Viola in Twelfth Night). 

Shakespeare Tragedies

In the Tragedies the main character is usually powerful and the narrative usually documents his downfall and eventual death (Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear). Lovers will die (Romeo and Juliet) along with aspirations for power (Lady Macbeth).

Shakespeare Histories

The Histories speak for themselves they document and fictionalize the lives of real people often those in powerful positions (Richard II, Richard III and the Henrys). Shakespeare’s histories are politically charged and often serve to appease the current reign of the time, Queen Elizabeth I. (Richard III establishes the House of Tudor as the rightful defenders of the crown as opposed to the Plantagenet’s.)

Shakespeare Roman Plays

There is one other category before we get to the problem plays which is rarely mentioned that is the category of the Roman Plays including Julius Caesar,  Coriolanus and Anthony and Cleopatra.

These are categorised as such for obvious reasons. Anthony and Cleopatra can also be classified as a tragedy and Julius Caesar as a problem play.

Shakespeare Problem Plays

Now we come to the Problem Play. These plays cannot easily be classified as a comedy or tragedy but have elements of both genres. 

Measure for Measure: Problem Play?

For example Measure for Measure ends in the marriage between Isabella and the Duke but Isabella is not given a choice in this marriage, having previously been a nun, Isabella may not be interested in marriage at all? 

She has been embroiled in a sordid and dark situation (when propositioned by Angelo who offers to save her brother from execution if she sleeps with him). Angelo does not die at the end of the play as he might in a tragedy but is sentenced to marry a woman he does not love. Neither he nor his wife to be are happy in this union. 

Measure for Measure has the hallmarks of both comedy (it ends in marriage) and tragedy (Angelo’s power trip and subsequent downfall) but the consequences are not as dire as in a tragedy and the happy ever afters do not sit as comfortably as the ones in a comedy at the end of the play (with the enforced pairings). 

The audience are left to wonder what will happen to the characters. There are more questions both moral and ethical about the outcomes of the narrative, which makes the problem play a very interesting proposition for an audience.

The audience is forced to think about and discuss what the consequences should be. 

The Merchant of Venice: Problem Play?

The Merchant of Venice is also often referred to as a Problem Play. The treatment of Shylock the Jew, poses questions about whether the play endorses or criticises anti Semitic attitudes or religious intolerance. The play does not necessarily take a view either way and asks the audience to decide for themselves. Shylock is not killed at the end of the play but is ruined financially and some might consider this justice? The issue of justice is the common theme in this play and by making it neither a comedy nor a tragedy, Shakespeare asks the audience to decide.

Other Problem Plays

Other Problem Plays include Troilus and Cressida which lurches between comical and bawdy humour and tragic pathos.

Of course, Troilus and Cressida’s love is destroyed and Hector dies and it is often referred to as a tragedy but the play is constantly questioning intrinsic values such as love and hierarchy and asks the audience to consider what is essential in human life.

A Winter’s Tale has elements of both comedy and tragedy, the first half focussing on the jealous (a fatal flaw) and tyrannical Leontes but ends happily with social order being restored and a marriage promised.

One could argue, that Shakespeare’s problem plays are his most interesting works of polemic and ask the audience to participate much more. An audience is challenged to consider the consequences and outcomes of the play and to ask moral, existential and ethical questions about the narratives and characters they have been exposed to.

Other plays described as Problem Plays include; All’s Well That Ends Well, Timon of Athens, and The Taming of the Shrew (Especially by a modern audience who may consider Petruccio’s treatment of Katherine to be abhorrent).