Understanding Shakespeare’s Problematic Plays

In all of the Shakespeare criticism, the debate has centered around the problem plays. Kiernan Ryan says critics should either focus on the fact that these plays have ‘political implications inherently’ or use a deconstructive or psychoanalytical approach. Jonathon McLuskie, Kathleen McLuskie, and others have suggested that these plays were not in any way problematic. The definition of problem plays can be just as problematic. The essay will attempt to examine the many ways the plays can connect and be considered a problem group. It will also highlight the dangers in naming these connections as well as the wider issues with genres and categorization. If you are looking for connections that connect the plays, then there will be obvious ones. All of these factors can be considered as valid reasons for grouping together the three problem plays. The formal elements in all three plays show that they refuse to be unsatisfactory and are unwilling to be solved. The play All’s Well That Ends Well could have been finished in its first act, with Helena’s declaration that Bertram is the man she wants and the King’s declaration that ‘take young Bertram, that’s her wife’ (II. 3. The perfect end to Helena’s chivalric love quest, with Bertram as the prize she deserved. Shakespeare’s play continues, and can be viewed as a double of the original plot. Helena is forced to go to her husband’s side again, which culminates with her winning Bertram’s heart again. Bertram says grudgingly that he will “love her dearly forever and ever” (V.3). 316). This phrase also shows a double in the language used by the characters, further expressing that Bertram has been “doubly beaten” (V. 314). The repeated plot lines and the reversal of events suggest that the play is trying to force its audience into reevaluating the situation they are presented with, which robs them of an enjoyable comedic end. There is also a breakdown of form in the scenes which jump from the tragic love story of Troilus to Cressida to the cynical battle setting. And the constant need to re-assert one’s position, as in Measure for Measure with its inability in language to put Mariana into a certain status, such as’maid, wife, or widow’, reflects the wider social world and our inability in solving problems. These plays have a heavy presence of religious dogma. Both are present in the last theatrical act performed by the Duke of Measure for Measure at the end. He shames Angelo & Lucio publicly, binding them into marriage with a command to ‘Marry the girl instantly’ (V.1.370) and unmasking his identity, which addresses the public spectacle. In his political role of Duke and in his guise as a Friar, he raises heavy concerns about the religious right to govern and suggests the audience experienced disillusionment. Troilus, Cressida and other secularized versions of classic stories also reflect this disillusionment. Cassandra, who is treated in a way that is disillusioning, is one of the key scenes. By the time the prophecy has been fulfilled, audiences are not looking back at Cassandra saying, “Cry, Trojans. Cry!” or thinking about the fate of Hector’s death, like they might with Romeo and Juliet’s “fickle fortune”. The disassociation of religion is further highlighted. The three plays may share some similarities but we must also remember that they are part of Shakespeare’s entire canon. The problematic nature of each play can be highlighted by viewing them in relation to one another. Tillyard describes many other problem plays, including Hamlet. This is the main reason Tillyard chose to call the group a problem play’ as opposed to a problem comedy. 5. 3) Male characters from both who present as ‘unbaked (IV. 5. 3) Males are not yet ready to take on the responsibilities assigned. Bertram and Angelo are other characters who lack the qualities that make them men. Tillyard says that this is what links these four plays. Angelo’s play ‘What’s that?’ is a powerful piece of literature. What’s this?’ (II. 2. This can be seen with Hamlet in ‘To Be or Not To Be’. Interiority is used in this play to deal with the shortcomings of the male characters. Tillyard makes a connection that may seem obvious. However, he also discusses other plays in a similar vein. Tillyard mentions, as an example, that The Winter’s Tale’s theme of forgiveness fits perfectly with the plot of the play. The final act is forgiveness. He says Measure for Measure failed to accomplish this. He did suggest in a chapter earlier in the book that Elizabethan audiences preferred endings with a large scene (as shown in Measure for Measure and All’s Well) or even when Troilus discovered Cressida was unfaithful. If we put the plays into the contexts that the audience viewed them, would it be acceptable to suggest The Winter’s Tale has the same problems than Measure for Measure, instead of being about forgiveness? The Winter’s Tale’s redemption is not deserved. Modern audiences find it bitter in the same way that Isabella, who was silently wed, against her will and seemingly, in Measure for Measure, feels. The Winter’s Tale does not belong to the problem plays, despite Tillyard’s clear assertion. The’similarities between the problem plays’ are what make them stand out in the Shakespeare canon. But do they create continuity within Shakespeare’s diverse works? Nicholas Marsh said that we should not try to categorize them. They are not a unified group. It is revealed that the label “problem” has a lot of instability. Ironically, despite the fact that the instabilities are very fitting, one cannot classify these plays as a single group, because they share many similarities with other plays. Tillyard suggests Shakespeare was working on ideas that he saw in his earlier plays. These ideas were then expressed fully in Shakespeare’s plays following and surrounding the problematic plays. This is a better explanation than Shakespeare’s deliberate decision to write problematic plays. Tillyard is right to suggest that the plays were developed, but it’s not as fun as thinking about them as standalone works. It is difficult to categorize problem plays because they are assumed to follow the same pattern as all other categories. As an example, romantic comedies have a period in which they can be free and then return to society. They also all end with marriages. Kiernan Ryan describes a common assumption as ‘the main problem with criticism …[and] the compulsion…to reduce it to a recognizable, if not already known version of …. The assumption is that it’s already been made. Shakespeare being the “champion” of aesthetics is a generalization that must be avoided, but the same applies to problem plays. They are all together because they don’t fit into any category, so why do we even bother? It is possible that critics are trying to solve the problem by putting them into a genre, or finding connections. However, this would be a way to remove the only element of interest in the plays: their problematic quality. These plays, in conclusion, all have problems. They also share formal and plot-driven connections, which suggest that they are dealing with similar issues. What makes these plays problematic is the inability to solve the problems that arise from the anxious commentary of the society constructs. But this doesn’t give us the right labeling them problem plays because they were experimental or failed. Shakespeare’s works are not all problematic. By pointing out that some plays in the canon were problematic, it would imply that Shakespeare as a whole was a major problem. It is undeniable that there are a lot of plays which appear to be more problematic in the modern world. In a way, this has diluted the severity of problems for modern audiences. The plays should only be labelled as problematic and not as problems, if they need to be branded at all. The plays are not problems, but rather problematic. They force the audience into questioning their own moral beliefs. This is just a shifting of scales in Shakespeare’s play, where Troilus & Cressida are farther along. Bibliography Byville Eric.

http: // 41850884=”/ stable=”/www.jstor.org =””> Last accessed Dec 13, 2016 Marsh, Nicholas. Shakespeare’s Three Problem Plays. London, Palgrave Macmillan. Ryan, Kiernan. Shakespeare’s Last Plays. London, Routledge. Shakespeare, William. Susan Snyder is the author of All’s Well That Ends Well (Oxford University Press: 2008). Brian Gibbons is the author of Cambridge University Press’ 2012 edition. The Norton Shakespeare ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Others, 3rd edition (New York: W.W. Norton 2016) Tillyard E.M.W. Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, London: Chatto and Windus 1951


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