‘Problem plays’: a turning point in Shakespeare’s career
Shakespeare’s late work encompasses his complex social sensibilities, courting the aristocratic ruling class while also playing to the masses
The end of the 19th century saw the creation of a new term, the ‘problem play’ – a category first associated with the realist depiction of social problems and moral dilemmas popularised in the works of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.
Adapting it for Shakespeare’s plays, the critic F. S. Boas identified four titles: Measure for Measure, All’s Well that Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida and, perhaps surprisingly, Hamlet.
All, he wrote, depict societies ‘whose civilisation is ripe unto rottenness’ and produce effects that are neither ‘simple joy nor pain’: ‘We are excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome.’ Boas’s designation has stuck. Many accounts of Shakespeare’s career understand these plays, written in the early 17th century, as the distinctive generic airlock that allows him to transition from the comedy of the 1590s towards the tragedy of the early Jacobean period.
What seems most useful at this distance about Boas’s definition is his focus on the social world. Whereas contemporary realist dramas tended to focalise their problem through a central character – Nora in A Doll’s House, for example – Boas throws our attention instead onto the larger frame, and the reframing is revelatory.
Take Measure for Measure. At the height of the #MeToo movement, the play read as a dark commentary on the anger of women’s unheard experiences. After so many months of lockdown, it is the ways that individuals in a community respond to the threat of moral and physical contagion that now speak most urgently. This diseased play asks how – or whether – society can regulate physical contact and shows that, under the shadow of epidemic, some citizens retreat to self-isolation and others seize the day, unmasked and unrepentant.
At the height of the #MeToo movement, Measure for Measure read as a dark commentary on the anger of women’s unheard experiences
The absent Duke’s return in Act 5, prominently staged at the gate of the city, represents both threat (reinfection) and cure (restitution): the problem of the future governance of the city is sidestepped into the convenient marriages that signal the attempt to turn the play back towards comedy.
Boas’s society ‘ripe unto rottenness’ is reinforced by the complacent attempts to resolve the play’s plot. It is Vienna itself, a city of convents and brothels, of excessive license and excessive restraint, that is the problem of Measure for Measure.
That oscillation between a focus on society and on the individual has shaped attitudes to Hamlet since Boas’s designation of it as a problem play. Anglophone versions of the play on the stage have tended to focus attention on the psyche of the eponymous hero – hence the power of the phrase ‘Hamlet without the Prince’ for an event made meaningless by the absence of its main actor.
There is an alternative performance tradition associated with the Soviet Union that emphasises politics and society: Grigori Kozintsev’s film of 1964 depicts Hamlet as a dissident thinker in a repressive regime, who cannot speak truth to power and whose soliloquies are less the poetry of inner psychology and more the resistant self-belief of the doomed refusenik.
Much of the play takes place inside the castle of Elsinore – Hamlet recognises that ‘Denmark’s a prison’ – but there is a sense of a wider, and potentially fractious, society beyond its walls. Laertes’ return from Paris at the news of his father’s death ‘with others’, as the stage direction puts it, is described by Claudius as ‘a rebellion’; later, Claudius expresses his fears about ‘the great love the general gender bear’ Hamlet, suggesting a potential for civil insurrection in Denmark.
Hamlet recognises that ‘Denmark’s a prison’ – but there is a sense of a wider, and potentially fractious, society beyond its walls
Hamlet wants to locate the source of corruption with his mother’s faithlessness, but the rot is more widespread, and must be cauterised by the new regime of Fortinbras.
Like the earlier English history plays it so closely shadows, Hamlet revisits themes of succession, rightful authority and political acumen. Our emphasis on character wrests it away from these concerns into a bildungsroman, or narrative of personal maturation.
Problem plays, then, understand their characters as constrained by, or even as symbols of, larger social issues. The term requires a radical rethink of our own priority on character as the most crucial element of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, and focuses instead on the larger world that has produced these human representatives.
What, then, of the third play in the repertory, The Merchant of Venice? This title suggests exactly the kind of relatedness of the social world and the role it has engendered. This play, too, benefits from a focus on the civic rather than the individual. Venice’s preeminent contemporary reputation as a mercantile city establishes all the play relationships in terms of credit, debt, and investment. Broke Bassanio’s wooing of the wealthy Portia is a kind of futures trading in three dimensions; Shylock’s bond, which he borrows from a neighbour in order to lend on to Antonio on behalf of Bassanio, is another complex financial instrument that interconnects humans monetarily, rather than emotionally.
At the end of the play, Portia’s performance in the courtroom is often praised for its rhetorical and legal insight, but she bests Shylock not because she is a wise lawyer, but because the legal system of Venice is structurally discriminatory against Jews. The trial is not between Antonio and Shylock as distinct individuals but between Christian and Jew within a Venice policing the boundary between insider and outsider.
Much has changed since Boas wrote his account, but his century-old definition of problem plays seems to offer a way into these texts that privileges corrupted society over tortured individuals, and that identifies the characters as manifestations of fault lines within their civic worlds.
That, then, opens up the designation to a range of other plays: Othello as a problem play about the clash of civilisations in the eastern Mediterranean, or Macbeth as a problem play about the shift from feudal society to a politics of primogeniture. Designed to explain what he saw as a specific turning point in Shakespeare’s career, the problem play term can be usefully expanded: perhaps all Shakespeare’s plays are problem plays.