Understanding Shakespeare’s ‘Problem’ plays requires a brief, general overview of the play types. Placing any of Shakespeare’s plays into any of the familiar categories, such as tragedy or comedy, is difficult. Categorising them is nothing more than a modern convenience, although Shakespeare himself, or at least the editors of the First Folio, named many of the plays as ‘tragical’ or ‘comical’ or ‘tragical comical.’
Modern critics don’t take much notice of those Jacobean handles because his plays were unique, and although many of them resemble forms like Greek comedies or tragedies, it’s not a clear cut issue. Nevertheless, we generally talk about a Shakespeare comedy or a Shakespeare tragedy and we broadly know what we mean by that. In spite of almost none of the plays sitting entirely comfortably in either of those categories, there is usually enough comic or tragic satisfaction in some of them to place them there.
When we call a play a History Play we are ducking the issue because the History Plays are generally plays about English Royalty, set in medieval times, and are easy to recognise as historical dramas. All of those plays contain elements of tragedy or comedy but we don’t have to wrack our brains to try and make sense of our confusion about what kind of dramas they are. We just call them History Plays and that’s that.
Similarly, with the Roman Plays, we give that name to Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, the three plays set in the ancient Roman world. Here, again, we don’t have to think about it. They are all set in Ancient Rome and there’s no cause to puzzle over them. Antony and Cleopatra is generally classified as a tragedy as well and goes into both categories. Julius Caesar is often referred to as a Problem Play.
The nineteenth-century Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen produced what he called ‘problem plays’ as an aspect of the new ‘realism’ that was fashionable at the time. The protagonist in those plays is not a tragic or comic figure in the normal way but an individual who is more of a representative of a contemporary social problem. Shakespeare scholars and critics pounced on the term as a language in which to analyse the Shakespeare texts that didn’t fit into the convenient categories – plays that caused uneasiness when critics were trying to express what they were.
In the Problem Plays there aren’t the happy endings that one would expect in a comedy, nor the tragic effect one would expect in a tragedy: it’s extremely difficult to talk about any of Shakespeare’s plays as pure tragedy or pure comedy. For example, in the most perfect of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night, where the loving couples’ problems are resolved and they all end up with the prospect of living happily ever after, we are left with Malvolio whose life they have destroyed, and also, Sir Toby Belch, who marries Maria at the end, is not one of the happy people. In The Merchant of Venice too, there is a strong comic ending for some of the characters, but a darkness in the whole story of Shylock, who is destroyed, while also not being a tragic figure, although having some of the qualities of a tragic figure.
So there is a sense in which a number of Shakespeare’s plays have the features of the ‘problem play,’ but the term has become associated with the few of them that completely frustrate any attempt to classify them. Without having a fully-fledged tragic hero because our attention is diverted from a potential tragic figure by the wide range of character issues that comedies have, a play cannot be classified as a tragedy: the tragic effect can only be achieved when everything is concentrated on the hero, which we get in plays like Macbeth.
Although Shakespeare experts don’t always agree, the plays generally called Problem Plays are:
So what exactly makes a Problem Play? In the Problem Plays the journey we take when we watch them we take on a dark road. While most of the protagonists end up in a reasonable place they are almost irretrievably scarred by the experience we have watched them endure. For example, in Measure for Measure, Isabella is placed in the terrible situation in which, in trying to save her brother from execution for fornication, at the hands of the hypocritical Angelo, she falls prey to Angelo’s lust. He offers to free her brother if she will sleep with him. The matter is finally resolved, and like the couples in the comedies, she ends up with a husband, the Duke. He is a good, kind man, but she has no choice in it, and when he tells her he is going to marry her right at the end of the play, we don’t see her response. Moreover, their union seems to be a tacked-on affair because there has been no lead-up to it. Although the characters are paired off in the comic mode, they are not the happy young lovers of the comedies, who have come through a series of misunderstandings and minor problems in their relationships but are nevertheless in love. Moreover, the Duke forces Angelo to marry a woman he has abused, having made her pregnant then abandoning her. Neither of them is happy. He also forces a scurrilous pimp to marry his whore. These are the kind of issues that make a play a problem when trying to place it in a category.