The first difficulty encountered when approaching the `problem plays' is this: different critics choose to select different plays for this grouping. Many select All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, but then some critics, such as Boas, add Hamlet, and Schanzer chooses Troilus and Cressida, Anthony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. What are the `problem plays'? Are they plays that are problematic for critics or for an audience, or are they plays concerned with particular problems?
The first grouping of the `problem plays' occurred in Dowden's 1875 Shakespeare: His Mind and Art. Dowden identified them as `serious, dark and ironical comedies'. The reasoning behind the grouping was that they were not plays that would fit with the rest of Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Dowden describes All's Well as `grave and earnest', and Measure for Measure as `dark and bitter'. Dowden interprets such a shift of tone, particularly evident in Troilus and Cressida, as a sign of a change in Shakespeare's mental state:
“In the first edition of this work I did not venture to attempt an interpretation of Troilus and Cressida. I now believe this strange and difficult play was a last attempt to continue comedy made when Shakespeare had ceased to be able to smile genially, and when he must be either ironical, or else take a deep, passionate and tragical view of life.”
Dowden sees the problem plays as being so far removed from gentle comedies like Twelfth Night that it signals a depressed or cynical time in Shakespeare's life.
Why do critics find the problem plays so uncomfortable? George Bernard Shaw suggests that the plays were ahead of their time:
“…in such unpopular plays as All's Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, we find him ready and willing to start at the twentieth century if only the seventeenth century would let him.”
The plays were certainly less `popular', offering uncomfortable resolutions and rotten societies. The French court of Alls' Well is fraught with tension between the old and young generations; Measure for Measure shows a Vienna full of licentiousness and hypocrisy; and Troilus and Cressida shows not the glories of war but the tedium and slow ruin of two societies through it. Neither do them conform to dramatic conventions that reassure or teach the audience; instead, several moral conflicts are left unresolved.
F. S. Boas in his 1896 book Shakespeare and his Predecessors used the term `problem plays', which was a term applied to social commentators Ibsen and Shaw. He viewed the societies in the plays as `artificial', `civilisation ripe unto rottenness'. He suggests that this has a negative effect on the viewer:
“Amidst such media abnormal conditions of brain and of emotion are generated, and intricate cases of conscience demand a solution by unprecedented methods. Thus throughout these plays we move along dim Untrodden paths, and at the close our feeling is neither of simple joy nor pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome…”
In both All's Well and Measure for Measure Shakespeare appears to draw these complex social worlds back into a state of calm, with the Duke restoring order to Vienna and saving Isabella, and Helena finally winning Bertram. There is no such attempt at resolution in Boas' other two `problem plays', Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet, so we are left contemplating their `enigmas'. Hamlet fails to resolve satisfactorily as a revenge tragedy, and Troilus and Cressida finishes as not quite romance, comedy, history or tragedy, the complications of war and of human relationships left unexplained.
Disturbing rottenness of the societies among the splendour is one aspect of many of those plays deemed `problem plays'. Great heroes in Troilus and Cressida, such as Achilles, are shown to be devious and flawed; the seemingly puritan statesman Angelo is revealed to be debauched; and Bertram does not show the qualities of the gentleman, hardly earning his rank. This rottenness is often reflected in productions of the plays, for example the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1985 production of Troilus and Cressida. The set depicted a decaying mansion, in which the occupants still used crystal brandy glasses and decanters, despite peeling wallpaper and crumbling plaster. The plays pick apart society from the inside, the insidious and seemingly unstoppable force of decay summed up in Hamlet's despairing line, `There is something rotten in the state of Denmark'. When decay comes from those in authority, from immoral qualities rather than just adherence to tradition like in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the plays pose difficult questions about leadership and morality. The seemingly moral characters, such as Helena, are just as receptive to the charms of debauchery, as represented by Bertram, so that the problem is far from being resolved.
W. W. Lawrence, in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, suggests that the essential characteristic of a problem play is that complications in human life are presented seriously, not designed to rouse pity or amusement, but to examine the complex human psychology and force an audience to make their own ethical interpretations. Are we meant to pass judgement on Helena for desiring the unscrupulous Bertram? Is Angelo misguided in his harsh judgement, or is his only sin hypocrisy? The detachment from the audience in Troilus and Cressida means that we are left unsure as to which characters we should be supporting, and which condemning; which actions are laudable, and which despicable; and, most importantly, which of the play's speeches contains the admirable messages of the play, and which the warnings. Ernest Schanzer reinforces this idea in his description of his `problem plays' - Troilus and Cressida, Anthony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. He states that the plays all contain a moral problem `presented in such a manner that we are unsure of our moral bearings'.
E. M. W. Tillyard approaches the problem plays as children who are complex or even abnormal, and may or may not develop into a normal adult. He defines All's Well and Measure for Measure as problem children who will never be brought back to normality, and Troilus and Cressida as a child who will eventually develop into a functioning adult. The latter displays problems, while the former two are problems. Troilus and Cressida does have a sense of finiteness, in that at least one society will be restored at the end of the war. All's Well and Troilus and Cressida seem to resolve more firmly in the final act, yet do not dispel moral complications such as the unions between moral and debauched people, nor do the societies seem entirely restored to health. In this way Troilus and Cressida could be viewed as a play concerning the problem of war and social decay, while the other two are problematic dramatic constructions. This is however simplistic, as all the problem plays deal with social problems, and Troilus and Cressida also has a problematic dramatic structure, with its mixture of love and war plots. A. P. Rossiter in Angels with Horns sums this up:
“…these plays throw opposed or contrary views into the mind: only to leave the resulting equations without any settled or soothing solutions…Troilus and Cressida gives us a `tragedy-of-love' pattern that is not tragic (nor love?); All's Well a `happy ending' that makes us neither happy nor comfortable; Measure for Measure a `final solution' that simply does not answer the questions raised.”
Northrop Frye in The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare's Problem Comedies suggests that our main source of discomfort where the problem plays are concerned is the lack of deliverance that we are used to in Shakespeare's comedies; the sense that `everything's going to be all right after all.' He suggests that there is much more irony in Measure for Measure and All's Well than in plays like As You Like It or Twelfth Night, so that the happy resolution comes with a caveat: mistrust all authority and surface values, and certainly mistrust supposed happy endings.
Oscar James Campbell argues that this is not a mistake on Shakespeare's part in delivering a faulty comedy, but instead a deliberated move towards `comicall satyre', a term applied to Ben Jonson's work. Campbell considers Ulysses and Hector `representatives of the author' and social commentators in Troilus and Cressida, expounding political theories, in contrast to the buffoons Thersites and Pandarus. This is not entirely satisfactory however, for while Ulysses and Hector do offer commentary they are treated with too much detachment by their author to be considered favoured voices, and there is surely too much passionate engagement with the themes of the play for a true satire. Campbell is forced to admit that Shakespeare is temperamentally unfit for comic satire:
“The sustained intensity of his mind, joined to his tendency toward philosophical lyricism, lent the play a depth of tone which makes his satire ring with universal meanings.”
Despite these difficulties in approach it is possible to find several unifying features of three `problem plays' - All's Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. Vivian Thomas notes that the overall effect on the audience is similar in all three:
“…we are left pondering the questions raised by the action rather than contemplating the sense of loss characteristic of tragedy or of feeling the release or joy inherent in Shakespeare's romantic comedies.”
None of the plays instruct the audience on how to feel at the resolution. The first two offer a traditional comedic conclusion, but do nothing to dispel earlier tension, and Troilus and Cressida raises questions about love and war without offering a definitive answer. All three also offer a strong debate scene in the second act, raising the central theme of the play. In Troilus and Cressida it is Act II Scene 2, concerning value, worth and honour; in All's Well Act II Scene 3, concerning human valuation; and in Measure for Measure Act II Scene 2, concerning law and justice. The strong dramatic moments of the plays are often those of turmoil or debate rather than those of resolution.
All three plays explore the relationship between human behaviour and the role of institutions. In Troilus and Cressida we are left unsure about who the true decision-makers are - should it be the heroes, the Kings, or the soldiers? In All's Well obligation and privilege are both challenged. In Measure for Measure Shakespeare asks how far the law can and should go in controlling human behaviour. Much of human behaviour is motivated by sexual desire; should desire be controlled? The Trojan war is dominated by two faithless women, who are both sex objects. Unusually for jealousy in Shakespeare, compared for example with Othello or The Winter's Tale, the emotion is more than justified; what kind of comment does this make on female sexuality? Should we condemn Troilus for risking so much for a faithless woman, or applaud him as a hero? This is of course a symbol of the greater conflict, in which the very existence of Troy is gambled through the retention of the faithless Helen. Meanwhile Angelo is prepared to treat a novice as a whore, but would execute a man for consummating his unofficial marriage, and Bertram, who is loved by a virtuous and usually perceptive woman, would dishonour a woman in secret and then denounce her publicly as a whore. The plays all ask serious questions about the effect of desire and the relationship between desire and institutions.
To reinforce the theme of hypocrisy Shakespeare illustrates several differences between appearance and reality. The heroic Achilles resorts to murder when he cannot honourably defeat his foe, an action that shows decay at the very heart of heroism in war. The well-born and apparently well-bred Bertram behaves despicably, while the lowly born Helena exhibits great intelligence, beyond her sex, and great honour. Parolles' extravagant manner hides a coward's heart. Angelo's precise and unrelenting judgement conceals his depraved nature. Shakespeare also shows that `bad' characters like Thersites, Parolles and Lucio have an attractive side, and a vitality, that makes it difficult for an audience to condemn them. Thersites precludes sentimentality by reminding the audience of stark realities; Parolles' dishonesty is charmingly innocuous compared with Bertram's vicious lying; Lucio's disreputable behaviour must be stopped, but his refusal to be put down represents a defence against the authoritarianism of Angelo.
These charmingly rebellious characters all play a major role in the plays but remain outsiders. Thersites is a source of amusement or contempt, and his unchanging status and views remind the audience of the bleaker side of the play. Lucio and Parolles' statuses change, adding to the audience's moral confusion. Lucio is a scoundrel, but his rebellion gives us a healthy counterweight to Angelo's abuse of justice, and his energy encourages Isabella in her attempt to save Claudio. In the last scene his interruptions may be irritating, yet he represents a type who cannot be silenced, a valuable asset in a society verging on totalitarianism. Parolles is more innocuous than the other two, yet his fraudulent actions and their serious consequences lead the audience to a more critical appraisal of Bertram's actions. Parolles' vices do not run deep, but Bertram's character worryingly remains unchanged at the end of the play.
The three plays question the basis and value of honour, and show the great disillusionment that comes with the clash of ideal and real. Bertram inherits honour, and the King hopes he will prove worthy of it, but both the King and the Countess are disillusioned by his inability to match up to his father. The Countess suggests he can recover lost honour on the battlefield; yet the young men are struck by the difference in Bertram's behaviour on and off the battlefield, showing that one does not necessarily transfer to the other. Hector asserts the vital importance of honour over life, but does not recognise the dependence of others on his life. Troilus in contrast is more aware of the importance of human relationships, but by the end of the play is equally disillusioned by love and war, just as the Greeks have abandoned their ideal of either. Angelo is oblivious of his dishonourable treatment of Mariana, and consciously abandons honour when he encounters Isabella. The audience undergoes disillusionment as Angelo himself realises his vulnerability and lack of moral rectitude. Helena views Bertram as a God - `my idolatrous fancy/Must sanctify his relics' - and has to readjust her ideas, yet the audience may well be disillusioned by the unions of Helena and Bertram and Mariana and Angelo.
The flawed societies are constructed through kinship, although this is not always a positive thing. Calchas leaves the system of kinship and is in danger of losing his identity, while Cressida is left vulnerable because of her kinship. All's Well begins with a comment on the two dead fathers, and the hope that the younger generation will continue the honour of the old. The Countess accepts Helena as her adoptive child, and would happily develop that relationship by taking her as a daughter-in-law, but Helena status as an adopted daughter endangers the romance. In Measure for Measure Mariana initially loses Angelo because her brother is lost at sea. Lucio denies paternity of his child in order to avoid a union with a whore. Kinship is shown to be fluid and intrinsically linked with the themes of the plays, such as desire in opposition to institutions such as law and marriage.
Boas labels these flawed societies `highly artificial'. While I would argue that Shakespeare attempts to convey realism through the psychological of the characters and the dark cynicism of the tone of the plays, it is true that the societies are stuck in strange situations. The Greeks and the Trojans are deadlocked, unable to change their situation. Vienna is overcome with licentiousness, yet the greatest threat to civil liberty is the unfeeling harshness of Angelo's justice. All's Well displays a social strain through its ageing society and the severe gap between generations. The leaders of these societies are confronted with unsolvable social problems. Despite the happy marriages at the end of Measure for Measure and All's Well, Vienna is still caught between an excess of desire and an excess of Puritanism, and the French court is still caught between two generations' moral values. If we compare with this The Tempest, which also features a society in crisis, we can see that other Shakespeare plays resolve these problems more effectively. The Tempest illustrates the fact that no state can remain invulnerable to political manoeuvring, but this is ultimately shown to be an ongoing tension in the political process, not an intangible rottenness in society.
The `problem plays' are problematic in that they refuse to be easily categorised as tragedy, comedy or history, instead using elements of different genres in order to undermine audience expectations and ask serious questions. I support the view that they are also problem plays in that they focus on difficult problems, such as the regulation of human desires, the generation gap, the moral decay of a lengthy war, and the flawed nature of love. Unlike many of the comedies they do not escape flawed societies for the safety of the forest or through the farcical medium of cross-dressing and disguise. Nor, like the tragedies, do we feel purged by the resolution of the play. Instead, we witness unsatisfactory conclusions that feel like realistic social solutions, the type of half-measures evident in real life. Problems are raised and left unsolved, leaving both audience and critics uncomfortable and questioning.