So what is a problem play? That’s a great question. Scholars and actors and directors alike have argued, debated and theorized for centuries over the exact definition of what a problem play is, which ironically enough, kind of mirrors what a problem play in its simplest, most basic definition is: hard to define.
Before we dive into what a problem play is, it’s best we understand what we generally use to categorize Shakespeare’s hard to categorize plays. Permission to speak basically? The tragedies are generally plays that follow a tragic figure through an onslaught of problems throughout their journey and most of the time end in a whole lot of death and dismemberment (See: Titus Andronicus). The comedies are generally plays that follow an ensemble of characters through minor inconveniences in a more light-hearted and fun way, until ultimately they are paired off and married to one another. The histories are called histories because they are about historical figures, mostly the English royal family. And if we really want to go down the rabbit hole we can classify plays set in ancient Rome as tragedies or even Roman Histories, because their sources were, to be frank, not so reliable. You think Twitter’s bad? Try getting your information from a stone tablet.
I guess what I’m trying to say is Shakespeare’s plays are pretty hard to define at the best of times, and so when we run into the problem plays, that’s why we start to have, well, problems.
There are some who will argue that a problem play has to do with the subject of the piece such as a controversial plot, such as The Merchant of Venice, or Measure for Measure.
There are others who define a problem play as a piece that debates the relationship between law and nature.
There are those who argue that they are defined by being plays that deal with ethical dilemmas. Be it social, political, psychological or metaphysical.
And those who say that problem plays allow the audience to analyze and critique complex and neglected issues, while not simply making you laugh, cry or otherwise.
With all that being said, and there will be many Shakespeare scholars who disagree with me, these are all of the plays that are generally defined as Problem Plays:
- All’s Well That Ends Well
- Measure for Measure
- The Merchant of Venice
- Timon of Athens
- Troilus and Cressida
- The Winter’s Tale
There is a wealth of research and knowledge to be found out there on the problem plays and what they are. A lot more than I can fit into this article. But in its most basic sense really a problem play is a piece that doesn’t quite fit into any particular category, for whatever reason. But however you categorize his plays, I think the thing the Bard would want us to do most is use his plays for their intended purpose. To laugh, cry, think, and understand ourselves and the world around us just a little bit better.