Problem plays

From Academic Kids

The term problem plays normally refers to three comedies that William Shakespeare wrote between about 1601 and 1603: All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, although some critics would extend the term to other plays. The term was coined by critic F.S. Boas in Shakespeare and his Predecessors (1896).

The problem plays are linked by their confusing tone, which shifts violently between dark, psychological drama and more straightforward comic material; All's Well and Measure contain happy endings that seem awkwardly artificial and perfunctory, while Troilus ends with neither a tragic death, nor a happy ending. Boas used the term for plays in which the resolution of the themes and debates seems inadequate, and in the final act the deliverance of justice and completion one expects does not occur. Other definitions have followed, but all center on the fact that the plays cannot be easily assigned to the traditional categories of comedy or tragedy. The three plays are also referred to as the dark comedies, since despite ending on a generally happy note for the characters concerned, the darker, more profound issues raised cannot be fully resolved or ignored.

Many critics have suggested that this sequence of plays marked a psychological turning point for Shakespeare, during which he lost interest in the romantic comedies he had specialized in and turned towards the darker worlds of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.

Some scholars regard Hamlet, which was probably written at the same time as these three comedies, to be a problem play as well. The term can also be applied to other odd plays from various points in his career, which illustrates the fact that this term has always been somewhat vaguely defined.

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