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Shakespeare's Problem Plays
Daniel Colvin

I suggest that a label for the causes of these feelings [of uneasiness and uncertainty of interpretation] might be the tragi-comic view of man: a view which splits the world today, and gives us the "totalitarian" attitude versus the end product of a European tradition which was chivalric and Christian. I mean by this any or all of the following, or any combination of these distinguishable attitudes.

1. A refusal or failure wholly to credit the dignity of man, and the significance that that gives the individual in tragedy.

2. An emphasis (comic, derisive, satiric) on human shortcoming, even when man is engaged in great affairs.

3. Any trend towards suggesting that there is usually another side to all human affairs, and that the "other side" to the serious, dignified, noble, famous and so forth, is comic. This implies a scepticism of man's worth, importance and value; and may range from the quizzical through the ironical to the cynical.

4. Any trend in the direction of expressing unhappiness, disappointment, resentfulness or bitterness about human life, by inverting these feelings and presenting the causes of them as matter for laughter or jest....

5. A corresponding attitude towards traditionally funny subjects which insinuates that in some way they are serious, or that the stock response to them bypasses pain at human shortcomings or wickedness; or that this stock response depends on a lack of sympathy or insight which an author can make us aware of without abolishing the comic situation.

* * *

They [the problem plays] have another important themes or terms in common, and all have some echo or parallel in Hamlet.

1. They share a common evaluation of conventionally accepted "nobilities": noble heroes in Troilus and Cressida (and the nobility of courtly love); Authority in ermine in Measure for Measure; a gentleman of family in All's Well. All are deflated; and with the deflations there runs concurrently the critical devaluation of man at large.

2. Interpolated into the critical analytical patterns we find "ideal" figures who check our prattle of "cynicism," "satire" or "misanthropy": Greek and Trojan chivalrically fraternizing; Hector, Uysses in his degree speech, perhaps; the Duke in his quasi regal moments; the Isabella who talks Christian charity so moving.... All are as if inset or montage figures, so that in their context they appear out of phase; ... such fulfillments, perhaps, not realities. But that is not quite it either: rather they are counter statements of "what man might be" counterpoised with what he is, like the tragic and the comic tones of the play.

3. Surely it is needless to insist that these plays involve us in discoveries always of a bad reality beneath the fair appearances of things: revelations, painful in the extreme and we are made to feel the pain-- of the distressing, disintegrating possibilities of human meanness (ignobility and treachery, craft and selfishness) inflicted on Hamlet, Isabella, Troilus and, in a slighter way, Helena.

4. All the Problem Plays are profoundly concerned with seeming and being; and this can cover both sex and human worth (each claiming nobility). Combine this with what I have just said about "disintegrating" discoveries, and, with a wider generalization, you can say that they share a quality which can be called maskedness not only because "unmaskng" describes so many of the actions, but because the total effect of all three (or four) plays together is to present a world of appearances (very close to a realistically observed reality) capable of opening--like a masque set transformation scene--and disclosing something totally different. This maskedness brings doubt, mixed feelings, an "edgy" curiosity, a kind of fear.

From A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns, "The Problem Plays."
Schanzer on Shakespeare's Problem Plays
Notes on Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare: A Study of "Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure, and Antony and Cleopatra" (London, 1963).

Schanzer quotes and approves of W.W. Lawrence's definition; i.e., that "the essential characteristic of a problem play ... is that a perplexing and distressing complication in human life is presented in a spirit of high seriousness ... the theme is handled so as to arouse not merely interest or excitement, or pity or amusement, but to probe the complicated interrelations of character and action, in a situation admitting of different ethical interpretations .... The'problem'is not like one in mathematics, to which there is a single true solution, but is one of conduct, as to which there are no fixed and immutable laws. Often it cannot be reduced to any formula, any one question, since human life is too complex to be so neatly simplified" (Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, 1931, p.4)

"Lawrence thus, very properly to my mind, confines the problem in these plays to the sphere of ethics" (p. 3). Schanzer states: "I shall follow Lawrence in restricting it to moral problems, and exclude plays--if such there be--which primarily concern themselves with problems that are psychological, metaphysical, social, or political" (p. 5). "In watching a problem play our predominant state of mind during at least part of the action is one of doubt of our moral bearings. But such doubt is not in itself enough to make it a problem play .... What seems needed as well in a problem play is a concern with a central moral problem, which will inevitably take the form of an act of choice confronting the protagonist, and in relation to which we are in doubt of our moral bearings" (p. 5). "The moral issue must not only be central to the play but it must appear problematic to the audience rather than to any of the characters" (p. 6).

"The definition of the Shakespearian problems play which I therefore suggest is: 'A play in which we find a concern with a moral problem which is central to it, presented in such a manner that we are unsure of our moral bearings, so that uncertain and divided responses to it in the minds of the audience are possible or even probable' (p. 6). "It will also be noted that, in opposition to Boas, Lawrence, and Tillyard, I do not mark off the problem play from the comedies and tragedies as a separate type. What, to my mind, distinguishes the problem play is a particular mode of presenting moral problems and this can be found in Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies alike' (pp. 6, 7). Schanzer goes on to reject as problem plays all but the three plays he intends to cover.

On technique: "One of the marks of these plays--though it is by no means confined to them--is the playwright's procedure of manipulating our response to the principal characters, playing fast and loose with our response affections for them, engaging and alienating them in turn. (For the sake of convenience, the term 'dramatic coquetry' may be coined to describe this procedure.)" (p. 70).

"We find, then, a complete antithesis between Shakespeare's and Whetstone's presentation of their heroine's choice. To put it crudely and, perhaps, over simply, but not, I think, unjustly: whereas Whetstone keeps his heroine divided and wavering but his audience single minded and free from doubts but his audience divided and wavering. In other words, Measure for Measure is a problem play, whereas Promos and Cassandra is not" (p. 109).

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