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kelby_lake
10-16-2011, 11:28 AM
The three plays categorised as problem plays are All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida. The definition of problem play is varied- some use it to indicate that the play fits neither into comedy or tragedy, some use it to mark the plays which have a social or moral dilemma at their heart, and some just use it to mean Shakespeare's unsatisfactory plays.

What do you think of the various definitions? Other plays that have been referred to as problem plays are Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, The Merchant of Vanice, and even Hamlet.

Charles Darnay
10-16-2011, 02:03 PM
I'm a bit torn in my opinion of the designation of problem plays. I have always understood it to mean plays whose endings are in line with "comedy" yet unresolved. Isabella's silence at the end of "Measure" is a great example of this. But at the same time, most of his comedies don't end in the way traditional comedies are supposed to end. "The Winter's Tale" often gets thrown into the mix because of the mark on Hermione's face at the end.

I don't think Hamlet can a problem play - it is too clear-cut in its tragedy.

The Merchant of Venice has only been added to the list post-WWII, when the image of Shylock has been transformed. When Shylock was nothing but a comic villain (akin to Marlowe's Barabas) the play reads as a traditional comedy - as much as his other high comedies at least.

I certainly do not take "problem play" to be unsatisfactory plays. While "All's Well" is not one of his better ones, "Troilus" is great and "Measure" is one of the best.

kelby_lake
10-17-2011, 07:03 AM
I agree with you on Hamlet. Yes, he has a dilemma but I think the problem plays are set apart by their structure.

The Merchant of Venice has become more of a problem play post-WW2 but I don't think it was ever meant to be as lighthearted as As You Like It, for example. Shylock's famous speech is a persuasive piece of writing and I think even an anti-semetic audience would find it hard to ignore completely. Besides, there's still an inter-racial romance- Jessica is Jewish and Lorenzo is Christian, I believe. I don't think anti-semetic audiences would have been entirely comfortable with that.

I also agree with you on discarding the definition of problem play as Shakespeare's lesser or unsatisfactory plays. All's Well That Ends Well is unsatisfactory- it's been argued to be a lighthearted comedy about a clever woman who manages to solve the barrier put between her and her love, but a modern audience would struggle to ignore the multitude of moral problems Helena's actions throw up. It starts off well but I think the quality of the writing is inconsistant. I have yet to read Troilus and Cressida so I cannot say whether it is unsatisfactory structurally or thematically. Measure for Measure has been overlooked for too long. For centuries it was discarded for being obscure or obscene but luckily in the twentieth century it was rediscovered. Angelo and Isabella's dialogue between each other is some of the strongest dialogue in any of Shakespeare's plays. The play is rich in moral dilemmas: some may argue that this is the play's fault, as Shakespeare has chosen dilemmas that are impossible to truly resolve and so he must end the play as a comedy in order to stop things just trailing off. However there is enough uncertainty and instability implied in the ending for me to admire it.

One could argue that modern critics are over-thinking the plays. Perhaps in Elizabethan times they were simply light-hearted comedies. But I think there's enough evidence to suggest that Shakespeare intended something darker.

Charles Darnay
10-17-2011, 01:49 PM
The Merchant of Venice has become more of a problem play post-WW2 but I don't think it was ever meant to be as lighthearted as As You Like It, for example. Shylock's famous speech is a persuasive piece of writing and I think even an anti-semetic audience would find it hard to ignore completely. Besides, there's still an inter-racial romance- Jessica is Jewish and Lorenzo is Christian, I believe. I don't think anti-semetic audiences would have been entirely comfortable with that.


I've been doing a lot of work with Merchant lately, so that is why I am going to jump on this.

Shylock's speech in III.i is not a sympathetic speech. It builds up the notion that Jews are the same as Christians, so if a Christian can abuse a Jew, a Jew can do worse. He uses the rhetoric of "if you prick us, do we not bleed" to justify his conclusion: "The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction." - This adds to his villainy and the fact that he is so unflinching, particularly with regards to his bond.

The inter-marriage is also not an argument for a sympathetic portrayal of Jews. First, Jessica is constantly portrayed as being different than Shylock. She is called "a gentile and not a Jew", and Lorenzo's designation of "white" is II.iv is meant to suggest her (Christian) purity as opposed to the dark-skinned Jew that is Shylock. Next, she rejects her Jewishness and converts by the time she marries Lorenzo. Finally, this is still the hint in Act 3 that, although she now converted, she is not fully accepted (particularly by Gratiano).

The Elizabethan audience was very familiar with the Elizabethan image of the Jew - a horned devil. Since Jews were expelled from England a few centuries before the play was produced, many in the audience would never have met a Jew. Thus, there was no reason for them to feel sympathy for them, and no reason to see Shylock as a blood-thristy villain, reduced to comedy at times (as in II.viii) - and justly punished for his greed.

"Merchant" may not be as light-hearted as "As You Like It", for it not pastorale - but it is certainly a comedy through-and-through and not meant to leave the audience with sympathy for a fallen hero.

kelby_lake
10-17-2011, 05:38 PM
I understand what you're saying. Elizabethan audiences weren't enlightened enough to see past racial stereotypes and so they don't need to care that Shylock is a complete racial stereotype, preferring money above all else. But he does get a lot of good lines. Even if he is the baddie, if you're going to give eloquent lines to a character, that means you want them to be noticed. We can at least admire his eloquency, just as Iago was eloquent (not that the two characters are equally eloquent).

MorpheusSandman
05-06-2012, 10:28 PM
This is an old post, but I wanted to comment on this:


Shylock's speech in III.i is not a sympathetic speech.What I always took away from that speech isn't that it's meant to make Shylock sympathetic, but that it's supposed to emphasize the villain has been made the way he is by people that are no better. What's the moral of the Gold/Silver/Lead boxes?

That Elizabethan audiences would've viewed Jews in a negative, caricatured light is undeniable, but that Shakespeare would've viewed them in such a one-dimensional manner is not something I'm willing to admit. Shakespeare had an uncanny ability at digging past the surface of every character he ever wrote, parsing hidden justifications, motivations, and reasons for their actions. He humanized and 3-dimensionalized every type he penned, even when often playing off the accepted stereotypes. I don't think there's any doubt that a Shylock is a much more complex portrayal than Barabas is. Plus, writers often become attracted to their villains and end up making them the most complex, interesting, and, some times, sympathetic characters. In that, Shakespeare has a lot in common with one of the great artists of the 20th century in Alfred Hitchcock. There's the famous story that at the premiere of Psycho, when Norman Bates "cleans up" the murder committed by "his mother," one audience member said "what a good boy to do that for his mother"!

Calidore
05-06-2012, 10:51 PM
Regarding Shylock: There's a series that I haven't watched yet but really want to called Playing Shakespeare. It's from the early '80s and features the founder of the Royal Shalespeare Company and several of his actors--obscure names like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, and David Suchet--getting to the meat of performing Shakespeare by discussing, analyzing, and performing bits and scenes. It runs nine episodes total.

Anyway, one episode has the Jewish Suchet and the non-Jewish Stewart offer duelling Shylocks, with both explaining their interpretations of the character and then acting out some scenes. For those looking to get their own handle on the character, this seems like a must-see.

It's not a cheap DVD set, but it's hopefully rentable.

kelby_lake
05-22-2012, 06:59 AM
Regarding Shylock: There's a series that I haven't watched yet but really want to called Playing Shakespeare. It's from the early '80s and features the founder of the Royal Shalespeare Company and several of his actors--obscure names like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, and David Suchet--getting to the meat of performing Shakespeare by discussing, analyzing, and performing bits and scenes. It runs nine episodes total.

Anyway, one episode has the Jewish Suchet and the non-Jewish Stewart offer duelling Shylocks, with both explaining their interpretations of the character and then acting out some scenes. For those looking to get their own handle on the character, this seems like a must-see.

It's not a cheap DVD set, but it's hopefully rentable.

I bought it recently actually for 11.

The Merchant of Venice episode is very good, though I think Suchet's Shylock is more nuanced and believable than Stewart's, although Stewart as a non-Jew couldn't get away with making the character too Jewish.