Seminar 20: ‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together’: The Nature of Problem in Shakespearean Studies

«All’s Well That Ends Well, Act IV, Scene iii»

The idea of the problem play, which is borrowed by the Shakespearean critics from Henrik Ibsen and G.Bernard Shaw’s plays as the major representatives in the late 19th century, has also been applied to Shakespeare’s particular plays. The major aim of the 19th century problem plays is to deal with controversial social issues in a realistic and intellectual manner through the debates of individuals having conflicting ideas. Yet, though the modern term “problem play” is adapted to Shakespeare considering these specific facets, diverse and controversial critical perceptions have been developed on the meaning and use of the term in Shakespearean studies throughout the centuries. Edward Dowden calls these particular plays “dark comedies” while A.P. Rossiter regards the problem in generic terms and calls them “tragi-comedies” as they cannot be placed in a settled division of tragedy or comedy. On the other hand, F.S.Boas uses the term “problem play” for the first time. For Boas, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet are included in the category of problem plays; whereas, in William W. Lawrence’s definition, Antony and Cleopatra and Timon of Athens are also problematic. The ambiguity of the genre; the problems in content, structure and characters; the mysterious and dark nature of the plays are highlighted as the features of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Boas, Lawrence and Tillyard discuss the open-endedness of the plays which necessiates interpretation on the part of the audience, the analogies made with the political, social, religious and cultural problems of the Elizabethan Era and Jacobean period, and the questions raised on metaphysical issues of life and death, ethics and morals as the major features of Shakespeare’s problem plays. The use of language, which is tough and sophisticated rich in debates, discussions and satire, the psychological elements leading to realism and the conflict between appearance and reality are the other components used to identify a problem play. In this regard, a settlement has not been reached yet over which plays of Shakespeare are problem plays and the features that make a play problematic.

What will be discussed in this seminar is whether it is possible to find “problematic issues” that can be evaluated in terms of genre, mood, characterisation, and being open to interpretation in Shakespeare’s other plays categorised as “Romantic Comedies”, “Tragedies”, and “Histories”, or they are limited only in the “Problem Plays” and “so-called Problem Plays” defined by the critics mentioned above. It will be questioned whether the nature of the problem and its function change according to the content of the play regardless of its category. It will be discussed whether the social, political, cultural, moral and metaphysical questioning is seen in many of Shakespeare’s plays, and whether it turns out to be a problematic issue. In this sense, this seminar opens the perception that a number of Shakespeare’s plays embody the features of the problem play, defined and discussed, yet not agreed on by various critics so far, up for discussion. The seminar welcomes all the papers which negotiate Shakespeare’s works, their adaptations and productions in terms of the nature and appropriation of the characteristics of the problem play.

The major questions which will be dealt with in this seminar are as follows:

  1. Is it possible to restrict the term ‘problem play’ with only certain plays of Shakespeare such as All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida? Is it possible to talk about ‘a genuine problem play’ in Shakespearean studies?
  2. What are the key characteristics of the problem play, and how are they variously presented in Shakespeare’s works, their adaptations, and productions?
  3. Do any of Shakespeare’s plays fit entirely in either of comedy and tragedy in terms of generic categorisation? How is this interpreted in adaptations and productions?
  4. What is Shakespeare’s approach to the action and character in his plays? Does he provide satisfactory resolutions in his plays? If not, how and why?
  5. What is the function of categorisation of Shakespeare’s plays as “Romantic Comedies”, “Tragedies”, or “History Plays”? Can the features of these categories intermingle?
  6. What is the approach of the writers adapting Shakespeare’s plays to the problematic issues discussed within the term “problem play”?
  7. How do the theatre and film directors along with actors and actresses interpret, appropriate and perform the problematic issues present in the plays?

Submit your abstract (250 words) which includes name, email, affiliation, and title of the contribution.
Abstracts and biographical notes should be sent to ->] and [ by September 1st, 2013.

All the papers will be circulated among the participants, who will respond in detail to two papers during the seminar session.