Editors, publishers, and name-callers of all sorts often lump together All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida and call this trio: Shakespeare's "Problem Plays." What's odd about this label is that it was invented in the 19th century to describe Ibsen's plays that contain a central problem, a moral dilemma. Because it became a popular term, it got applied to these Shakespeare plays that present a "problem" for genre labelers. Is All's Well really a Problem Play?
Shakespeare appears never to have sought publication for any of his plays during his life. Seven years after his death, two of his fellow actors published the First Folio collection of Shakespeare's plays and listed them under three labels in the table of contents: Comedies, Histories, Tragedies. Both All's Well and Measure appear in the "Comedies" section while Troilus seems to have been a late addition, hastily added to the "Tragedies" section (even though an earlier quarto edition called Troilus a "History"). Many of Shakespeare's plays are difficult to label accurately because he was a notorious genre buster, putting a lot of humor in his tragedies (see the first half of Romeo and Juliet for one of many examples) and much drama in some of his comedies (see Much Ado about Nothing as a great example). Because Shakespeare mixed genre and tone in so many of his plays and most of them don't fit neatly into these three table of contents categories, can't most of them be considered "Problem Plays"? From the other angle, are any of them really Problem Plays?
In All's Well, when Helena cures the King, chooses Bertram for her husband, and then receives Bertram's rejection, she has a prickly difficulty, but not really a moral dilemma. Shakespeare spends more time developing Helena (and helping us get inside her head and heart, where we enthusiastically root for her) than he does with Bertram. But one of the staging issues with Bertram is that if we go too far in highlighting his faults, we risk crippling how much we care about Helena. If Bertram is despicably unlikeable, how can we root for our heroine when she loves so big of a jerk? Maybe that's the real problem of All's Well: not white-washing Bertram's flaws and simultaneously letting him be (almost) worthy (enough) of Helena's love.
But these issues are not exclusive to All's Well. Shakespeare spends a lot more time developing Rosalind than he does Orlando in As You Like It. Do we always want the love-sick and in-love-with-melodrama Orsino to end up with our Viola in Twelfth Night? Demetrius is still under the spell of love juice for the wedding finale of Midsummer. The ladies leave the men in Love's Labour's Lost before they reach their happy ending. Because I think Kate learns how to be truly free in words from Petruchio in Shrew, I think they may be the only happily married and well-matched couple at the end of a Shakespeare play. When we dig around these plays and look at them individually, look at them with Shakespeare's other plays, and look at them with plays by his contemporaries, are any of these comedies "typical"? Once again I ask: are they all Problem Plays or are none of them Problem Plays?
As I prepare to direct All's Well, I'm fixated on the possible questions Shakespeare might be asking:
I think the only Problems with All's Well are that (like most of Shakespeare's plays) the play is complicated, it has complex characters/situations, and it doesn't wrap up neatly at the end. The situations are messy, the solutions to the conflicts are not easy, and we don't really know where the story is going if all we know about the play beforehand is its title. It's complicated, but it's not hard to follow. It's messy, but we can see our selves and our friends in it. And it's really funny.
No easy answers. No stock solutions. Many problems. No Problem.
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