Shakespeare's Problem Plays The first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays, the First Folio of 1623, subdivided them

into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. While many of the plays comfortably fit one or other of those categories, a handful are less easy to pin down, as they deal with too many complex moral issues to be comfortably labelled 'comedy', but they also lack the essential ingredients of tragedy. The three plays usually labelled 'problem comedies' or simply 'problem plays' were all written roughly between 1602-04, and are All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. Many critics have applied a similar label to the earlier The Merchant of Venice and even to Hamlet, though few have followed the example set by the scholar Ernest Schanzer, whose book Shakespeare's Problem Plays (1963) ranked Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra alongside Measure for Measure. Ironically, the central situation in the best-known problem play, Measure for Measure, arises from just such an attempt at neatly formulaic simplification. Angelo, the deputy governor of Vienna, is temporarily put in charge, and resolves to clarify the law by enforcing it rigorously at all times. But when this means condemning Claudio to certain death (for getting his unmarried girlfriend pregnant), Angelo's steely logic gives way to all too recognisable human impulses, as he falls for Claudio's devoutly religious sister Isabella and risks both the abuse of his position and undermining the law that he is supposed to embody.

Superficially, All's Well That Ends Well seems more straightforward: the poor but honest Helen woos and wins the noble Bertram and lives happily ever after. But the characters are too complicated for this scenario to fit: the rule-bound, class-conscious Bertram is outraged by the very idea, and Helen has to resort to subterfuge in order to obtain the King's blessing of their union in the first place, and then outright blackmail in order to persuade Bertram to accept her as his wife. The play's title suggests a happy ending, but it's one of Shakespeare's most bitterly sardonic: by most yardsticks, it certainly does not end "well".

Troilus and Cressida is the hardest play to pin down: neither comedy, tragedy nor history but with elements of all three, it announces itself as a classic romance but the play is primarily a deeply cynical analysis of human emotion and a highly critical depiction of the futility of war. Touted as the embodiment of courtly love, the title characters find themselves quite unable to live up to expectations, not least when Cressida is literally used as a human bargaining chip during the endless Trojan war. The two most recognisable characters are not Troilus and Cressida but Pandarus and Thersites, the one a barely disguised pimp (despite his blood ties to Cressida), the other the most cynical misanthrope in the Shakespeare's entire output.

so they began to be described in different ways. Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus.Romance plays Defining Shakespeare’s plays as ‘Romance plays’ is a relatively new affair. researchers and critics. They have become a new classification. what kind of plays were they? For example. But even here. Plutarch. the tragedy concerns two lovers who suffer equally. a ‘double tragedy’. translated by the Renaissance English writer. like Macbeth. produces strong tragic feelings in the audience but it’s actually . The three plays are always referred to as the Roman Plays. the term ‘tragedy’ refers to a form of Greek tragedy which some of Shakespeare’s plays. which conceals a number of issues: for example. The plays are Julius Caesar. The plays that usually fall into that category are Pericles. Another feature of the Roman plays is that it was customary in Shakespeare’s time to use Roman costume on the stage to re-enforce the impression that we are in Rome. Late plays had elements of comedy and tragedy as well as having a wider view of life. These plays are also called ‘tragicomedies. and that extraordinary occurrences like shipwrecks. or because. Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare’s Roman Plays The term. Cymbeline. for example. his plays were studied more carefully by academics. Shakespeare’s ‘Roman Plays’ is simply a convenient description that critics have given to the three plays that Shakespeare set in ancient Rome. like Romeo and Juliet. Antony and Cleopatra is often regarded as a tragedy.’ The things that these four plays have in common are that some conflict or injustice that occurred a long time ago is resolved. The plays also feature the re-unification of divided families. Whereas in comedies there is a happy ending where all the characters are paired of in love and happiness. but none of them fits neatly into any category. the death of the perpetrator avoids death by heartfelt and full repentance. Shakespeare’s plays have traditionally been classified as ‘tragedies. The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. strongly resemble. improbable disguises and supernatural events act as dramatic devices. What they have in common is that they are all set in ancient Rome and that their source is the Roman historian.’ ‘histories’ or ‘comedies’ but as time went by and scholars began to regard him as the greatest English writer of all times. named Romance Plays by scholars. North. It became difficult to accept the old categories because many of the plays refused to fit into those categories. there are pairings and happy endings in the romance plays but always with the dark shadows cast by the unpleasant events that lurk in everyone’s memory.

love. They also examine things like loyalty. who looks very much like a tragic figure but there are too many issues explored in the play for it to be termed a tragedy.written with a comic structure. war. friendship and honour. Brutus. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most ‘postmodern’ plays. It’s therefore convenient to take hold of the ancient Roman setting and call these plays ‘Roman Plays. .’ The plays all explore power. Julius Caesar has a central character.