“Measure for Measure”: Defining the Problem Play

Left: William Shakespeare. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. RIGHT: Shakespeare scene from Measure for Measure. © Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Onstage magazine.

By Neena Arndt 

In 1896, the illustrious scholar F.S. Boas classified three of Shakespeare’s plays—Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida—as “problem plays,” to distinguish them from comedies, tragedies and histories. All written around the turn of the seventeenth century, these plays represent a transitional period in Shakespeare’s style, and provoke questions about what we really mean when we designate a piece of art as “comic” or “tragic.” Indeed, the Elizabethans, influenced by Greek and Roman classics, held different ideas about comedy and tragedy than do most twenty-first century Americans. By their definitions, most of Shakespeare’s best-known works can be easily classified as comedy, tragedy or history. But it is the so-called “problem plays,” some of the least-known works in the Shakespearean canon, which reveal Shakespeare as a stylistic chameleon who eludes easy categorization, and mark him as a bold experimenter, a fine technician and an extraordinary poet. 

Rather than implying that the plays themselves are problematic, the term “problem plays” refers to a type of drama that was popular at the time of Boas’ writing: the nineteenth century problem play deals with contemporary social issues. One prominent example is Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which the protagonist is trapped by the strictures of middle-class life. For Boas, Shakespeare’s problem plays were also characterized by an ambiguity of tone. While comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream offer their audiences straight frivolity and fun, and tragedies like Romeo and Juliet focus on the catastrophic trajectories of their characters, the problem plays alternate between comic and tragic elements. Boas writes: 

Throughout these plays we move along dim untrodden paths, and at the close our feeling is neither of simple joy nor pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome, even when, as in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, the complications are outwardly adjusted in the fifth act.

In Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna leaves the city temporarily in the hands of Lord Angelo, a stern judge. Angelo persecutes Claudio, a young man, for fornication with a woman named Juliet. But Claudio and Juliet are nearly married; only a small legal technicality renders Claudio’s act illegal—and given that the city is awash with prostitutes, Angelo’s plan to put Claudio to death is outrageously harsh. A simmering tale ensues, rife with power plays, politics and licentiousness. Chock full of both high-stakes drama and comic relief in the form of clownish policemen and bawdy ladies of the night, Measure for Measure leaves its audiences experiencing neither “simple joy nor pain.” Instead, it paints a complex portrait of a lustful politician, a city in flux, and the conflicting desires that humans experience every day. 

As citizens of the twenty-first century, we are accustomed to entertainments which take us to sorrowful depths at one moment and peaks of joy the next. The Goodman’s production of A Christmas Carol exposes us to the societal ills of nineteenth-century England while also delivering hearty humor and hijinks. Countless television shows, from All in the Family to Weeds, balance humor and pathos. And even the most “serious” playwrights of the twentieth century—Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, and the often morose Eugene O’Neill—had funny bones. 

But a Shakespearean audience would not have been as accustomed to such genre-blending. For them, a comedy meant a play that ended happily, usually with marriage. In Elizabethan comedies, plots often overshadow characters; the audience delights in keeping up with the story’s twists. They are treated to witty banter, slapstick, deceptions, mix-ups and clever servants. Often, in Elizabethan comedy, young lovers must overcome obstacles placed in their path by their elders. When they finally outwit their parents, they chassé off to their marriage bed to make the next generation: indeed, a happy ending for all. A tragedy, by contrast, ends with death. Many scholars link Elizabethan tragedy with the ancient Greek concept laid out by Aristotle in his treatise on dramatic theory, Poetics. Aristotle writes about the tragic hero, a character with enough admirable traits that the audience will sympathize with him, but who possesses a flaw which brings about his downfall. Elizabethan tragedies, including Shakespeare’s, generally adhere to Aristotle’s concept. Another common genre in Shakespeare’s day was the history play—that is, a play based on historical events that occurred decades or centuries before the playwright’s birth. Sometimes considered a subset of tragedy, the history play has little classical precedence; it was not until Elizabethan times that the genre became commonplace. 

One reason Elizabethans conceived their plays in the image of Greek and Roman theater is that few great English playwrights had yet existed. For many years preceding the mid-sixteenth cen – tury, England had seen an abundance of morality plays—religious dramas that often lacked thematic heft and literary merit. By the late sixteenth century, even these were out of style. Fortunately, the English Renaissance, a period during which many art forms flourished, was underway. Now, writers like Christopher Marlowe wrote secular tragedies, and authors such as Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson penned comedies with tightly woven plots. Though few playwrights of the age were university-educated, most had learned the classics in grammar school. Shakespeare, who probably spent most of his school years perfecting his Latin, had almost certainly read Terence, Plautus and Seneca, among many others, and took his cues from these Roman writers. 

Shakespeare probably began writing in the 1590s, and for much of that decade alternated between writing comedies (early works include Love’s Labour’s Lost and All’s Well That Ends Well), and history plays (King John, Henry VI Parts I, II, and III, Richard II, Richard III), with the occasional tragedy (Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet). These plays were performed by a troupe of actors called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an ensemble that included Shakespeare himself, and which, as its name suggests, excluded women. The men not only acted but also co-owned their company, sharing in all profits and debts. They also relied on the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain; their success, and that of the theater in general, was bolstered by financial support from major political figures. During the first five years of his career as a playwright, Shakespeare’s writing style was decidedly influenced by other writers of his day; many scholars consider his early poetry inferior to his later work, and his plots entirely derivative of other plays. His characters, such as the twin Dromios in The Comedy of Errors, tended toward one-dimensionality. By the middle of the 1590s, however, he had begun to deviate slightly from his source texts, and his voice emerged. In 1595, he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in 1600 produced Hamlet; both are now considered among the finest works in the English language.

Though evidence suggests that Measure for Measure premiered on St. Stephen’s Night, December 26, 1604, Shakespeare may have begun writing it in 1603. That year—approximately the midpoint of Shakespeare’s career—represents a pivotal moment in English history. Queen Elizabeth I died after a 44-year reign, ending the monarchical stability the British had enjoyed through the latter half of the sixteenth century. Although the “Virgin Queen” was the last of the Tudor line, her godson, James VI of Scotland, was rapidly appointed James I of England. When James came to power, he offered to patronize Shakespeare’s theater company, which was by then among the most respected and popular companies in London. Accordingly, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men changed their name to The King’s Men. Over the next several years, while enjoying frequent theatrical performances, James settled into his dual role as king of both Scotland and England. Elizabeth’s chief minister, Robert Cecil, advised James through the first years of his reign, and aside from an occasional death plot, the transition went smoothly (especially in comparison to the bloody fights and riots which so often accompanied major political events). Still, it was the only transfer of the crown Shakespeare would see in his lifetime, and it no doubt provoked in him questions about power and politics. 

Shakespeare set Measure for Measure in Vienna, a city he had not likely visited and which he probably associated with drunkenness and prostitution. Some scholars assert that he actually set the play in Italy, but that the location was changed when the play was first published in 1623—like so much about Shakespeare, the precise facts are lost forever, but what is certain is that the play never took place in London. Regardless of where he set the action, Shakespeare need not have used his extraordinary imagination to write about a city where alcohol and whores were men’s primary pleasures: London’s streets teemed with brothels. The city depicted in Measure for Measure is more likely a fictionalized version of London—the only city Shakespeare ever truly knew—than any distant European city. By placing the action elsewhere, Shakespeare could comment on London’s issues indirectly—and could still invite King James to his opening performance. 

While we know that Shakespeare was admired as a writer in his own time, in most cases we have little sense of whether his individual plays were popular successes when they premiered. Seventeenth century criticism of Measure for Measure is largely negative, focusing on its uneven tone. English literary critic John Dryden commented in 1672:

Poetry was then, if not in its infancy among us, at least not arriv’d to its vigor and maturity: witness the lameness of their Plots. I suppose I need not name Pericles Prince of Tyre, nor the historical plays of Shakespeare. Besides many of the rest as The Winter’s Tale, Love’s Labor’s Lost, Measure for Measure, which were either grounded on impossibilities, or at least, so meanly written that the comedy neither caus’d your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment.

But many critics in the twentieth century, steeped as they were in the tonally ambiguous entertainments of their era, took a more favorable view. They theorized that Shakespeare was experimenting with style, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to subvert his audience’s expectations. By this time, Boas’ designation of Measure for Measure as a problem play had become widely accepted in critical circles, and critics approached the play with Boas’ theories in mind. In 1931, W.W. Lawrence argued that the three problem plays

…mark one of the most striking developments of Shakespeare’s genius…The settings and the plots are still those of romance, but the treatment is in the main serious and realistic.

A few decades later, in 1965, J.W. Lever praised Shakespeare even further: 

The form here is a close blend of tragic and comic elements, so carefully patterned as to suggest a conscious experiment in the new medium of tragicomedy. Limited precedents for this treatment were to be found.

Problem play, masterpiece, or both, Measure for Measure represents an important period in Shakespeare’s work. Over the course of his career, the dramatist proved himself equally skilled at writing comedies and tragedies—a rare feat among his peers. But perhaps just as importantly, with his problem plays he proved an agile experimenter, an inventor of form. Shakespeare left us not only great poetry, gripping plots and his bottomless understanding of the human psyche; from him we also inherit a genre—tragicomedy—that dominates much of our entertainment today. When Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, referred to him as “not of an age, but a man for all time,” he probably didn’t count Measure for Measure among Shakespeare’s greatest contributions. But 400 years later, we look at Shakespeare through the lens of our own life and times—and from the twenty-first century, the view is different.

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