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In Shakespeare studies, the term problem plays normally refers to three plays that Shakespears wrote between the late 1590s and the early 1600s,. The term was coined by FS Boas in Shakespeare and his Predecessors (1896), who lists the first three plays and adds that "Hamlet, with its tragic close, is the connecting-link between the problem-plays and the tragedies in the stricter sense." The term can refer to the subject matter of the play, or to a classification "problem" with the plays themselves.
The problem plays, Measure for Measure, All’s Well and Troilus and Cressida are characterised by their complex and ambiguous tone, which shifts violently between dark, psychological drama and more straightforward comic material. The three plays are also referred to as the dark comedies, since despite ending on a generally happy note for the characters concerned, the darker, more profound issues raised cannot be fully resolved or ignored.
Many critics have suggested that this sequence of plays marked a l turning point for Shakespeare, during which he lost interest in the romantic comedies he had specialized in and turned towards the darker world of the tragedies.
Though originally classed as a "Shakespeare comedy", the resolution of Measure for Measure lacks the celebratory tone of the final scenes of, say, Much Ado About Nothing. Watching this play, we feel that Shakespeare cannot be on the side of this arbitrary, even tyrannical, ruler.
Possibly the “problem plays” are only problematic for us, as we are brought into contact with values which make us feel uncomfortable. Even the more whimsical comedies have their moments of cruelty and doubt. While these plays were classified as Comedies in the original editions, they contain darker, more serious themes than the other comedies, and Troilus and Cressida has neither a happy nor a tragic ending.
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