Skip to main content

About this book

This New Casebook offers a wide-ranging selection of contemporary critical readings of Shakespeare's three 'problem plays': All's Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Trolius and Cressida. Together, they reflect the diversity of late twentieth-century theory and the controversy that continues to be generated by the plays, and discuss a variety of key issues. These include the meaning of the term 'problem play', the historical context and political and cultural significance of the plays, as well as issues of staging and theatre history. The volume also provides a helpful introduction which guides the reader through the critical approaches, terms and debates, as well as explanatory notes for each essay and a useful section on further reading.

Table of Contents


This collection of essays is aimed at students who are working on the three texts that have customarily been grouped together as Shakespeares problem plays. At first sight these plays appear to have only a little in common. Alls Well That Ends Well, written around 1602-4, was based on a section of the fourteenth-century Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccios stories in the collected Decameron, and in terms of form is clearly a comedy. The action moves between a number of European cities, with all the intricacies and confusions of plot that the reader might associate with such plays as Shakespeares early comedy success, A Midsummer Nights Dream (1595-6), or the popular Twelfth Night, which was written slightly before Alls Well That Ends Well.
Simon Barker

1. Shakespeare’s Problem Plays: Concepts and Perspectives

[A] number of strong connecting links have been discerned between Troilus and Cressida, Alls Well and Measure for Measure and it is worth specifying their precise nature in an attempt to evaluate the argument for grouping together these three plays as opposed to other possible combinations. The first significant unifying feature of these plays is that we are left pondering the questions raised by the action rather than contemplating the sense of loss characteristic of tragedy or of feeling the release or joy inherent in Shakespeares romantic comedies. Whatever affinities these plays may share with Hamlet or Timon of Athens the feelings engendered by those plays are different and belong distinctly to the world of tragedy. Thus we are caught up with the problems which form the stuff of these plays and feel at a loss to categorise them. They are truly problem plays.
Vivian Thomas

2. All’s Well That Ends Well and the Tale of the Chivalric Quest

His joyful mariners spread forth their comely sails, and with their brazen keels cut an easy passage on the green meadows of the floods. At last, Fortune having brought him here where she might make him the fittest tennis ball for her sport. the heavens began to thunder, and the skies shone with flashes of fire; day now had no other show but only name, for darkness was on the whole face of the waters And partly through that dismal darkness, which unfortunately was come upon them, they were all drowned, [the prince] only excepted, till (as it were Fortune being tired with this mishap) by the help of a plank, which in this distress he got hold on, he was with much labour and more fear driven on the shore. Certain fishermen, who had also suffered in the former tempest, and had been witness of his untimely shipwreck, the day being cleared again, were come out of their homely cottages to dry and repair their nets. The chief of these fishermen was moved with compassion toward him, and lifting him up from the ground himself, with the help of his men led him to his house. Being somewhat repaired in heart by their relief, he demanded of the country on which he was driven, of the name of the king
Leah Scragg

3. The Political Effects of Gender and Class in All’s Well That Ends Well

One of the most striking features of Alls Well That Ends Well is its full rendering of specifically male frustration in the person of Bertram, a besieged and recalcitrant Adonis writ large.1 But the problem of Bertram cannot be adequately discussed at the level of individual character, as though our response hinged exclusively on the question of his personal defects and of his capacity to overcome them in the end. The analysis must rather be extended to the larger cultural forces operating on, and embodied in, Bertram. This latter approach can be opened up by noting the cultural overlap between Bertrams situation and that of the Essex-Southampton group: in both cases an emphatically military definition of masculinity is placed under intense pressure and ultimately frustrated. Yet the equation of Bertram with Southampton in G. P. V. Akriggs reading of Alls Well That Ends Well constitutes a methodological obstacle to this interpretation
Peter Erickson

4. Subjectivity, Desire and Female Friendship in All’s Well That Ends Well

According to prevailing opinion, Alls Well That Ends Well is a problem play whose major difficulty is located in the very assertion that the title makes in summarising the action. In the opinions of many critics the play does not end well because the resolution remains on the structural level rather than moving to the psychological level.1 The frog prince remains a frog until the end and the princess chooses to overlook his slimy skin. If the reader or theatregoer expects the romance of heterosexual coupling that concludes Shakespeares high comedies, disappointment is inevitable.
ASP Carolyn

5. Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure

In the Vienna of Measure for Measure unrestrained sexuality is ostensibly subverting social order; anarchy threatens to engulf the State unless sexuality is subjected to renewed and severe regulation. Such at least is the claim of those in power. Surprisingly critics have generally taken them at their word even while dissociating themselves from the punitive zeal of Angelo. There are those who have found in the play only a near tragic conflict between anarchy and order, averted in the end it is true, but unconvincingly so. Others, of a liberal persuasion and with a definite preference for humane rather than authoritarian restraint, have found at least in the plays vision if not precisely its ending an ethical sense near enough to their own. But both kinds of critic have apparently accepted that sexual transgression in Measure for Measure - and in the world - represents a real force of social disorder intrinsic to human nature and that the play at least is about how this force is - must be - restrained.
Jonathan Dollimore

6. London in Measure for Measure

Much has been written about law in Measure for Measure. But law in the play is not one single thing, an absolute against which various forms of illicit liberty and transgression are played off. In terms of the plays meaning for London, we need to distinguish between different kinds of law: between local law, which is inscribed in specific places and bound within their limits, and unlocalised law, which operates, sometimes with apparent wilfulness, across boundaries, outside the limits of place. London and its environs were a crazy quilt of different legal jurisdictions, some inextricable from topography; others more global, independent of topographical boundaries.
Leah Marcus

7. Love’s Tyranny Inside-out in the Problem Plays: Yours, Mine, and Counter-mine

The manifold discrediting, outmanoeuvring, scapegoating, and evasion of subversive forces in Shakespeares middle plays testify to a deep textual anxiety not something the text concerns, but something that concerns it - centring on the competing claims of order and disorder. One source of such anxiety may be the continuing formal allegiance of comedies and histories alike to the principle of renewal through the very subversion that calls their values and goals into question. In order to maintain their claim on this process, the power of disruptive energy must be conjured and experienced even as it is resisted. Folly, too, must be enlisted in the cause, however marginalised and confined. Rebirth continues to require symbolic death, a return to chaos. There is more to this than a reductively materialist approach allows: one is put in mind of the religious impulse to renew the sense of salvation by confronting, and even temporarily succumbing to, the devil.
Richard Hillman

8. ‘Tricks We Play on the Dead’: Making History in Troilus and Cressida

When Troilus hears that Cressida is to be handed over to the Greeks, he exclaims, ‘How my achievements mock me!’ and inadvertently confesses the extent to which he considers her to be a quite unromantic extension of himself. She is a sign of his labour and value, and Troilus is stunned to find that she has become part of larger negotiations that pre-empt his interests.1 At the very centre of the play, Troilus and Cressida act out what I call their ‘trope-plighting’ scene: they swear to become the tropes for faithful and faithless lovers that are their literary destinies. Troilus invents coherent interiority for himself by reading Cressida as a page on which he writes his lyric devotions.2 The play reserves for Cressida enigmatic and compelling representations of selfhood and, simultaneously, strenuous insistence on scripted identity. She emerges as lively and self-possessed in her first appearance, when she bests Pandarus in skirmishes of wit, yet concludes that scene by instructing herself in her contingent.
Heather James

9. Invading Bodies/Bawdy Exchanges: Disease, Desire, and Representation

The discourses that have contributed to the global crisis of AIDS demonstrate the extent to which the body can be constructed as a vulnerable enclosure, with its erotic apertures positioned as sites of and conduits for contamination. Representations of AIDS also testify to the tendency to place blame for epidemics on those others who are vulnerable by virtue of their erotic practice or racial/national origin.1 Such twentieth-century preoccupations are prefigured by early modern constructs of venereal disease in which gender, erotic, and nationalist anxieties were managed by conferring blame on those who, by reference to their social status or geographical location, could be considered not merely inferior but inherently contaminated. The early modern terminology of syphilis, for instance, points to an endless deferral of origin and cause: in a dizzying displacement of culpability, syphilis made its way into the British vocabulary as the Many contemporary critics have argued that the orifices of the body metonymically figure the vulnerabilities of the gendered psyche and the nation.
Valerie Traub

10. Fragments of Nationalism in Troilus and Cressida

Literary critics largely agree that Shakespeare’s history plays raised troubling questions about who qualified as a member of the national community.1 Problematic cases include: the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish; bastards; ethnic half-breeds; foreign brides; women generally; and sometimes all non-aristocrats. Still, though, despite these questions and anxieties, Shakespeare’s tetralogies and the other English history plays move toward closures in which the nation heals and the dream of community reasserts its claim. Troilus and Cressida explores a more pessimistic political argument. If Shakespeare’s histories maintain an investment in some idea of national community, Troilus and Cressida works programmatically to reveal the nation as a collection of fictions. Where the histories construct genealogies for England, projecting a new social formation backward into the past, Troilus and Cressida attacks the very idea of genealogy.
Matthew Greenfield
Additional information