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About this book

Written in 1602-4, between Hamlet and the other great tragedies, Shakespeare's three Problem Plays are so called because they do not fit easily into the other groups of plays. They are awkward dramas, full of unresolved controversies, which leave audiences and readers unsettled by contradictory responses.
Nicholas Marsh uses close analysis of extracts from the plays to explore how Shakespeare maintains competing discourses within a single text. In the first part of his study, Marsh highlights the multiple interpretations these plays provoke and provides useful sections on methods of analysis to encourage readers to develop their views independently. The second part of the book discusses the Problem Plays in relation to the playwright's other works, and examines their cultural and historical contexts. A comparison of five modern critical views and helpful suggestions for further reading provide a bridge to continuing study. In this essential guide to a complex set of plays, Marsh does not seek to reconcile the thorny issues these dramas leave open: rather, he equips the reader with the necessary critical tools to fashion their own synthesis.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Looking at Plays and Studying Poetry

Introduction: Looking at Plays and Studying Poetry

Abstract
Shakespeare’s plays are often classified into ‘groups’ or categories, as ‘Comedies’, ‘Histories’, ‘Tragedies’, ‘The Late Romances’ and ‘Roman Plays’; and critics have made a number of efforts to find a satisfactory label for these three plays, which do not fit snugly into any of the major classifications. They have seemed to be a group because they were probably written within the same three years, and there are some obvious similarities between them, which we will explore in this book; but we will not draw conclusions about Shakespeare himself; nor will we struggle to label them as any particular kind of play. Indeed, one of the questions to have in mind, when beginning to study All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, is: why have critics felt such an earnest desire to classify them?
Nicholas Marsh

Analysing Shakespeare’s Problem Plays

Frontmatter

1. Openings

Abstract
We will begin by looking at how each play begins. The opening of a play establishes a great deal about the imagined ‘world’ that is presented on stage, so we will repeatedly use the device of imagining that we are in the audience, responding to what is said and what happens on the stage in front of us.
Nicholas Marsh

2. Young Men

Abstract
One of the common characteristics of these plays is the weakness of the central young male character. Both Bertram (All’s Well that Ends Well) and Claudio (Measure for Measure) are — in their different ways — thoughtless and selfish young men who learn humiliating lessons during the course of the drama. Troilus (Troilus and Cressida) is a more complex character, but his romantic idealism is regarded as a weakness by more cynical figures such as Pandarus, Diomed, Ulysses and Thersites. Troilus’s romanticism is a stage of young male development he has to discard, and he experiences harsh disillusionment.
Nicholas Marsh

3. Women

Abstract
A moment’s thought about the three plays we are studying tells us that gender values and sexual politics are at the forefront of each. All’s Well that Ends Well reverses Romeo and Juliet (how would we respond if Juliet was eventually forced to accept Paris, and did so willingly?); Measure for Measure focuses on public and private sexual morality, breach of promise, marriage and the law; Troilus and Cressida presents a story of love and war, but with the courtship fable far more central than in any of the histories: among Shakespeare’s works, only Antony and Cleopatra (1606–7) is comparable.
Nicholas Marsh

4. Politics and Society

Abstract
We have been finding that these plays present us with contradictory and competing discourses. They pose questions and give two or more very different answers, and the text does not allow us to make settled judgments. This is particularly true when we come to consider politics and society. In each of the three plays there is a dominant discourse concerning authority and the proper functioning of society, and if we listened to this narrative alone and uncritically we would have to call all three plays politically conservative. On the other hand, alternative voices subvert and undercut the proposed political order, and events leave authority in an ambiguous moral position.
Nicholas Marsh

5. Fools and fools

Abstract
In this chapter we look at examples of wit and foolishness in the three plays, and we begin by taking three extracts for detailed study. These focus on Parolles from All’s Well that Ends Well, Lucio from Measure for Measure and Thersites from Troilus and Cressida. These three characters are ‘witty’: they are Fools with a capital ‘F’, not stupid like Constable Elbow, or Ajax. In the second part of the chapter, we will develop this distinction further in a more general discussion of the role of wit and stupidity in each play.
Nicholas Marsh

6. Drama

Abstract
This chapter discusses the theatrical features and dramatic form of the three plays we are studying. We have already considered the nature of numerous scenes in performance, as we have studied extracts in the preceding chapters. In this chapter we will therefore show some techniques which help to give a broader overview of a play’s dramatic organisation. It is hoped that the (inevitably) brief treatment in this chapter will provoke ideas for further study of the plays’ dramatic elements.
Nicholas Marsh

The Context and the Critics

Frontmatter

7. The Problem Plays in Shakespeare’s Works

Abstract
Shakespeare’s plays were published together seven years after his death, in the First Folio of 1623 (F). Both All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure were printed among the Comedies in F for the first time, and editors regard the texts of these plays as not very ‘good’: there are inconsistencies in character-names and stage directions, some oddly-plotted moments (such as the ten seconds allowed for Isabella to explain the bed-trick to Mariana, in Measure for Measure), and a few commonly identified ‘textual problems’ where editors suspect either the hand of another author or a reviser, or simply that the original from which the printers worked was garbled or illegible.
Nicholas Marsh

8. The Context

Abstract
This chapter comes with a warning: it is made up of generalisations, and is a simplified view of conflicting world-views that were competing with each other in Shakespeare’s time. I advise readers to follow up at least some of the suggestions in ‘Further Reading’ (at the end of this book), in order to achieve a more sophisticated understanding of the early-modern background than this short chapter can provide.
Nicholas Marsh

9. A Sample of Critical Views

Abstract
Thousands of books and articles have been written about Shakespeare, by academic critics. Several hundred are published each year. They are often written in a complicated style, and a few of them are pretentious: academics are just as fond of showing off as anybody else. It is important to remember, then, that studying the plays for yourself qualifies you to have ideas. You are not under an obligation to agree with the professional critics, and you are entitled to agree with some of what they write but not all. On the other hand, your mind can be stimulated by discussing your text with your teacher, or in a class. Treat the critics in the same way: it can be stimulating to debate the text, challenging your ideas and theirs. This is the spirit in which you should read ‘the critics’.
Nicholas Marsh
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