Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Beginning in the nineteenth century, Shakespearean scholars began
to feel that some of the plays defied easy understanding or categorisation, and they tried to find elements that linked these
plays together as a group.
The principal genres to which Shakespeare’s plays are assigned are comedy, tragedy and history. Yet certain plays did not seem to fit comfortably into these genres. In 1875, Edward Dowden identified three comedies that seemed to him to mark a change from Shakespeare’s previous comedic work: All’s Well that Ends Well, which he called ‘grave and earnest’; Measure for Measure, which was ‘dark and bitter’; and Troilus and Cressida, which was ‘strange and difficult’.  Another critic, Frederick S. Boas, thought this group of difficult plays should include Hamlet: ‘The last-named play,’ he wrote, ‘is, of course, distinguished from the others by its tragic ending, but it is akin to them in its general temper and atmosphere.’ For Boas, these were plays in which neither tragic catharsis nor comic closure could be reached: they left an audience ‘excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome’.  According to Boas’ formulation, the plays present problems of classification for the critics, and problems of response for the audience. They also centre round ‘issues’ or problems, which demand attention, and perhaps disrupt the conventions of genre. Thus, the term ‘problem play’  can be applicable on various levels.
From Boas’ day to the present, the idea of the ‘problem play’ and the question of which plays should fit into the category have been debated by Shakespearean critics. Some critics, for example W. W. Lawrence (1930) and Peter Ure (1961) have felt that Hamlet does not belong to the group.  Vivian Thomas, writing in 1987 and giving a useful summary of critical attitudes before that date, also feels that Hamlet is not a problem play, citing reasons of genre: the play is ‘manifestly a tragedy’, and although it ‘has its share of problems’, these ‘are effectively contained within the mode of tragedy’.  From these remarks, it can be seen that whether a critic thinks that any given play is a problem play will depend on what that critic thinks a problem play is. For Thomas, the question of genre overrides the fact that Hamlet is problematic in other ways. In contrast, for Ernest Shanzer (1963), genre was less important than ‘a concern with a moral problem which is central to it, presented in such a manner that we are unsure of our moral bearings’. However, Shanzer did not feel that Hamlet presented such a moral problem.  In 1950, E. M. W. Tillyard wrote that Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida are problem plays because they ‘deal with and display interesting problems’. The other problem plays, All’s Well and Measure for Measure, are problems in themselves, being ‘radically schizophrenic’, presumably in that they are tragicomic. 
Critics have also varied regarding the features that they believe link problem plays together as a group. Tillyard included preoccupations with ‘religious dogma or abstract speculation’ and ‘an acute interest in observing and recording the details of human nature’, along with the experiences of ‘young men on the verge of manhood’. He also thought it important that much of the action in the plays takes place at night.  Boas thought that when Shakespeare switched from writing comedies and histories to the darker problem plays, it was like ‘the passage from a sunny charming landscape to a wild mountain district whose highest peaks are shrouded in thick mist’.  He seemed to include Hamlet largely because of its dark mood, saying that ‘The atmosphere of obscurity which wraps the group of plays belonging to this period closes most thickly round Hamlet’, and that, ‘In mystery it opens, and in mystery it ends’.  Thus, aside from problems of genre and interpretation, and problems forming the content of the plays, similarities of theme and mood are things critics look at when giving plays the title of ‘problem plays’.
Ultimately, the question of problem plays is as much a matter of interpreting the critics as it is of interpreting the plays themselves. There is nothing intrinsic that absolutely confirms any play as a problem play; rather, each critic must decide whether the category of problem plays is useful to his or her analysis, and if so, set out a definition of the term and decide which plays to include. Hamlet is certainly dark in mood, centres upon a problem that the hero cannot resolve, raises philosophical issues (about suicide, for example) and has presented problems of interpretation. Whether these factors identify it as a problem play is in itself a problem for each individual critic to confront.
1. Edward Dowden, Shakespere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art, 3rd edn (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1875), p. vi, cited in Vivian Thomas, The Moral Universe of Shakespeare’s Problem Plays (London: Croom Helm, 1987), p. 2. Return to text
2. Frederick S. Boas, Shakespere and his Predecessors (London: Murray, 1910), p. 345. Return to text
3. Boas wrote that he was borrowing ‘a convenient phrase from the theatre of to-day’ (p. 345). The term ‘problem play’ had already been used to describe the plays of Ibsen and Shaw (Thomas, p. 2). Return to text
4. Thomas, pp. 4 and 8. Some critics included different plays in the group: for example, Ure included Timon of Athens, while Ernest Schanzer included Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Measure for Measure. Return to text
6. Thomas, pp. 9-10, citing Ernest Shanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare: ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Measure for Measure’, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 6 (Thomas p. 10). Return to text
7. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare’s Problem Plays (Chatto and Windus, 1950; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965). Return to text