The UVic Writer's Guide

Problem Play

In problem plays, the conflicts of the protagonists arise from contemporary social problems. For instance, in George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893) the protagonist is a prostitute who hides her profession from her daughter, and raises her to social respectability only to be morally condemned and rejected by her. The play deals with the hypocrisy of capitalist society that morally condemns prostitution while driving women to resort to it out of economic necessity.

The term is also used for a group of Shakespeare's plays (including Measure for Measure (1604) and All's Well That Ends Well (1602-04)) which are particularly ambiguous in their mingling of noble and evil qualities of human nature, and in which the final resolution of the action can be seen as problematic.

For instance, in Measure for Measure the moralistic Angelo is tempted into sexual exploitation and murder, but his evil actions are unwittingly turned to good and in the end he is charitably forgiven. The woman who loves Angelo excuses his bad intentions, arguing, "They say, best men are molded out of faults."

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated May 13, 1995