A problem play is concerned with a moral or social problem which is central to it and presented in such a manner that we become unsure of our moral bearings, so that uncertain and divided responses to it in our minds are possible and even problem. In a problem play, the author offers no solution to the problem or problems raised in the play. For example, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a problem play in which he has raised the problem of the status of women in relation to her husband and her home. He provides no solution to the problem; the answer is left to the reader.
Measure for Measure is a problem play in a deeper sense. It raises a number of questions with regard to some problems such as the problem of law versus mercy, the problem of physical purity, the problem of forced marriage, etc. which are unanswered by the dramatist Shakespeare.
The first problem in Measure for Measure is the problem of law versus mercy. Angelo, the Deputy of the Duke, stands for the strictest law. He revives certain laws that have been out of use for quite a long time. He maintains the most serious attitude in the observance of the laws. In accordance with one such law, Angelo sentences Claudio to death on the charge of fornication. Claudio admits that he is guilty of having made his beloved Juliet pregnant without having been able to marry her, but as he explains to Lucio, he did want to marry the girl and was prevented from doing so only by circumstances over which he had no control. Almost all the characters want Claudio to be forgiven but Angelo persists in his judgment and says that the laws should not be treated as a scarecrow but should be enforced strictly and rigidly.
Against this rigid view of the law, there is mercy and the need of which is emphasized by a number of characters, more particularly by Isabella. In her first interview with Angelo, she pleads for mercy to be shown to her brother. But Angelo says that Claudio is a forfeit of the law and he (Angelo) can do nothing about it. Isabella points out that all the created souls were forfeit at one time but that they had been saved by the martyrdom of Christ when Angelo, again and again, emphasizes the necessity of the law, Isabella, again and again, speaks of the value of mercy. All the arguments about mercy put forward by Isabella fall that upon Angelo. Now the problem here is whether the law is more important or the claims of mercy have greater weight the problem is also that if the law has anything to do with mercy or not.
Then there is the problem of physical purity. Actually, it is the problem of chastity versus sisterly, affection, and sensuality versus demands of official duty. Before Isabella, Angelo begins to fall a victim to sensuality and the conflict ends with the victory of sensuality. In the case of Isabella this conflicts and with the victory of chastity, she tells Claudio about the intentions of Angelo who demands her chastity as the price of pardoning the life of her brother. Claudio, who is feeling terrified of death appeals to Isabella to save his life even at the cost of her chastity. Isabella becomes furious and rebukes Claudio in the most scathing terms. The problem here is whether Isabella is justified in rebuking Claudio and spurning Angelo’s offer.
Another problem with the play is that of forced marriage. Angelo is ordered by the Duke to marry Mariana and the marriage is solemnized under the Duke’s instruction. While Mariana is glad to be married to Angelo, Angelo has never given any sign by that he has any soft corner for her. Now the problem arises when it is questioned that if Angelo will be happy as Mariana’s husband and if he will try to keep Mariana happy this is the crucial question. Another victim of forced marriage is Lucio.
We are faced with another problem too. How far is the Duke justified in completely forgiving both Angelo and Lucio? Forced marriages are the only punishment that these two men receive; but is this punishment adequate? Critics like Coleridge and Swinburne felt deeply annoyed because to them the forgiveness of Angelo and Lucio seemed to be an outrage upon the principles of justice. No doubt, Angelo’s guilt was a serious one. Such a man deserved to be hanged according to the law the Duke’s forgiveness of Angelo, therefore, raises another problem.
Considering the above discussion Measure for Measure can be called a problem play in which several problems are highlighted by the dramatist.