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  • Shakespeare’s Irrational Endings: The Problem Plays by David Margolies
  • Joel Benabu
Shakespeare’s Irrational Endings: The Problem Plays. David Margolies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. P. vii + 183. $90 (Hardcover) -According to Palgrave Macmillian, both a hardcover ($90) and an Ebook ($104) exist.

This book presents a study of the so-called problem plays, exploring the dramaturgical means that Shakespeare used to construct their endings. The analysis, rather than focusing exclusively on how the playwright channels audience response, reflects on how he stimulated audience awareness about the hypocrisy and injustice of contemporary society. The book engages with the scholarly debate over what constitutes a “Shakespearean problem play,” asserting that contradictory endings are a distinguishing feature that serve to create “doubts and questions about the world in which his audience live” (111). The author has included in the category Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello, titles not typically classified as problem plays.

In developing an analytical reading of All’s Well that Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida, and Othello, Margolies relies on a methodology that can be described as formalist and literary historical. Its building blocks comprise two parts: structural ideas of closure in relation to the plot as a whole and semiotic ideas of closure in relation to audience reception. His readings of the plays selected for analysis may not offer a new interpretation so much as a way of approaching them as performable entities. This proves to be a valuable approach that attempts to trace how Shakespeare communicates the theatrical effect of a work through the particular organization of his dramatic material. Regrettably, however, this study does not define the “problem” implicit in this rather unorthodox grouping of so-called problem plays. Furthermore, it is entirely self-referential, failing to engage with any earlier scholarship on the subject of endings, in spite of there being a rich critical history and important points of contact.

The book’s principal argument is that the endings of Shakespeare’s problem plays work on the spectator through a series of unresolvable contractions: [End Page 179]

Part of the effectiveness of Shakespeare’s construction is that these contradictions cannot be reasoned away or balanced out as a mediocre relationship. They arise from the same event but are attached to different aspects (the form and the content) and thus exist effectively in different dimensions.


To scholars familiar with the subject of Shakespearean endings, Margolies’s thesis may appear, at first glance, to rehash familiar rhetoric, because “closure and contradiction” have been the dominant paradigm in earlier scholarship on Shakespearean endings, as demonstrated, for example, in Barbara Hodgdon’s The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare’s History (Princeton, 1991). But Margolies’s point of departure is emotive, not structural, offering a valuable contribution, especially to reception theory in Shakespeare Studies: “the approach to the plays that would seek to make most sense is to look at them in terms of the response they generate, and how Shakespeare engineers this response” (9).

The author assumes judiciously that the task of plot construction in the early modern context depended on a playwright’s intimate familiarity with audience psychology and its manipulation—acquired in Shakespeare’s case through daily contact in the theater. By tracing evidence of this “practical knowledge” in the playtext, the author explores how Shakespeare organized his dramatic material, creating and then reversing expectation in the course of performance on the early modern stage.

This is just one of the many strengths of Margolies’s book. Another is its challenging of the assumptions derived from the application of exclusively literary parameters to the study of Shakespeare’s playtexts, to which the lion’s share of the introduction is devoted. In it, Margolies outlines a number of fallacies of interpreting Shakespeare. He criticizes, for example, the scholarly tendency to privilege the meanings of words over action, to assume that the plays are naturalistic, to consider them as purveyors of intellectual ideas rather than entertainment, and to perceive textual difficulties necessarily as Shakespeare’s errors rather than components integral to his dramaturgy:

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pp. 179-182
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