It’s a term commonly used to describe a class of Shakespearian Plays that don’t fall into Aristotelian definitions of Comedy or Tragedy. The term itself is the coinage of F. S. Boas and his direct anology was to the Plays of Henrick Ibsen.
In these problem plays, the situation faced by the protagonist is put forward by the author as a representative instance of a contemporary social problem. The term can refer to the subject matter of the play, or to a classification “problem” with the plays themselves.
They also tend to have ambiguous resolutions.
Timon of Athens is usually classed as a Tragedy but is in fact a Problem Play.
Timon is a wealthy and generous Athenian gentleman. He hosts a large banquet, attended by nearly all the main characters. Timon gives away money wastefully, and everyone wants to please him to get more, except for Apemantus, a churlish philosopher whose cynicism Timon cannot yet appreciate. He accepts art from Poet and Painter, and a jewel from the Jeweller, but by the end of Act 1 he has given that away to another friend. Timon’s servant, Lucilius, has been wooing the daughter of an old Athenian. The man is angry, but Timon pays him three talents in exchange for the couple’s being allowed to marry, because the happiness of his servant is worth the price. Timon is told that his friend, Ventidius, is in debtors’ prison. He sends money to pay Ventidius’s debt, and Ventidius is released and joins the banquet. Timon gives a speech on the value of friendship. The guests are entertained by a masque, followed by dancing. As the party winds down, Timon continues to give things away to his friends: his horses, as well as other possessions. The act is divided rather arbitrarily into two scenes, but the experimental and/or unfinished nature of the play is reflected in that it does not naturally break into a five-act structure.
Now Timon has given away all his wealth. Flavius, Timon’s steward, is upset by the way Timon has spent his wealth, overextending his munificence by showering patronage on the parasitic writers and artists, and delivering his dubious friends from their financial straits; this he tells Timon when he returns from a hunt. Timon is upset that he has not been told this before, and begins to vent his anger on Flavius, who tells him that he has tried repeatedly in the past without success, and now he is at the end; Timon’s land has been sold. Shadowing Timon is another guest at the banquet: the cynical philosopher Apemantus, who terrorises Timon’s shallow companions with his caustic raillery. He was the only guest not angling for money or possessions from Timon. Along with a Fool, he attacks Timon’s creditors when they show up to make their demands for immediate payment. Timon cannot pay, and sends out his servants to make requests for help from those friends he considers closest.
Timon’s servants are turned down, one by one, by Timon’s false friends, two giving lengthy monologues as to their anger with them. Elsewhere, one of Alcibiades’s junior officers has reached an even further point of rage, killing a man in “hot blood.” Alcibiades pleads with the Senate for mercy, arguing that a crime of passion should not carry as severe a sentence as premeditated murder. The senators disagree, and, when Alcibiades persists, banish him forever. He vows revenge, with the support of his troops. The act finishes with Timon discussing with his servants the revenge he will carry out at his next banquet.
Timon hosts a smaller party, intended only for those he feels have betrayed him. The serving trays are brought in, but under them the friends find rocks and lukewarm water. Timon sprays them with the water, throws the dishes at them, and flees his home. The loyal Flavius vows to find him.
Cursing the city walls, Timon goes into the wilderness and makes his crude home in a cave, sustaining himself on roots. Here he discovers an underground trove of gold. The knowledge of his discovery spreads. Alcibiades, Apemantus, and three bandits are able to find Timon before Flavius does. Accompanying Alcibiades are two prostitutes, Phrynia and Timandra, who trade barbs with the bitter Timon on the subject of venereal disease. Timon offers most of the gold to the rebel Alcibiades to subsidise his assault on the city, which he now wants to see destroyed, as his experiences have reduced him to misanthropy. He gives the rest to his whores to spread disease, and much of the remainder to Poet and Painter, who arrive soon after, leaving little for the senators who visit him. When Apemantus appears and accuses Timon of copying his pessimistic style there is a mutually misanthropic exchange of invective.
Flavius arrives. He wants the money as well, but he also wants Timon to come back into society. Timon acknowledges that he has had one true friend in Flavius, a shining example of an otherwise diseased and impure race, but laments that this man is a mere servant. He invites the last envoys from Athens, who hoped Timon might placate Alcibiades, to go hang themselves, and then dies in the wilderness. Alcibiades, marching on Athens, then throws down his glove, and ends the play reading the bitter epitaph Timon wrote for himself, part of which was composed by Callimachus:
“Here lies a wretched corpse of wretched soul bereft:
Seek not my name: a plague consume you wicked caitiffs left!”
Here lie I, Timon, who alive, all living men did hate,
Pass by, and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait.”
It was written between 1605 and 1606 in collaboration with Thomas Middleton and never produced during Shakespeare’s life though it was part of the First Folio and regularly plagiarized by others. It has a particularly bitter and misanthropic tone typical of the later works.