Shakespeare's 'fantastical trick' : a reader-response approach to the problem comedies.

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Dannreuther, Daphne
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Middle Tennessee State University
In Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure, Shakespeare has created an art that jars our sensibilities, wrenches us from safe judgments, and compels us to different interpretations. He presents the clashing worlds of comedy and reality where we are led to expect happy endings but where characters, portrayed with all their weaknesses, seem not to deserve their fates whether good or ill. In fact, the hope expressed in the plays' endings is very much at odds with the evidence developed in the plays' actions. Orchestrating our responses by subverting audience expectations through substitutions, Shakespeare examines the difficulties arising from the opposing elements of fairy tale and realism, of romance motivation and psychological probability. We expect Troilus and Cressida to be an epic and a love story, All's Well That Ends Well to be a romantic comedy with a fairy-tale ending, and Measure for Measure to be a romantic comedy where the characters learn something about Christian mercy and justice; however, in each case Shakespeare substitutes something else in their place.
These problem comedies, then, present challenges to criticism because of their ambiguity and complexity. Certainly, traditional critical methods have been inadequate to communicate the experience of the plays. Exploring the plays as a dynamic interaction between artist and audience, as a process of involvement rather than as a repository for extractable meaning, reader-response criticism focuses on the effects the plays produce--tension, discomfort, surprise, and frustration--and on the artistic methods through which Shakespeare manipulates these responses.
Obviously self-conscious, the plays seem to question their own material and, ironically, the validity of comedy itself as an image of truth. Psychologically and dramatically, all three plays are difficult in ways that Shakespeare seems to have wanted to emphasize. Their exquisite blending of tenderness and pain, love and fear, expresses the rich duality of the human condition, and the best resolution for the plays' issues is one that provides a framework within which the plays' virtues, strengths, and power can be appreciated.