Document Type


Date of Award



William Shakespeare, Criticism and interpretation, Tragicomedies

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

Melvin Seiden

Second Advisor

Christian P. Gruber

Third Advisor

Albert H. Tricomi


G. K. Hunter claims in the Arden introduction to All’s Well That Ends Well that “criticism of All’s Well has failed for it has failed to provide a context within which the genuine virtues of the play can be appreciated.” The same can be said about criticism for Measure for Measure. The two plays, thick with moral and intellectual issues, defy facile interpretation and often tempt readers into formulating one-sided arguments which leave far too many questions unanswered, aspects unexplored. Critics agree on only two points: the plays resist easy classification as either tragedy or comedy and differ significantly from the early, so-called festive plays, of the 1590s. All’s Well and Measure are unique because they substitute disturbing moral issues and serious character flaws for the idyllic settings and sympathetically drawn heroes and heroines of earlier plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, and because they do not share enough common characteristics with the final plays like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest to be studied as romances. Despite inherent difficulties, a critical context—perhaps a genre which accounts for the most significant aspects of the plays—can be found.

A structural approach can overcome the hazards of over-simplification, of imposing too tidy a thematic pattern on the complex dramatic actions of All’s Well and Measure. The major schools of critical thought about both plays have been largely thematic in nature and demonstrate this shortcoming. Thematic criticism often substitutes abstract generalizations for rigorous structural analysis. But theme cannot exist apart from the particular dramatic episodes of the play. If certain dramatic elements do not fit a larger theme, the fault may lie in the thematic assumption, not the play itself. As I will try to demonstrate, the critic who bases all of his critical conclusions on thematic conjecture forgets that a drama is a drama by virtue of its capacity to sustain audience interest and invoke excitement; but that excitement cannot be sustained if the dramatic action itself does not continuously support that theme. In other words, the audience can scarcely maintain interest in some abstract theme if all the dramatic episodes do not support it or, worse yet, seem to contradict it. Too often the thematic critic apologizes for scenes which do not illustrate his theme and condemns Shakespeare’s supposed inconsistency, when the real trouble stems from the inadequacy of the critic‘s theme. Since no thematic system, however ingenious or utilitarian, can compensate for a deficiency in dramatic structure, only themes which actually complement the dramatic structure of the plays should be propounded.

Thus, a play's total effect cannot be built up through an alternating series of good scenes and bad ones, meaningful and trivial. If effective drama is experienced as moments of high excitement, then it cannot be experienced solely as an abstraction, a theme which the spectator gradually absorbs through the course of the play. Dramatic excitement stems from the play's design, from its careful patterns of construction, the particular and immediate significance of each encounter. Therefore a structural context must be found which does not apologize for Shakespeare's artistry but seeks to discover his actual intentions—intentions supported by the incidents of the plot.

If All’s Well and Measure are read as tragicomedies, all the dominant elements of the plot begin to fall into place. Scenes which for some readers appear to be only excess baggage can be understood on their own terms. I suggest, then, that tragicomedy can provide the needed structural context from which All’s Well and Measure can be best understood and appreciated. Before attempting a definition of tragicomedy, we might briefly examine some of the major critical arguments that dominate the study of All’s Well and Measure. Each thematic approach, allegorical or otherwise, achieves only limited success.