Mind your language

How Shakespeare became ‘problematic’

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

‘This crossword is problematic!’ exclaimed my husband, tossing aside the folded newspaper marked with a ring where his whisky glass had rested.

He was being facetious, a common register of speech with him when vacancy does not take over. Problematic has acquired new life as a label for something disapproved of and therefore ripe for banning or cancelling. Thus The Tiger Who Came to Tea is ‘problematic’ to an influential pressure group called Zero Tolerance because of its ‘old-fashioned’ portrayal of women and families.

Shakespeare too had problematic views on whiteness, according to people at the Globe. An article in the Guardian on ‘preppy’ fashion, with pleated skirts, argyle and plaid, noted that ‘some creators have called the trend out as problematic because of its associations with a white privileged ruling class’. 


Originally a problem was an enigma or a riddle, according to a 14th-century dictionary translating the Latin problema. Had he known it, my husband was demonstrating the literal meaning of problema, the Greek word that the Romans borrowed: throwing a thing forward, for him a newspaper, for them a topic for discussion. Aristotle wrote a book, Problemata, the plural form. 

‘Why melancholy men are witty,’ wrote Robert Burton in 1621, ‘is a probleme much controverted.’ By his time, a problem to be solved was also developing a parallel sense of a difficulty. ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ as the astronauts of Apollo 13 said, or in fact: ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a Main B Bus Undervolt.’ 

Problematic can retain that meaning: ‘We’ve already had one Christmas cancelled,’        someone the other day was quoted saying. ‘I’d hate this one to be problematic as well.’

To this sense of an obstacle, is now added the moralistic force of ‘questionable’. Problem plays in the 1890s were regarded as interesting: Ibsen’s and some of Shakespeare’s, such as Measure for Measure. Now Shakespeare is increasingly problematic — presenting obstacles to staging — and not just for his depiction of hunchbacks or Moors, Jews or shrews or princes of Denmark.

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