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Read the following introduction to the essay title Shakespeare's Problem Plays as a Medium for Argument.  How effectively does it answer the three questions that the reader asks of an introduction:

  • What are you doing?
  • Why are you doing this?
  • How will you do this?

Can you suggest any areas for improvement?

Thou has her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I love her dearly; 
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief, 
A loss of love that touches me more nearly. 
Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou know'st I love her, 
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me, 
Suff'ring my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love's gain; 
And, losing her, my friend hath found that loss:
Both find each other, and I lose both twain, 
And both for my sake lay me on this cross. 
But here's the joy: my friend and I are one.
Sweet flattery! Then she loves but me alone.
(Sonnet 42)

Shakespeare's sonnets demonstrate that he exploited the potential of literary forms as a means of argument. Argument is not a purely cognitive activity in which one's case is always made cogently and explicitly; both in life and literature it is reliant upon suggestion and an appeal to the emotions, as is evident in Sonnet 42. On a superficial level, the argument appears to be that of the poet within himself; he seems to have successfully convinced himself through witty conceit that his ‘grief' is in fact a ‘joy'. However, the true argument is directed at the reader; Shakespeare suggests that the offered consolation is entirely insubstantial. The apparent retreat to internality (‘thee' becomes ‘my friend' in the thirteenth line, indicating that the poem is no longer addressed to the friend) suggests a lack of confidence which prevents the poet from making public the conceit-based argument, while the flat contradiction of the preceding lines in ‘she loves but me alone' means that this effect does not rely on any exophoric reference on the reader's part; the inconsistency is a fundamental aspect of the poem's design. Although the sonnet is an entirely different medium from the play, this poem demonstrates two aspects of Shakespearian argument which, it will here be contended, are evident in the problem plays: firstly, that Shakespeare's argumentative method is to appeal to the emotions rather than to reason, and secondly that he argues through negation (as, for example, he negates the abandoned lover's consolation in Sonnet 42). The term ‘problem plays' will here be taken as referring to The Merchant of Venice, All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Although other plays, notably Troilus and Cressida, have also been placed in this category by critics, they have much less in common with these three that they do with each other. The suggestion that Shakespeare 'argues' in his plays is a controversial one, and it is important to clarify what is meant by it here. It should not be assumed that Shakespeare endorses the views expressed in argumentative speeches, tempting as it might be to make deductionas about Shakespeare from, say, the 'self-evident' validity of Portia's 'quality of mercy' speech in The Merchant of Venice. The extent to which such arguments were intended to persuade the audience can best be judged from their context in the play, as organization is an aspect of dramatic writing in which intentionality is most evident. An adherence to the text as it is 'given' is essential if ill-founded deductions are to be avoided. 




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