The problem play is a form of drama that emerged during the 19th century as part of the wider movement of realism in the arts. It deals with contentious social issues through debates between the characters on stage, who typically represent conflicting points of view within a realistic social context.
The critic F. S. Boas adapted the term to characterise certain plays by Shakespeare that he considered to have characteristics similar to Ibsen’s 19th-century problem plays. Boas’s term caught on, and Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida, and All’s Well That Ends Well are still referred to as “Shakespeare’s problem plays”. As a result, the term is used more broadly and retrospectively to describe pre-19th-century, tragicomic dramas that do not fit easily into the classical generic distinction between comedy and tragedy.
Bedford St Martins Literature glossary including a definition of the Problem Play.
Britain In Print Discussion about Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Problem Play.
City University New York Very useful explanation of the Play of Ideas, or Problem Play.
Denis Dutton Academic address to the Russian Institute of Aesthetics on the need for a Theatre of Ideas.
McGraw Hill Worthwhile theatre glossary that includes a definition for Problem Play.
University of Victoria Definition of the Problem Play.
Wikipedia Outline of the characteristics of three of Shakespeare’s Problem Plays.