One of William Shakespeare’s most neglected plays, Timon of Athens has only rarely been performed. The reasons for its unpopularity include its strongly bitter tone and its lack of an emotionally satisfying ending. Further, the play has many elements that are uncharacteristic of Shakespeare’s work: clashing themes, irregular verse passages, confused character names, and a shallow central character. For these reasons, scholars long suspected that Timon of Athens was a collaborative effort. Modern scholars, however, hold that the play’s problems arose because Shakespeare wrote it himself, but never polished it because he left it unfinished. His reasons for abandoning the play are not known, but inferences may be drawn from the play’s curious nature.
Timon of Athens defies easy classification. As a bleak tale about a once kind man who dies a bitter misanthrope, the play appears to be a tragedy. What leads to Timon’s financial ruin and ultimate destruction is, ironically, the generosity that permits him to rise high in Athenian society. His sudden and deep fall points up the fateful vulnerability of human existence—a nearly universal theme in tragedy. Despite this tragic motif, the play has many characteristics of traditional comedy. Because of its unusual blend of tragedy and comedy, it is now regarded not only as a curious experiment but also as an important transitional phase in Shakespeare’s mature writing career.
There are several reasons for regarding Timon of Athens as a comedy. The play’s savage depiction of greed, hypocrisy, and duplicity among the Athenian nobility constitutes the kind of social satire that became a dramatic staple in seventeenth century England. The immorality of the ruling classes was itself one of Shakespeare’s own favorite themes. The theme is demonstrated here in the actions of the governors of Athens, who ruin Timon by cruelly calling in his debts. When they banish Alcibiades merely for...
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