Timon of Athens (Vol. 52)

Introduction

Timon of Athens

Victorian and early twentieth-century scholars focused primarily on the authorship of Timon of Athens, questioning if the atypical drama was truly the work of Shakespeare. Although debate still rages over whether the play represents an unfinished, unorganized, and poorly written work or a powerful, if unorthodox, example of Shakespeare's skill, attention has turned increasingly in the last half of the twentieth century to the meaning of the play. At the center of this scholarship is the topic of morality, which many scholars believe is implicit to the play's meaning. Some critics argue that Shakespeare was attacking immoral Renaissance financial practices, namely the problems with usury. Minerva Neiditz (1979) states that Timon's problem is that he gives with the expectation of receiving, which contradicts the tenants of virtue. Many scholars such as William O. Scott (1984) note that Timon's practices never allow anyone to make a reciprocal gift or pay back a loan. Timon requires that all are “morally bound, so that Timon can remain free.” When no one will return his gifts later, Timon curses society, decrying man as amoral. Essayists such as Max H. James (1995) argue that the play is incomprehensible without taking into account the important role of friendship, which was so dominant and powerful that it resembled a form of love in Renaissance society. James maintains that the classical code of friendship in which nothing can be denied to one another is at the root of Timon's behavior and Shakespeare's thesis. Leo Paul S. de Alvarez (1981) develops this idea further, arguing that Timon's bounty is a gift from the good Fortuna with the intention that it be shared with one another. He asserts that Shakespeare is arguing that benevolence is the highest human good. Michael Tinker (1974), however, states that Timon does not understand the true nature of friendship. When he fails to accept the good in Flavius, Timon “has not missed, but rejected, his chance to rise above himself.” Many critics agree that Flavius represents the one true and honest man, incorruptable to the vices of material possessions and flattery. Again, there is concensus that Apemantus represents the worst of human nature, as one critic calls him a “beast.” Nevertheless, there is no agreement about the nature of Alcibiades, who some critics see as evil while others note his decision to spare the city of Athens and conclude that he has been reformed.

While Timon of Athens has been classified traditionally as a tragedy, albeit an atypical one, critics increasingly argue that the play draws upon the medieval moral play tradition. Lewis Walker (1979) asserts that Timon represents a form of the Mankind figure featured in morality plays through the first quarter of the sixteenth century. In these dramas, man faces many temptations and is corrupted as he passes through life, although he ultimately repents. Thus, Shakespeare's inclusion of banquet halls, music, food, drink, prostitutes, and doors that represent choices, is characteristic of the classic temptations of man found in morality plays. Even so, Walker adds that Shakespeare used this literary tradition merely as a base while developing the play in new, innovative ways. “The references of Apemantus to Timon's indulgence of the sense show how well Shakespeare has assimilated the morality tradition and at the same time the extent to which he has transcended it.” Ruth Levitsky (1978) contends that the true character of the generic man figure in morality plays is judged by the way he reacts to both adversity and prosperity. In her comparison of the title characters Timon and King Lear, Levitsky argues that although both cope badly as they are tested, in the end Timon fails to learn humility nor benefits from his struggles.

Criticism: Morality

Stephen Reid (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “‘I Am Misanthropos”—A Psychoanalytic Reading of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens,” in The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 56, No. 3, 1969, pp. 442-52.

[In the essay below, Reid considers the psychology of Timon's behavior to define the meaning of misanthropes in the play.]

Timon of Athens has received little attention from the psychoanalytic critics, and what comment exists cannot be said to be satisfactory.† The play is generally considered1 to be incomplete or unrevised. But this does not account for its neglect, for the play in its present form is generally considered2 to represent Shakespeare's intentions. It is...

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David Konstan (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “A Dramatic History of Misanthropes,”Comparative Drama, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 97-123.

[In the following essay, Konstan explores concepts of misanthropy by comparing Timon of Athens to Menander's Dyscolus and Moliére's Le Misanthrope.]

The misanthrope is not merely different from other men; he judges them, and does so on what he takes to be their own terms. He perceives himself as the representative of a social ideal which others have betrayed, and condemns his fellows for their perversity and hypocrisy. And yet society abides, and it is the misanthrope who cannot fit. He is rigid and surly, a natural target for comic...

(The entire section is 11296 words.)

Criticism: Rhetoric And Philosophy

William O. Scott (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The Paradox of Timon's Self-Cursing,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3, Autumn, 1984, pp. 290-304.

[In the essay below, Scott considers liar paradox constructions in Timon's curses on mankind and himself.]

In his essay “how to do things with Austin and Searle”—reprinted with a qualifying comment in Is There a Text in This Class?—Stanley Fish employs speech-act theory to describe the behavior of Coriolanus. Seeking the people's votes for the consulship, Coriolanus refuses to conform to accepted codes of speech and therefore of social conduct, and retorts to his banishers, “I banish you!”1 Fish says that Coriolanus both...

(The entire section is 7928 words.)

John Dixon Hunt (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare and the Paragone: A Reading of Timon of Athens,” in Images of Shakespeare, edited by Werner Habicht, D. J. Palmer, and Roger Pringle, Associated University Presses, 1988, pp. 47-63.

[In the following essay, Hunt discusses the role of the paragone, a historic comparison between and art and poetry, in Timon of Athens.]

It is almost fifty years since in the Journal of the Warburg Institute Anthony Blunt noted that the opening of Timon of Athens signaled Shakespeare's acknowledgment of a Renaissance commonplace, the paragone or comparison between the arts.1 But we have been surprisingly slow to...

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Criticism: Money And Wealth

SOURCE: “Biological Finance in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 21, No. 3, Autumn, 1991, pp. 349-70.

[In the essay below, Chorost discusses Timon's attempt to secure devotion through gift giving, exploring the economic and biological dimensions of the plot.]

Timon of Athens is a critique of money and money-oriented economies. Timon runs a lavish court which seems rich in friendship, but is rich only in money.1 Most of Timon's “friends” are usurers who mouth platitudes of loyalty while draining his treasury with high-interest loans. When he runs out of his own money and turns to them for more, they...

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Criticism: Reinterpretations

Leo Rockas (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Notes Toward a More Finished Timon,” in Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. VII, May, 1978, pp. 21-35.

[In the following essay, Rockas examines the inconsistencies in the play and suggests possible revisions that Shakespeare may have intended to make.]

There is a controversy over whether and to what extent Timon is an “unfinished” play. The case was suggested by such critics as Ulrici, E. K. Chambers, and Una Ellis-Fermor, and has been challenged by others, notably by A. S. Collins and E. A. J. Honigman.1 It is certainly impossible to dispute Honigman's claim that the “inconsistencies and loose ends” in the play “confirm...

(The entire section is 6379 words.)

Minerva Neiditz (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Primary Process Mentation and the Structure of Timon of Athens,” in University of Hartford Studies in Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1979, pp. 24-35.

[In the essay below, Neiditz suggests reinterpreting Timon of Athens, noting the dream-like state of the play and its symbolism.]

Interpretations of Timon of Athens have led us astray by forcing the play into a logical, sequential mold with conclusions that Shakespeare was exhausted, suffering from a nervous breakdown or portraying a “syphlitic” character.1 Only Miss Ellis-Fermor, speaking of the Alcibiades-Senate scene, grasped the fact that it tumbles “suddenly into the...

(The entire section is 3161 words.)

Ninian Mellamphy (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Wormwood in the Wood Outside Athens: Timon and the Problem for the Audience,” in “Bad” Shakespeare: Revaluation of the Shakespeare Canon, edited by Maurice Charney, Associated University Press, 1988, pp. 166-75.

[In the following essay, Mellamphy identifies the inherent problems in Timon of Athens by analyzing the Grand Theatre Company of London Ontartio's performance of the play in 1983.]

In the 1960s and throughout the greater part of the 1970s one of the problems that faced the instructor who wished to discuss Measure for Measure before or with an undergraduate audience was how to elicit from that audience some sympathetic...

(The entire section is 4315 words.)

Jonathan Baldo (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Shadow of Levelling in Timon of Athens,” in Criticism, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 559-88.

[In the essay below, Baldo argues that Shakespeare develops the rhetorical practice of generalizing to a new height in Timons of Athens, unprecedented in renaissance literature.]

How little connection there is between money, the most general form of property, and personal peculiarity, how much they are directly opposed to each other was already known to Shakespeare better than to our theorising petty bourgeois.

—Karl Marx1

You schal …...

(The entire section is 12585 words.)

Further Reading

Bergeron, David M. “Alchemy and Timon of Athens.CLA Journal XIII, No. 4 (June 1970): 364-73.

Applies the philosophical tenets of alchemy allegorically to interpret the play.

Bizley, W. H. “Language and Currency in Timon of Athens.Theoria XLIV (May 1975): 21-42.

Examines the language Shakespeare employs to discuss cultural beliefs about money.

Cohen, Derek.“The Politics of Wealth: Timon of Athens.Neophilologus LXXVII, No. 1, (January 1993): 149-60.

Explores the multifaced role of wealth and poverty in Timon of Athens, arguing that not only is it at...

(The entire section is 478 words.)