Timon of Athens (Vol. 52)


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...

(The entire section is 3827 words.)

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.)