Timon of Athens (Vol. 67)
Timon of Athens
For further information on the critical and stage history of Timon of Athens, see SC, Volumes 1, 20, 27, and 52.
Timon of Athens, one of Shakespeare's least popular plays, eludes critical consensus on several fronts. For centuries, scholars have debated on such issues as the date of composition, Shakespeare’s authorship, and what the playwright's intentions might have been in penning such a bleak and bitter portrayal of the human condition. Many modern scholars focus on the title character, exploring the psychological motivation for Timon's generosity and his later misanthropy. A related area of study is the play's treatment of friendship; critics often link Timon's view of friendship with his fate. Other scholarly assessments are geared toward understanding Shakespeare's view of politics as revealed in Timon of Athens. While not as frequently staged as many of Shakespeare's other works, modern productions have sometimes viewed the play as a rough draft and have liberally adapted the text; other productions earn critical praise through the strength of the performances of the main characters.
Critical discussions of character in Timon of Athens typically focus on the title character. Avi Erlich (1985) contends that Timon’s self destruction is a result of his narcissism, describing the narcissistic personality as one “who will not and cannot have mature relationships.” Furthermore, Erlich identifies the masochistic qualities of Timon, stating that Timon's misanthropy is his last attempt, as a narcissist, to externalize his masochistic desires. Like Erlich, Jeremy Tambling (2000) investigates the psychological motivation for Timon's behavior, finding that it is Timon's anger and melancholy that drive both his philanthropy and misanthropy. Additionally, Tambling notes that Timon's misanthropy is focused exclusively on males, observing that Timon fails to recognize the existence of women.
Like Erlich, who examines Timon's inability to create and sustain mature relationships, other critics study Timon’s inability to form true friendships. Michael Tinker (1974) contends that Timon does not understand the meaning of friendship, and contrasts the non-material values of Flavius and Alcibiades with Timon’s empty gift-giving and “inhuman excess.” Also centering on the link between friendship and giving, John J. Ruszkiewicz (1975-76) analyzes the influence of Renaissance views on the play's theme of friendship. Ruszkiewicz finds that Timon's ideas concerning generosity do not correspond with those of Renaissance moralists, who stressed that the donor's intentions in giving had to be good, and the intended recipients must be deserving. Furthermore, the critic contends that Renaissance moralists, who relied on ancients such as Aristotle in the development of their ideas, would have described Timon's friendships as those of “use” rather true friendships based on commonality of thought and feeling. Taking another approach, Lewis Walker (1979) reviews the influence of concepts of the goddess Fortune on Timon of Athens. Walker contends that both Timon and his friends are under the control of Fortune, and states that in the play Shakespeare demonstrated “how Fortune affects relationships between human beings by presenting a thorough perversion of the ideal of true friendship.”
The topic of politics is another popular area of critical study in Timon of Athens. Leonard Goldstein (see Further Reading) is particularly concerned with the people involved in the revolt led by Alcibiades. Noting that Shakespeare neither condemned them as a mass mob nor espoused their cause, Goldstein maintains that Shakespeare's interest in the common people as an active political force evolved in Timon, and observes that Shakespeare's treatment of this group is more fair than in earlier plays. Leo Paul S. de Alvarez (1981) is also interested in the political aspects of Timon of Athens. The critic maintains that the city of Athens and its politics are the main focus of the play, which centers on the “unpleasantness and harshness” of politics.
In modern productions of Timon of Athens directors sometimes attempt to lessen the bitterness of the play's ending. Alan Armstrong (1998) observes such an attempt in Penny Metropulos's 1997 production for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Armstrong also notes that Metropulos viewed the play as a work-in-progress, and freely adapted the play in order to speed up the pace. Patrick Carnegy (1999) and Russell Jackson (2000) review Gregory Doran’s production of Timon. Carnegy’s assessment of the play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is highly favorable. The critic notes that Michael Pennington, starring as Timon, brought an intelligence and energy to the role that was greatly needed, and also praises Richard McCabe's Apemantus. In addition, Carnegy applauds the use of Duke Ellington's music, borrowed from a 1963 production, in the first part of the play. Similarly, Jackson gives high marks to both Pennington and McCabe, finding Doran's production both grand and simple.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Wilcher, Robert. “Timon of Athens: A Shakespearean Experiment.” Cahiers Élisabéthains, 34 (October 1988): 61-78.
[In the following essay, Wilcher assesses Timon of Athens as an experimental work of art, and studies the issues of genre and artistic vision through an exploration of the play's structure.]
The centre of critical debate has shifted considerably since T. M. Parrott published his monograph on Timon of Athens in 1923,1 but the problematic nature of the work continues to exercise the ingenuity of Shakespearian scholars. Victorian and early twentieth-century arguments about its authorship and the state and status of the text printed in the 1623 Folio, though not conclusively settled, have been pushed to one side by arguments about the play's purpose or meaning.2 It has been found to embody, among other things, “the stark contrast of the partial and imperfect nature of humanity and the world of the senses with the strong aspiration toward infinity and perfection and the ultimate darkness of the unknown”,3 the plight of a feudal aristocracy in an age of usury and rising capitalism,4 “the dual theme of the false appearance of friendship and the uncertainty of fortune”,5 “an investigation of aberrations from natural order in the individual promoted by subtle forms of...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Erlich, Avi. “Neither to Give nor to Receive: Narcissism in Timon of Athens.” In CUNY English Forum, Vol. 1, edited by Saul N. Brody and Harold Schechter, pp. 215-30. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1985.
[In the following essay, Erlich asserts that in Timon of Athens Shakespeare used allegory and its “dream language” to explore Timon’s narcissism.]
One can try to explain away the radical split in Timon's character by pointing to the substantial evidence that Timon of Athens was left in draft,1 but it is clear from what we have, which is largely complete in conception and design, that in a polished version of the play Timon would have precisely the same polarized character as he has now. Since Shakespeare intended the Timon we have and since there is no attempt on the surface of the play to provide motivation for Timon's self-destructive generosity, his self-burying scurrility, or his rapid switch from the one to the other, Maurice Charney concludes that Shakespeare did not write his usual kind of play, in which characters are typically imagined in full psychological depths. Rather, Shakespeare wrote a “dramatic fable,” “a morality play or an allegory,” in which “no attempt at all is made to give [Timon's] sudden change from philanthropy to misanthropy a psychological basis. The structure of the play is schematic, and the dramatic action separates...
(The entire section is 5875 words.)
SOURCE: Tambling, Jeremy. “Hating Man in Timon of Athens.” Essays in Criticism 50, no. 2 (April 2000): 145-68.
[In the following essay, Tambling investigates Timon's anger and melancholy, finding that these feelings generate both his philanthropy and misanthropy.]
Timon of Athens begins with two artists, a Poet and a Painter, who seem to stand aloof from the crowds of people visiting Timon for their own ends; however, they are just as financially interested, for they want to sell Timon their art-works. While the scene shows implicitly how art exists in a commodified form, their dialogue hints that the play will be self-reflexive, turning on the possibilities offered by its own art and language. The Poet asks the question, ‘how goes the world?’:
It wears, sir, as it grows.
Ay, that's well known.
But what particular rarity, what strange,
Which manifold record not matches?
(I. i. 3-5)1
When the Poet thinks of ‘manifold record’, he focuses on literary precedents. If the world wears as it grows, this negates change; as it grows so it also wears out. ‘Wears’ could mean wearing down, or wearing away, or wearing out, all notions that imply exhaustion, so that ‘wears’ may also signal ‘wearies’, implying an entropic...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Armstrong, Alan. “The 1997 Oregon Shakespeare Festival.” Shakespeare Bulletin 16, no. 2 (spring 1998): 33-7.
[In the following excerpt, Armstrong appraises the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Timon of Athens as directed by Penny Metropulos, noting that the director viewed the play as a work-in-progress and took a number of liberties with the text in order to quicken the pace of the production.]
OSF [Oregon Shakespeare Festival] associate artistic director Penny Metropulos directs a welcome production of Timon of Athens on the festival's outdoor Elizabethan stage. Relatively unadorned even in the putative splendor of the early banquet scenes, the stage is completely bare during Timon's later self-imposed exile. The focus of action shifts then to a coffin-sized sandbox recessed in the floor at the very front of the stage, where Timon scrabbles for his roots and finds the buried gold. The production eschews classical “weeds of Athens” in favor of richer, more colorful costumes of antique Middle Eastern design, to evoke an Athens that is the commercial crossroads of a larger ancient world still informed by the Homeric code of hospitality.
Metropulos, regarding Timon as a Shakespearean work-in-progress, takes some liberties to fit the text to the OSF stage and find a straight storyline for her actors. A few examples may stand for dozens of small...
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SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. “Rout of the World.” Spectator 283, no. 8926 (4 September 1999): 38-40.
[In the following review, Carnegy assesses Gregory Doran's direction of Timon of Athens for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford.]
The RSC [Royal Shakespeare Theatre] rounds off what's been a strong season with Gregory Doran's arresting production of one of Shakespeare's most uncomfortable and seldom-given plays. Timon of Athens, we just about remember, is the one about the man who spends the first half of the play as a munificent philanthropist and the second as a beggared misanthropist.
It was clever to have paired it in repertory with Antony and Cleopatra for the plays are proximate in Shakespeare's output. In both the hero's downfall is triggered by a fatal lack of judgment, Antony's unhinged by infatuation with Cleopatra, Timon's by intoxication with his wealth's power to draw friends. It would have been fascinating to have seen both roles played by the same actor, Alan Bates, as was originally planned. But Bates withdrew from Timon due to a chest infection and Michael Pennington has stepped into the breach. Always an intelligent and energising performer, he revels in a great role that is thirsty for those very qualities.
On the page Timon seems near-impossible to play. The text itself is fractured, the words, like...
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SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Shakespeare Performed. Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon: Summer and Winter, 1999-2000.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 2 (summer 2000): 217-29.
[In the following excerpt, Russell applauds Gregory Doran's simple staging of Timon of Athens, singling out Michael Pennington's Timon and Richard McCabe's Apemantus, and noting that the production is as good as one will see for some time to come.]
Greg Doran's production of Timon of Athens was the last to join the “Summer Festival Season’ in the main house. Alan Bates had been announced for the title role but was obliged to withdraw for health reasons (he had missed several performances of Antony and Cleopatra), and Michael Pennington took over at short notice, with only three weeks of rehearsal. Fortuitously, Pennington had let it be known when he gave the annual Shakespeare's Birthday lecture at Stratford that he coveted the part: he was suddenly taken at his word! The staging was grand and simple. Athens in the first part of the play consisted largely of a high double door against a dark backdrop, and the desert of the closing two acts was an open stage with a pit for Timon's digging at the front and a huge golden sun against the bare brick wall at the back. By the end of the short run in Stratford, Michael Pennington had found a variety in the harangues of the play's final movement that—not...
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SOURCE: Tinker, Michael. “Theme in Timon of Athens.” In Shakespeare's Late Plays: Essays in Honor of Charles Crow, edited by Richard C. Tobias and Paul G. Zolbrod, pp. 76-88. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974.
[In the following essay, Tinker explores Timon's view of friendship within the framework of the play's larger theme, which Tinker contends is “man shall not live by bread alone.”]
Timon of Athens has provoked an extraordinary divergence of critical opinion.1 Contrary to those critics who find Timon incomplete and disorganized, I believe the play is highly structured. The theme, simply stated, is “Man shall not live by bread alone.” That theme is brought out by the imagery, the plot structure, and the inversion of the theme in the protagonist, that is, by the representation of a man who does live by bread alone.
With regard to the structure of the play, Una Ellis-Fermor calls Timon “a design not fully comprehended.”2 David Cook considers the play to be “powerfully conceived, but not realized in fully developed dramatic terms.”3 Even J. C. Maxwell, the best critic on this play, states that Shakespeare “did not bring his own work on the play to a satisfying state of completion.”4 I submit that for an incomplete play it shows a remarkable amount of structural unity. It is divided into two...
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SOURCE: Ruszkiewicz, John J. “Liberality, Friendship, and Timon of Athens.” Thoth 16, no. 1 (winter 1975-76): 3-17.
[In the following essay, Ruszkiewicz examines Timon's behavior and attitude toward friendship within the context of Renaissance views regarding liberality and friendship.]
The nature of Timon's character in William Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (1607-08?) has been variously appraised. For G. Wilson Knight, the prosperous Timon is the flower of human aspiration and by nature a universal lover. Other less generous critics like David Cooke and Andor Gomme cite Timon for his pride and wantonness, and Cooke along with G. K. Hunter finds Timon enjoying the self-image of a god. Defending Timon, Paul Siegel suggests that the raving Greek must be a Christ figure since his friends are called Judases. Irving Ribner finds the fault of Timon in the dependable Renaissance formula of the passions overcoming the reason. More moderate assessments of Timon's character are possible, as J. C. Maxwell demonstrates in an article which portrays the hero as erring in his prodigality but still very much the victim of an acquisitive and heartless society.1 But even this view is complicated by the fact that Timon helps to create the villainy that destroys him.
An understanding of the tragedy of Timon would, it seems, require a continuing...
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SOURCE: Walker, Lewis. “Fortune and Friendship in Timon of Athens.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 18, no. 4 (winter 1977): 577-600.
[In the following essay, Walker studies the ways in which the concept of the goddess Fortune influenced Shakespeare's treatment of friendship in Timon of Athens.]
It is curious that critics, in dealing with the difficulties of Timon of Athens, have failed to consider thoroughly the allegory of Fortune in the opening scene. This extended performance by the Poet has obvious significance for Timon's career, and it is placed in such a prominent position that it invites detailed examination. Most commentators, however, have ignored it altogether, and one has dismissed it as “trite.”1 A few have remarked on its general relevance to the action of the play, Una Ellis-Fermor commenting that it provides “an ironic forewarning of Timon's fall,”2 and Geoffrey Bullough noting that it presents “a major theme of the play, and the explicit enunciation suggests that this is to be a moral piece, simpler than usual in Shakespeare, not so much the subtle portrait of a complex character as an exemplum of ethical truths.”3 But no one has attempted to apply the allegory in any detail to the play, seeking to understand the character of Timon in terms of the ideas of Fortune it evokes.4 Such an exercise is...
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SOURCE: de Alvarez, Leo Paul S. “Timon of Athens.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 157-79. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.
[In the following essay, de Alvarez maintains that the city of Athens and its politics are the main focus of Timon of Athens, and closely examines the three principal characters—Timon, Apemantus, and Alcibiades.]
Timon of Athens, according to Howard B. White, is perhaps “the most complete political tragedy in Shakespeare.”1 Such a statement might be justified by the lack of any other focus in the play but that of the city. No question of love, for example, diverts us from the story of Athens. We have very little in the way of anything pleasant—there seems to be no delight in the play. The banquet and the masque, for all their brilliance, are somehow unpleasant. The three principal characters, Timon, Apemantus, and Alcibiades act in terms of the city. No beautiful speeches charm us; the poetry is a scolding, harsh, vituperative poetry. Despite the outward glitter, the play reproduces the unpleasantness and harshness of the political itself.
We first hear of Timon as a wealthy patron of the arts. We also hear of his beneficence and how this virtue brings to him a great flood of visitors who profess their love for him and honor him as...
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Bergeron, David M. “Timon of Athens and Morality Drama.” CLA Journal 10, no. 3 (March 1967): 181-8.
Examines the play as a morality drama, demonstrating the structural and thematic similarities between Timon of Athens and the morality drama Everyman.
Bizley, W. H. “Language and Currency in Timon of Athens.” Theoria 44 (1975): 21-42.
Maintains that Shakespeare's analysis of the relationship between money and language in Timon of Athens is of primary importance to the play.
Bulman, James C., Jr. “Shakespeare's Use of the ‘Timon’ Comedy.” Shakespeare Survey 29 (1976): 103-16.
Proposes that a comedy entitled Timon served as a source for Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, and suggests the ways in which it may have influenced Shakespeare.
Fischer, Sandra K. “‘Cut My Heart in Sums’: Shakespeare's Economics in Timon of Athens.” In Money: Lure, Lore, and Literature, edited by John Louis DiGaetani, pp. 187-95. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Contends that the play's structure is affected by the impact of the newly emerging system of mercantilism on society.
Goldstein, Leonard. “Alcibiades' Revolt in Timon of Athens.” Zeitschrift für Anglistik...
(The entire section is 342 words.)