Study Guide

Timon of Athens

by William Shakespeare

Timon of Athens Essay - Timon of Athens (Vol. 67)

Timon of Athens (Vol. 67)

Introduction

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.]

I

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 pride”,6 “a bold and immediate challenge to the teachings the New Testament urges man to live by”,7 “a primitive rage at the destruction of an ego-ideal”,8 a series of “insights into the moral and political nature of man”, which express Shakespeare's “contempt for democracy”,9 and a meditation on “the great social and ideological crisis which accompanies the birth, in England, of modern man”.10 This quest to make sense of the play as it stands has to a large extent resolved itself into an endeavour to ascertain its generic affiliations, since a genre—far from being merely a set of formal conventions—is recognized as a way of encoding a hierarchy of values and enforcing a particular perspective upon man's experience of his world. Timon of Athens has consequently been identified as an allegorical tragedy that “includes and transcends” Shakespeare's earlier tragic masterpieces,11 as a transitional tragedy that links Othello and King Lear with Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra,12 as one of the “Last Tragedies” that point the way from Shakespeare's tragic phase to his Late Romances,13 as a “pessimistic tragedy”,14 as a “tragical satire”,15 as a morality play,16 as a “Misanthropy”,17 and as an example of “genera mixta”, drawing upon “masque, comic antimasque, bitter satire, and tragedy”.18

It is evident that “the problem of Timon of Athens” is still very much with us, and also that many of the interpretative difficulties arise from the procedure of circumscribing the text within certain generic assumptions and then complaining that it fails to satisfy them. The present attempt to shed light on it will approach the issues of genre and artistic purpose by way of a detailed examination of the play's formal design as it has come down to us in the text printed in the First Folio.

II

Critical opinion as to the success of Timon of Athens as an artistic structure reveals some startling contradictions. A. C. Bradley represents the larger party, with the verdict that the play is “weak, ill-constructed and confused”; Wilson Knight speaks for the smaller band of champions in praising its “masterly construction”.19 A more recent view relates it to the problem comedies as a work “which shows Shakespeare struggling with the problem of form”.20 Those who have gone into more detail about the reasons for their contempt, admiration, or puzzlement have dwelt particularly on the sharp contrast between Acts I-III and Acts IV-V. Mark Van Doren states bluntly, “The play is two plays, casually joined at the middle.”21 One may want to quarrel with the implications of the word ‘casually’, but the radical difference between the first three and the last two acts is an unavoidable fact of the play's structure. Acts I-III are set in the city of Athens; Acts IV-V are set outside Athens, either before the city's walls or near Timon's cave. The break between the two settings, which corresponds to the break that is felt to occur in the play's atmosphere and dramatic texture, is strongly marked by Timon's first soliloquy:

Let me look back upon thee. O thou wall
That girdles in those wolves, dive in the earth
And fence not Athens! […]
[…]                    Nothing I'll bear from thee
But nakedness, thou detestable town!
Take thou that too, with multiplying bans.
Timon will to the woods, where he shall find
Th' unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.

(IV.1.1-3, 32-6)22

The first part of the play—centred on the extravagant hospitality and subsequent ruin of Timon—has been concerned with the economic foundations of communal life and with the social and moral consequences of usury and materialism. In narrative substance, it has been a didactic parable illustrating the Poet's summary of the ‘rough work’ he intends to present to Timon in the opening scene:

When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependants,
Which labour'd after him to the mountain's top
Even on their knees and hands, let him slip down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot.

(I.1.87-91)

This action is completed by the end of Act III. Acts IV-V are a different kind of play. Timon is no longer part of a community. He stands outside the walls of human society and directs against it the bitter shafts of his misanthropic outlook, each of his visitors providing an occasion for further vituperation against humanity and life itself. The point which seems to underlie much of the dissatisfaction felt with the play is that the second half, after the fall of Timon, is not the inevitable outcome of the first half. A man, even an extreme idealist, subjected to the kind of shock that Timon receives, need not have become a misanthrope and ended his life in hatred and a futile death.23 He might have emerged from the collapse of his world and his encounter with the wilderness with a new wisdom and simplicity born of suffering, as Lear had done when ingratitude drove him out into the storm. But in this instance, Shakespeare has chosen a hero who pursues the negative course of misanthropy, in which the wrongs of the world are magnified rather than transcended, and who plunges towards meaningless self-destruction rather than healing martyrdom. Timon's soliloquy at the beginning of Act IV establishes the direction the rest of the play will follow and prepares us for a change of tone and dramatic method: the railing man-hater will take over from the Poet, whose didactic vision of Fortune's fickleness shaped the first three acts.

This is not the first time, and it will not be the last, that Shakespeare has imposed a solution to an artistic and human problem rather than allowing the internal dynamic of the narrative material to carry through to a tragic consummation. Measure for Measure and The Winter's Tale, both of which develop strong and potentially tragic situations in Acts I-III, are diverted onto the quite different tracks of Romantic Comedy and Pastoral Romance and, as in Timon of Athens, the transition from one kind of drama to another is marked by a speech that draws attention to its function in the structure. The Duke of Vienna's soliloquy. in octosyllabic couplets—Craft against vice I must apply—and the Chorus's words about Time—that makes and unfolds error—occur, like Timon's first soliloquy, at the juncture of Acts III and IV and prepare us for the audacious change of key that Shakespeare is about to effect.24 Shakespeare does not neglect artistic decorum and the canons of common sense to the extent of providing no links between the two phases of Timon's existence on the stage, since there is enough psychological plausibility to give the play a degree of continuity in the explanation that Timon turns against his species because his former idealistic trust in mankind has been painfully violated. But the nature of Shakespeare's enterprise will be missed if one goes to the play with the kind of preconceptions implied in H. J. Oliver's statement that the dramatist “started from the ‘fact’ of Timon's misanthropy”, and then designed a play that would offer a convincing answer to the question, “What might conceivably have reduced a man to this condition?”25 The play no more focusses on the reasons for Timon's descent into misanthropy than Measure for Measure focusses on the reasons for the Duke's initial decision to place the reins of government in Angelo's hands or The Winter's Tale on the reasons for Leontes' jealousy.

Another of the features of Timon of Athens which has caused considerable critical comment is the episodic quality which characterises the development of Timon's story throughout the play and which might appear to override the discontinuity between Acts I-III and Acts IV-V. But a closer analysis reveals that the two phases, though both episodic in a broad sense, are built on different principles. After the opening scene, in which the Poet, the Painter, the Jeweller, and the Merchant gather to pay court to Timon—as the Poet sneeringly puts it, See, / Magic of bounty, all these spirits thy power / Hath conjur'd to attend (I.1.5-7)—Timon enters and displays his role as Bounty in a series of encounters. Ventidius, Lucilius, the Poet, the Painter, and the Jeweller all profit from his generosity or bask in his hospitality; Apemantus comes in to warn Timon against flattery and fair-weather friends, and Timon rejects his cynical assessment of human nature; Alcibiades approaches, and Timon leads him away to a feast, where all will share a bounteous time (I.1.256). The scene ends with the comments of some Athenian lords, which underline the emblematic significance of what we have just witnessed:

He pours it out: Plutus, the god of gold,
Is but his steward; no meed but he repays
Sevenfold above itself; no gift to him
But breeds the giver a return exceeding
All use of quittance.

(I.1.278-82)

The second scene amplifies the impression of the first, as we watch Timon lavishly entertaining his friends to a banquet, repaying all presents brought to him with extravagant generosity, and descanting on true friendship till tears come to his eyes at the thought of what a precious comfort 'tis to have so many like brothers commanding one another's fortunes (I.2.100-01). The first hint of disaster is sounded in the steward's asides—'Tis pity bounty had not eyes behind (I.2.158) and He commands us to provide and give great gifts, / And all out of an empty coffer (I.2.189-90)—and Act I comes to a close with two assessments of Timon's behaviour: the Third Lord's O, he's the very soul of bounty (I.2.207) is counterpointed a few lines later by Apemantus's verdict, Thou giv'st so long, Timon, I fear me thou wilt give away thyself in paper shortly (I.2.243-4).

In the brief second act, the servants of the money-lenders gather to reclaim the sums that Timon has borrowed to sustain his hospitality and Flavius, the steward, at last manages to convince him that his finances are in a state of crisis, although he remains confident that the bonds of friendship will hold firm in his time of need.

Act III mirrors the episodic structure of Act I. One after another, men who have enjoyed Timon's bounty find excuses for not helping him. More servants assemble to collect debts from Timon and his anger begins to brew against the ingratitude of mankind. His second banquet ends with him driving away his guests in a fury, in symbolic contrast to the parallel scene in Act I. This symmetry is emphasised by the final line of this act and of the first phase of the play—a line spoken by Ventidius, the very first recipient of his largesse in Act I: One day he gives us diamonds, next day stones (III.6.119).

In these first three acts, the episodes accumulate to demonstrate the themes of Timon's bounty, his financial collapse, and the ingratitude of his friends. In spite of the episodic method, this phase of the play constitutes a developing, if somewhat stylized, story, designed to illustrate the Poet's fable. The underlying structural principle is a narrative one, and the meaning of the drama is carried by the symbolic action. This is not the case in the continuation of Timon's ‘Life’ in Acts IV-V. After the transitional soliloquy and the scene of the parting servants at the start of Act IV, the rest of the act and the first scene of Act V form an unbroken sequence of encounters, in which various characters approach Timon in procession and are lashed by his tongue. Alcibiades, with the prostitutes Phrynia and Timandra; Apemantus; the bandits; Flavius; the Poet and the Painter; and the senators: each in turn provides a separate episode, giving the misanthrope ample opportunity to expound his bitter view of his species. As Winifred Nowottny has shown, the order in which the visitors approach Timon's cave is not governed by the requirements of the action in the usual dramatic sense. Instead, “the function of the plot itself, in this part of the play, is to provide encounters with people who will appear to have suggested to the hero precisely those symbols upon which the dramatist's imagination is at work”.26 The meaning is carried no longer by the story, but by the developing meditation on the nature of man and the society and universe he inhabits.

The difference in the nature of the episodes that make up the two halves of Timon's career can be gauged by comparing the role of language in the two parts of the play. In Acts I-III, Timon is engaged in dialogue with his friends and clients. His only lengthy utterances—none of them soliloquies—are when he addresses his guests at the banquet and weeps at the vision of brotherhood he conjures up, and in the parallel scene in the second banquet, when he makes his mock prayer to the gods and turns his wrath on the smiling, smooth, detested parasites (III.6.94) at his table. Words function as the accompaniment of deeds, as the medium for social intercourse. In Acts IV-V, dialogue is superceded by soliloquy or by extended harangues by Timon, in which he expounds his philosophy of universal depravity and heaps curses on his countrymen (IV.1.1-41; IV.3.1-47, 105-28, 175-95, 248-75, 373-90, 422-48). Words have now taken over from deeds as the medium for Timon's self-expression and as the focus of dramatic attention. It may be this shift in artistic method from stylized plot to stylized rhetoric that has led critics like Oscar Campbell to the conclusion that the two halves of the play represent less and more finished portions of Shakespeare's text and Winifred Nowottny to the view that most of Acts I and III and the latter part of Act V are by another hand.27 But perhaps we shall get nearer to the true nature of Timon of Athens as an experimental work of art if we consider the possibility that the greater elaboration of the language in Acts IV-V is a response to the demands of a different generic model from that followed in Acts I-III.

III

This brings us to the fundamental question of what those generic models were. What literary kinds was Shakespeare harnessing together in Timon of Athens? A. S. Collins' suggestion that this “most striking of his experiments” was a development from “the medieval morality play”28 has been taken up in more recent articles, which seek to establish that Shakespeare was deliberately exploiting earlier types of drama. David M. Bergeron traces “the basic parallelism between the fate of Timon and Everyman”, but acknowledges that once the heroes have been deserted by their worldly companions “the two plays begin to go opposite ways”.29 Anne Lancashire puts her main emphasis on this divergence, arguing that, whereas Marlowe took the psychomachia, exemplified by Mankind, for his model in Doctor Faustus, “Shakespeare uses the tradition of plays such as Everyman, in which the mankind hero is brought, by the experience of some material disaster, to a realization of the transitory nature of worldly goods, and accordingly turns to spiritual values”. Of course, like Marlowe, Shakespeare “reverses the stock morality-play ending of spiritual salvation … and essentially shows Timon going to death ‘unredeemed’, a self-made exile from human society”. Timon of Athens is thus placed “as secularized, anti-traditional everyman drama”, which would have appealed to an audience “fully conscious that Shakespeare was using the morality tradition to create an anti-Everyman”.30 Ruth Levitsky finds a more appropriate model in Skelton's Magnyfycence which, like Timon of Athens, “is secular in its concern with the dispensation of worldly goods”. She sees these plays and King Lear as being “related thematically through the concern with the question of how the great-souled man will bear up under the burden either of prosperity or of adversity”, but, like Bergeron and Lancashire, she has to admit that Shakespeare's hero can only be assimilated to the generic pattern as an inversion of the traditional type. A satisfactory artistic unity can be discovered in the play if it is read “as a kind of secular morality in which all the other virtues are subsumed within the grand virtue of magnificence, a virtue which Skelton's Prince learns but which Timon lacks from beginning to end”.31

While Levitsky's version of Timon of Athens as “a kind of pagan morality” is more convincing than the rather forced comparisons between the careers of Timon and Everyman, all three interpretations are weakened by the attempt to force the play into a single generic frame, with the consequent need to argue for a process of reversal and secularization of the Christian sources.32

My own view is that the first three acts are indeed modelled on the methods of morality drama, but that neither Everyman nor Magnyfycence represents the type most likely to have influenced Shakespeare's treatment of a story about Timon the prodigal or to have been part of a potential audience's conscious response in the first decade of the seventeenth century. M. C. Bradbrook is on the right track in drawing attention to such late Tudor moralities as Enough is as Good as a Feast (c. 1560), The Three Ladies of London (1581), and Liberality and Prodigality (c. 1567), the last of which was revived for a performance before Queen Elizabeth in 1601.33 Bradbrook cites these plays because of thematic similarities to Timon of Athens—a concern with the distinctions between liberality and prodigality, and the effects of usury on hospitality—but, in fact, they also afford striking parallels to the dramatic methods adopted by Shakespeare in Acts I-III.

Louis B. Wright pointed out many years ago that the uses to which morality plays were put as vehicles for propaganda changed to reflect the more stable government under Elizabeth, so that “interest began to shift from theology to economics and state-craft”.34 This adaptation of the methods of earlier Tudor drama to meet the challenge of contemporary conditions was begun in such works of the 1560s and 1570s as Thomas Lupton's All for Money, Walter Wager's Enough is as Good as a Feast, The Trial of Treasure, and George Wapull's The Tide Tarrieth No Man. These achievements, in turn, prepared the way for further developments. In Wright's words, “The convention firmly established in these plays of using morality play technique and characteristics for social satire clearly influenced a group of later plays of social protest in the last decade of the century.” Such plays as Robert Wilson's The Three Ladies of London and The Cobbler's Prophecy (c. 1590) and the anonymous A Knack to Know a Knave (1592) prolonged the currency of the morality, “modified somewhat under the influence of modern dramatic development”, until the close of Elizabeth's reign. One of the modifications was to “put more flesh and blood into the abstractions” and another was to mingle “real beings with allegorical virtues and vices”.35 More recent studies of the evolution of the morality genre have identified further changes that have a bearing on Shakespeare's art in Timon of Athens. Alan C. Dessen has shown that in an ‘estates’ morality like The Tide Tarrieth No Man the allegorical names of the Vice's victims—Greediness, No Good Neighbourhood, Wastefulness—should not conceal the fact that these characters are conceived not as abstractions in a psychomachia, but as social types representing the landlord, the courtier, the usurer or merchant, and the young married couple.36 David M. Bevington has isolated another strain in the development of the genre—what he calls the ‘hybrid’, which combines elements of the morality tradition with romance or chronicle material. In plays of the 1560s like Horestes and Cambises historical or legendary characters exist side-by-side with allegorical abstractions.37

In addition to the changing conception of dramatic character in later mutations of the morality genre, other changes of method must be mentioned. Dessen describes the plays of Wapull and Lupton as having a “thesis-and-demonstration structure”, which is designed to establish the author's views on the condition of the kingdom by means of enactment rather than description. The “summary exposition of abuses through set speeches”, which is the staple method of many earlier and contemporary plays, is replaced by dramatic action that illustrates “the power of vice over ‘people’”.38 In both ‘estates’ plays and ‘hybrids’, there is an episodic development of the plot, which is organized on a thematic principle to amplify either a social/economic thesis or some aspect of the life of a historical protagonist. Bevington sums up the technique in his commentary...

(The entire section is 9382 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Avi Erlich (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 5875 words.)

Jeremy Tambling (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 8537 words.)