Timon of Athens (Vol. 78)
Timon of Athens
One of Shakespeare's least popular plays, Timon of Athens recounts the tale of Timon, a rich and benevolent nobleman of Athens in the fifth century b.c. After Timon's excessive generosity bankrupts him, he turns to his friends for help. When Timon's false friends refuse to return his generosity, he denounces humanity and leaves Athens. A misanthropic hermit for the rest of his life, he dies in misery at the end of the play. Although Timon is believed to have been written about 1607, there is no evidence that the play was performed during Shakespeare's lifetime; indeed, it is almost universally considered unfinished. Although considered a tragedy, Timon of Athens is often called a morality play and includes some comic elements as well. For centuries, commentators have overwhelmingly found Timon deeply flawed and have tried to excuse the play as merely a sketch, an experiment, only partially the work of Shakespeare, or ravaged by poor transmission. Contemporary critics, however, find the experimental and ambiguous nature of the play intriguing and worthy of study. Some areas of critical discussion include the play's sources, the character of Timon, and the themes of money and friendship. Timon of Athens continues to be unpopular on the stage and had few performances during the twentieth century.
Critical analyses of Timon of Athens have generally concentrated on the play's principal character, Timon. Sandra K. Fischer (1994) considers Timon Shakespeare's most “economic” play, and examines Timon's character in light of his “economic faults.” Fischer finds Timon an unsatisfying hero whose failure lies in his inability to receive. The critic contends that Timon does not learn his economic lessons, and that “by the end of the play, Timon still fails to understand the true nature and right use of money.” Karen Newman (1996) examines Timon's use of language in the play, and contends that he is a “visionary poet engaged in a dialogue with the universe.” Newman claims that Timon's gifts are linguistic, and that in the second half of the play his words become “misanthropic poetic gifts.” W. H. Auden (2000) calls Timon a “pathological giver” whose giving is motivated by selfishness and a desire to feel superior to others. Auden contends that when Timon's power—his ability to give—is taken away, he falls into “a state of powerless hatred.” Robert B. Heilman (see Further Reading) maintains that Timon does not want to look within and that he harangues other men and the world in order to avoid self-reflection and acknowledging that his quid pro quo style of giving is not true charity.
There is no evidence that Timon of Athens was performed during Shakespeare's lifetime, and it was infrequently performed in the centuries that followed. Timon remains unpopular with present-day directors, not only because the play seems unfinished but also because its characters are somewhat superficial. While some directors attempt to alleviate the unremitting bleakness of the second half of the play, James Torrens (1994) contends that modern audiences are not put off by the “dark and scathing” side of Shakespeare. Torrens reviews Michael Langham's National Theatre production of Timon of Athens, claiming that “against all odds” it enthralled Broadway audiences. Ben Brantley (1996) reviews Brian Kullick's Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival production of the play. Kullick admires the inventiveness shown by both the director and the designers of this particularly imaginative production, but acknowledges a lack of connection between the characters and the audience. Stephen Wall (1999) offers a rather negative review of Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens. Wall finds the use of Duke Ellington's music inappropriately pleasant, some of the stage effects “merely illustrative,” and Michael Pennington's Timon lacking in the required “full ferocity” of hate. Patrick Carnegy (1999) also reviews Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company production, but calls the production “a superb staging.” Carnegy praises Michael Pennington's Timon and approves of Duke Ellington's music in the first half of the play.
One of the central themes of Timon of Athens centers on money. Derek Cohen (1993) examines the theme of having and not having money, and explores how one's identity is determined by his or her wealth in the play. Cohen credits Shakespeare with rejecting the “naturalness” of the powerful class having great wealth and for delving into the political roots of greed. The critic contends that it is Timon's realization of the corrupting effect of money on society that leads to his misanthropy. Maria Teresa Michaela Prendergast (2000) notes the lack of female characters in the play and examines the work in terms of the misogynistic practices of early Jacobean culture. Prendergast contends that Timon represses women and displaces his desire for women with a desire for gold in order to establish “absolute male autonomy.” James C. Bulman, Jr. (1976) examines Shakespeare's sources for Timon. Bulman notes that Shakespeare used Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives (1579) and Lucian's second-century work Timon the Misanthrope as sources for his play, but contends that Shakespeare's chief source was an English academic comedy known as Timon. Thomas Cartelli (1985) contends that critics have dismissed Timon of Athens because it does not fit into the mold of what prevailing critical consensus says a Shakespearean tragedy “is or should be, does or should do.” However, Cartelli contends that Shakespeare deliberately refused to accommodate the conventional expectations of tragedy, and calls the play a “radical experiment in the psychology of theatrical experience.”
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
James C. Bulman, Jr. (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: Bulman, James C., Jr. “Shakespeare's Use of the Timon Comedy.” Shakespeare Survey 29 (1976): 103-16.
[In the following essay, Bulman presents evidence that Shakespeare's chief source for Timon of Athens was an English academic comedy known as Timon.]
Timon of Athens, fraught with inconsistencies and long regarded as unfinished, has been of particular interest to scholars who believe that finding the right source will resolve all its inherent problems. These scholars inevitably have cited either Plutarch's Life of Antony or Lucian's dialogue Misanthropos as the principle source through which the play ought to be approached; and...
(The entire section is 8575 words.)
Thomas Cartelli (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: Cartelli, Thomas. “The Unaccommodating Text: The Critical Situation of Timon of Athens.” Bucknell Review 29, no. 2 (1985): 81-105.
[In the following essay, Cartelli contends that Shakespeare deliberately refused to accommodate the conventional expectations of tragedy in Timon of Athens, and calls the play a “radical experiment in the psychology of theatrical experience.”]
The “corrupt text on the subject of absolute corruption” that is Timon of Athens has attracted a disproportionately small number of sympathetic scholars to the task of making dramatic sense of the play's own disproportionate blend of...
(The entire section is 9823 words.)
Criticism: Character Studies
W. H. Auden (lecture date 1946-1947)
SOURCE: Auden, W. H. “Timon of Athens.” In Lectures on Shakespeare, edited by Arthur Kirsch, pp. 255-69. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, constructed from lectures delivered in 1946 and 1947, Auden calls Timon a “pathological giver” whose giving is motivated by selfishness and a desire to feel superior to others. The critic contends that when Timon's power—his ability to give—is taken away, he falls into “a state of powerless hatred.”]
Timon of Athens is an interim work between the great tragedies and the last batch of Shakespeare's plays, which are usually known as the romance comedies. It is...
(The entire section is 5533 words.)
Sandra K. Fischer (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: Fischer, Sandra K. “‘Cut My Heart in Sums’: Shakespeare's Economics and Timon of Athens.” In Money: Lure, Lore, and Literature, edited by John Louis DiGaetani, pp. 187-95. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Fischer examines Timon's character in light of his “economic faults.” Fischer finds Timon to be an unsatisfying hero whose failure lies in his inability to receive.]
G. Wilson Knight asserts that “in studying, normally, everything but economics, great poetry necessarily studies, though indirectly, economics too” (224). In Econolingua, I have chronicled how the works of Shakespeare reveal a habit of...
(The entire section is 3649 words.)
Karen Newman (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Newman, Karen. “Rereading Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at the Fin de Siècle.” In Shakespeare and the Twentieth Century: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association World Congress, Los Angeles, 1996, edited by Jonathan Bate, Jill L. Levenson, and Dieter Mehl, pp. 378-89. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Newman examines Timon's use of language in the play, and contends that he is a “visionary poet engaged in a dialogue with the universe.”]
Timon of Athens has been largely ignored by Shakespeareans until quite recently. The play began to be staged and reread in the 1980s,...
(The entire section is 4613 words.)
Criticism: Production Reviews
James Torrens (review date 15-22 January 1994)
SOURCE: Torrens, James. “The Bard Still Pleases.” America 170 (15-22 January 1994): 15.
[In the following review, Torrens praises Michael Langham's National Theatre production of Timon of Athens, claiming that “against all odds” it enthralled Broadway audiences.]
The National Actors Theatre, promoted by Tony Randall, is now in its third season, after a faltering start (but a brilliant Saint Joan last year). It aims to keep the classics of drama alive on Broadway, and at modest prices.
This season opened with Timon of Athens, a late play by Shakespeare about a rich man, prodigally generous, who turns sour and vindictive...
(The entire section is 683 words.)
William Van Watson (review date 1996)
SOURCE: Watson, William Van. “Timon of Athens.” Theatre Journal 48, no. 1 (1996): 98-9.
[In the following review, Watson discusses an Italian production of Timon of Athens, directed by Walter Pagliaro.]
Graffiti in a working class Roman neighborhood reads: “For Berlusconi, you are neither man nor woman but consumer.” For four decades Italy had the largest and, with its Gramscian roots, most independent-minded Communist party in Western Europe. The collapse of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe signaled a crisis in the Italian left, now inaccurately associated with the economic woes of the welfare state. Silvio Berlusconi filled this perceived power...
(The entire section is 831 words.)
Ben Brantley (review date 26 August 1996)
SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Shakespeare Serves Up a Savory Course of Rage.” New York Times 145 (26 August 1996): B1, C11-12.
[In the following review, Brantley discusses Brian Kullick's Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival production of Timon of Athens. Brantley admires the inventiveness shown by both the director and the designers, but acknowledges a lack of connection between the characters and the audience.]
Now here's a tip for getting rid of unwanted party guests that Amy Vanderbilt probably never gave you: put casters on your dining room table and chairs. When it comes time to unseat your visitors, have your servants wheel them around until they're...
(The entire section is 1196 words.)
Stephen Wall (review date 3 September 1999)
SOURCE: Wall, Stephen. “Teary, Bleary and World-Weary.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5031 (3 September 1999): 19.
[In the following review, Wall considers Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens, and finds that Michael Pennington's Timon lacked the required “full ferocity” of hate.]
Hazlitt thought that Shakespeare's feeling for his subject was nowhere more intense or in earnest than in Timon of Athens, but the fierce concentration of the play's argument has severely restricted its theatrical life. Shakespeare may have become dissatisfied with his own single-mindedness, leaving the play unfinished, but the power...
(The entire section is 839 words.)
Patrick Carnegy (review date 4 September 1999)
SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. “Rout of the World.” The Spectator 283, no. 8926 (4 September 1999): 38-40.
[In the following review, Carnegy discusses Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens. Carnegy calls the production “a superb staging” and praises Michael Pennington's Timon.]
The RSC 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....
(The entire section is 865 words.)
Derek Cohen (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: Cohen, Derek. “The Politics of Wealth: Timon of Athens.” Neophilologus 77, no. 1 (1993): 149-60.
[In the following essay, Cohen examines the theme of wealth in Timon of Athens and contends that it is Timon's realization of its corrupting effect on society that leads to his misanthropy.]
The obsessive concern of the chief characters of Timon of Athens is having and not having money. The question raised by the obsession is not merely what it means to be rich or poor but, more important, how identity is determined by external measureable phenomena like money. The play reveals the extent and the means by which the individual's social locus...
(The entire section is 5855 words.)
Maria Teresa Michaela Prendergast (essay date spring 2000)
SOURCE: Prendergast, Maria Teresa Michaela. “‘Unmanly Melancholy’: Lack, Fetishism, and Abuse in Timon of Athens.” Criticism 42, no. 2 (spring 2000): 207-27.
[In the following essay, Prendergast notes the lack of female characters in the play and examines the work in terms of the misogynistic practices of early Jacobean culture. Prendergast contends that Timon represses women and displaces his desire for women with a desire for gold in order to establish “absolute male autonomy.”]
Since at least 1678, when Thomas Shadwell adapted the script for the earliest recorded performance of Timon of Athens, critics, directors, and playwrights have...
(The entire section is 9474 words.)
Bergeron, David M. “Timon of Athens and Morality Drama.” CLA Journal 10, no. 3 (March 1967): 181-88.
Compares Timon of Athens to the morality play Everyman (c. 1500.)
———. “Alchemy and Timon of Athens.” CLA Journal 13, no. 4 (June 1970): 364-73.
Discusses alchemy as a metaphor for character transformation in Timon of Athens.
Bizley, W. H. “Language and Currency in Timon of Athens.” Theoria 44 (May 1975): 21-42.
Explores Shakespeare's use of the language of money in Timon of Athens.
(The entire section is 251 words.)