Timon of Athens (Vol. 89)
Timon of Athens (Vol. 89)
For further information regarding the critical or stage history of Timon of Athens, see SC, Volumes 1, 20, 27, 52, 67, and 78.
One of Shakespeare's least popular plays, Timon of Athens recounts the tale of Timon, a wealthy and benevolent Athenian of the fifth century b.c. whose excessive generosity eventually bankrupts him. After Timon's false friends refuse to lend him money in his time of need, he denounces humanity and leaves Athens. Timon becomes a misanthropic hermit and dies in misery at the end of the play. Scholars have cited several sources for Shakespeare's play, including Sir Thomas North's English translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579). Critics once believed that Timon was written collaboratively, but most scholars now reject this theory and consider it instead to be simply an unfinished play. Assigning a date to Timon of Athens has engaged the interest of many critics, with the majority favoring 1607 or 1608. F. W. Brownlow (1977), however, argues that there is no evidence for these dates and suggests that the play may have been Shakespeare's last work. For centuries, commentators have overwhelmingly found Timon to be a deeply flawed work; however, contemporary critics find the experimental and ambiguous nature of the play intriguing and worthy of study.
Critical analyses of Timon of Athens have generally concentrated on the play's principal character, Timon, who has been viewed as both a noble figure and as a man whose character defects make him susceptible to extremes of pride and despair. Robert B. Heilman (see Further Reading) contrasts the characterization of Timon with the lead characters in Shakespeare's major tragedies. Heilman concludes that Timon does not want to look within and that he attacks other men and the world in order to avoid self-reflection, which would reveal that his quid-pro-quo style of giving is not true charity. By contrast, D. Douglas Waters (1988) contends that Timon is a tragic figure whose tragic flaw is an excess of feelings—such as kindness, joy, and friendship. Waters notes that “Timon of Athens is a tragedy where the hero's excessive feelings destroy him by begetting prodigality, revenge, and ultimately misanthropy.” In R. P. Draper's examination of how Timon comes to believe that gold corrupts man, the critic observes that “[i]n his disillusionment Timon sees … gold as the source of all evil, that which undermines order, subverts all values, and levels all distinctions.”
Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare's least often staged works. There is no evidence that it was performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, and it remains unpopular with present-day directors. Thomas Connors (see Further Reading) admires Michael Bogdanov's 1997 Shakespeare Repertory staging of Timon of Athens and maintains that “the production was a revel in the freedom to be fresh.” Reviewing the same production, Tom Valeo (see Further Reading) notes the play's relevance to modern audiences, particularly its theme of the corrupting influence of money. According to the director, the play is “an unalleviated attack on capitalism, the most direct that Shakespeare ever made.” Paul Taylor (see Further Reading) finds much to like in Gregory Doran's “remarkably witty and penetrating” 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens. Taylor extols Michael Pennington's portrayal of Timon and contends that the “excellence of Pennington's performance lies in the way he reveals the psychological continuities between the hero's apparently opposite manifestations: the convivial host in flowing gowns and the loin-clothed outsider snarling like a wild animal.” Sheridan Morley (2000) also praises Doran's production, noting that the director celebrates this difficult play “rather than work his way around it, or even apologise for its eccentricities.”
The play's theme of the corrupting effect of wealth has interested many critics. In fact, some critics argue that Shakespeare's play is a commentary on the dehumanizing effects of money and note that Timon was Karl Marx's favorite Shakespearean play. Sharon O'Dair (2000) analyzes Shakespeare's treatment of capitalism in Timon, contending that “Marx follows Timon's analysis in emphasizing … the structurally transformative power of gold or money: not what money does to the personalities of those who have it, for one can be greedy or self-interested or mean-spirited about the exchange of cattle or pigs or women, but what money allows those who have it to do within or to society.” In a study of the play's symbolism, Robert C. Fulton III (1976) examines the negative connotations associated with the masque of the Cupid and Amazons in Act I, scene ii in Timon of Athens: “ferocity and cruelty and the disease which signals destructive lust.” Andrew Hadfield (2003) interprets Timon of Athens as Shakespeare's advice to King James. Although Hadfield stresses that the play should not “be reduced to a simple political allegory,” he finds that in it Shakespeare is urging King James to take a more Machiavellian approach to politics.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Maxwell, J. C., ed. Introduction to The Life of Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare, pp. ix-xlii. London: The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1957.
[In the following essay, Maxwell discusses the date, sources, and structure of Timon of Athens.]
AUTHENTICITY AND DATE
The Life of Tymon of Athens was first printed in the 1623 Folio, in the space in the Tragedies left by the temporary withdrawal of Troilus and Cressida.1 It is at least possible that it was not originally intended to print it at all,2 and the rough condition of the text has given rise to many speculations. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the blame was generally laid on actors, transcribers and printers,3 and Charles Knight in the Pictorial Shakespeare (1838) seems to have been the first to suggest the presence of a second hand other than that of a mere garbler. His view was that our text represents Shakespeare's partial rewriting of an earlier play, and since his time all possible variations have been devised on the disintegration theme. Some have agreed with Knight; others, following Verplanck's edition of 1847, have thought that an unfinished or mutilated play by Shakespeare was botched up by a later hand. The two views can even be combined. Thus G. Kullmann solemnly argued that Shakespeare began to rewrite an earlier...
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SOURCE: Brownlow, F. W. “Conclusion: Timon of Athens.” In Two Shakespearean Sequences: Henry VI to Richard II and Pericles to Timon of Athens, pp. 216-32. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.
[In the following essay, Brownlow argues that there is no evidence for the dating of Timon of Athens and suggests that the play may indeed have been Shakespeare's last work. The critic also discusses the play's theme of the corrupting effect of wealth.]
The Two Noble Kinsmen was written and first performed in 1613. Whether it was by Shakespeare and Fletcher, as the 1634 title-page says, or whether Shakespeare wrote it alone, as Paul Bertram argues,1 is a question that cannot be finally decided. It is certain however that of Shakespeare's datable plays it is the last that he either wrote or partly wrote. It is equally certain that there is nothing valedictory about it. Although Shakespeare had only two years more to live, and although critics write about him as if he were as old as Lear and as weary of life, there is no evidence at all, either that he stopped writing or that he expected to die so soon. There is no justification, then, for treating The Two Noble Kinsmen as a poetic last will and testament. It may have had a successor.
Another certain thing about The Two Noble Kinsmen is that it is a very...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Waters, D. Douglas. “Shakespeare's Timon of Athens and Catharsis.” Upstart Crow 8 (1988): 93-105.
[In the following essay, Waters contends that Timon is a tragic figure whose excessive feelings—such as kindness, joy, and friendship—cause his downfall.]
Aristotelian criticism has often enlightened our understanding of Shakespeare's tragedies, but has, more often than not, judged Timon of Athens a failure as tragedy. In this play some critics see no moral significance and hence no tragedy mainly because it lacks, in their judgment, a dignified hero and catharsis as purgation of pity and fear in the audience—limitations which usually dwell only in the minds of the critics or which, even if they exist in the play itself, are not hindrances to it as a tragedy. In this essay I shall suggest another type of catharsis, catharsis as clarification of human experience, a view first set forth in English writings by Leon Golden, O. B. Hardison, Jr., and John F. Andrews. This interpretation of Aristotle is very important for the study of Timon of Athens as tragedy: it stresses our intellectual understanding of the hero's plight and our emotional responses of pity and fear for him; it allows these elements to balance themselves off against our moral or ethical clarification of Timon's motivation and action without emphasizing his moral weaknesses to the exclusion of everything...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: “Athenian Problem Play Tails Off with Bitterness.” Financial Times (27 August 1999): 12.
[In the following review, the critic emphasizes the shortcomings of Gregory Doran's 1999 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens as well as the shortcomings of Shakespeare's original play.]
“What a dreadfully dull play,” remarked the gent behind me to his companion on exiting the theatre. Whilst I would not go nearly as far as that, nevertheless an air of incompleteness hangs over Timon Of Athens: there is no record of its performance during Shakespeare's lifetime, and scholars speculate that it may be a draft or an incomplete collaborative work. The RSC has implicitly acknowledged its problematic nature, in that Gregory Doran's production is the company's first of the play since 1980.
Doran maintains a tone of campy exuberance through the first half, as we see first Timon's largesse to an endless flattering stream of Athenian dignitaries, artists and artificers, then their refusal to return his innumerable favours on discovering that his coffers have been emptied by his generosity. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis cheerfully pillages four centuries of fashion fads, so that one gorgeous lord sports spangled doublet, breeches, hose and a 1980s quiff; in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's gallery, a band plays Duke Ellington's score for the 1963 Stratford,...
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SOURCE: “To the Heart of Shakespeare's Misanthrope.” Financial Times (8 March 2000): 11.
[The following review of Gregory Doran's 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens, the critic praises the production, particularly Michael Pennington's Timon, who “gives the most superlative demonstration of virtuoso, musicianly, intelligent verse-speaking to be heard in many seasons.”]
In London and in Stratford-upon-Avon, all Shakespeare plays come round in due course. But Timon of Athens comes round so seldom that all lovers of Shakespeare will want to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's current production. And it will reward them.
You can easily tell why Timon is such a rarity in the theatre. Its language is dense and sometimes (“Hoar the flamen”) inaccessible. Shakespeare's version of fifth-century-bc Athens is largely peopled by people with first-century Roman names (Ventidius, Lucullus, Flavius, Sempronius). The first half of the plot often seems no more than a moral satire, more worthy of the pen of Ben Jonson or Molière than that of the larger-spirited Shakespeare.
Timon is generous to flatterers, prodigal with his fortune, lavish with entertainment, philanthropic by disposition. Suddenly, he finds himself bankrupt, and he learns, too late, that none of these supposed friends will help him with money. All this is shot...
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SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Lament for the Lost World.” Spectator 284, no. 8953 (11 March 2000): 49.
[In the following excerpted review, Morley applauds Gregory Doran's 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens, noting that the director celebrates this difficult play “rather than work his way around it, or even apologise for its eccentricities.”]
Timon of Athens was last seen at Stratford more than 30 years ago; the production that now comes in from there to the Barbican has Michael Pennington in place of the originally cast Alan Bates, and all the joyous fascination and intrigue of a genuine rediscovery. From the moment it opens, with a Duke Ellington jazz score written for a 1963 revival at Stratford Ontario, it is clear that Greg Doran, hottest of the new generation of RSC directors, is going to celebrate a difficult play rather than work his way around it, or even apologise for its eccentricities.
Timon starts out as the original Greek bearing gifts, and in the first half we see him spreading his fortune around Athens, flattering all and sundry regardless of their talent or honesty; unfortunately his money then runs out, and for the whole of the second half Timon takes himself into exile, moving the play in one swift interval from the glamour of unlimited wealth to the bleak existence of a Beckett tramp.
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SOURCE: Draper, R. P. “Timon of Athens.” Shakespeare Quarterly 8, no. 2 (spring 1957): 195-200.
[In the following essay, Draper examines Timon's belief in the corrupting influence of wealth.]
In the first part of Timon of Athens Timon appears as a man full of warmth, geniality and overflowing humanity. He is the incarnation of charity and hospitality, and believes in the supreme virtue of friendship, which his generosity is intended to foster. Gold plays an immensely important part throughout the play, but for Timon, before his fall, it is completely the servant of “honour” (another key-word) and of brotherly love. In the great feast of I. ii. he comes very near to enunciating an ideal of benevolent communism in which money merely provides the opportunity for men to express charity towards one another:
We are born to do benefits; and what better or properer can we call our own than the riches of our friends? O! what a precious comfort 'tis, to have so many, like brothers, commanding one another's fortunes.
(I. ii. 105-109)
At this stage Timon has complete faith in society and the altruism of mankind. The men who surround him, all except Apemantus, pretend to share his idealism, but Shakespeare leaves the audience of the play in little doubt as to their sincerity. The professional rivalry of...
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SOURCE: Fulton, Robert C., III. “Timon, Cupid, and the Amazons.” Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 283-99.
[In the following essay, Fulton studies the symbolism of the Cupid and Amazon masque figures in Timon of Athens.]
The masque of Cupid and Amazons in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens enjoys a high degree of resonance with the play which incorporates it. As in the case of contemporary masques produced at the court of James I, the significance of this show is determined by a body of interpretive tradition founded on the classical literature which invigorates the antique gods and heroes in the Renaissance. Unlike the shows at court, of course, the masque at Timon's house exists within a context created by the playwright and therefore represents part of a carefully controlled whole. My aim in this essay is to describe the nature and extent of the resonance between masque and play by taking account of Shakespeare's use of the interpretive conventions associated with his masque figures.
Cupid and the Amazons possess an iconographic doubleness common to many Renaissance mythological representations. The ambiguous quality of such classical figures is well illustrated by Edgar Wind in his discussion of the significance attached to Virgil's Venus, the deceitful mother-goddess who hides her identity from her son Aeneas in Aeneid I by disguising herself as Diana:...
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SOURCE: O'Dair, Sharon. “Aping Aristocrats: Timon of Athens and the Anticipation of Intellectuals.” In Class, Critics, and Shakespeare: Bottom Lines on the Culture Wars, pp. 43-66. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, O'Dair discusses Shakespeare's views on economics and social status as presented in Timon of Athens.]
In explaining to Roderigo why he continues to serve Othello when he no longer feels “in any just term … affin'd / To love the Moor,” Iago distinguishes between two kinds of servants and two kinds of service:
You shall mark Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave, That, doting on his own obsequious bondage, Wears out his time much like his master's ass, For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashier'd, Whip me such honest knaves: others there are, Who, trimm'd in forms, and visages of duty, Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves, And throwing but shows of service on their lords, Do well thrive by 'em, and when they have lin'd their coats, Do themselves homage, those fellows have some soul, And such a one do I profess myself.
(Othello I.i. 44-55)
Because of the injury endured in being passed over for promotion, a promotion that “by the old gradation” should have been...
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SOURCE: Hadfield, Andrew. “Timon of Athens and Jacobean Politics.” Shakespeare Survey 56 (2003): 215-26.
[In the following essay, Hadfield interprets Timon of Athens as Shakespeare's advice to King James.]
What exactly is the relationship between Shakespeare's plays and their political significance? It is clear that large political issues determine the form and content of the plays he wrote, even if their political focus and direction often appear enigmatic to commentators.1 It surely cannot be a coincidence that Shakespeare's history plays, all of which date from the 1590s (except the late collaboration Henry VIII), deal extensively and obsessively with the question of the monarch's legitimacy and the problem of the succession. These were the issues that dominated political discussions and literary representations of Elizabeth, who actively forbade her subjects to talk openly about her—and their—future.2 After 1603, Shakespeare produced a number of plays that deal with the matter of Britain—King Lear, Macbeth and Cymbeline—suggesting that his use of history had altered along with the new issues raised by James's reign.3 James's accession undoubtedly transformed the political agenda: certain approaches and burning issues were put to one side or disappeared altogether, and others came to the fore and assumed a vital new...
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Connors, Thomas. “Timon of Athens.” American Theatre 14, no. 6 (July-August 1997): 54.
Admires Michael Bogdanov's 1997 Shakespeare Repertory staging of Timon of Athens and notes that “the production was a revel in the freedom to be fresh.”
Hanna, Sara. “The Trial of Alcibiades in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens.” Classical and Modern Literature 23, no. 1 (spring 2003): 77-94.
Examines how Shakespeare departed from the historical record in his portrayal of Alcibiades.
Heilman, Robert B., ed. “Timon in Context.” In Shakespeare: The Tragedies: New Perspectives, pp. 218-31. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
Contrasts the characterization of Timon with the lead characters in Shakespeare's major tragedies.
Jackson, Ken. “‘One Wish’ or the Possibility of the Impossible: Derrida, the Gift, and God in Timon of Athens.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2001): 34-67.
Employs the theories of Jacques Derrida to interpret Shakespeare's exploration of religion in Timon of Athens.
Mellamphy, Ninian. “Wormwood in the Wood outside Athens: Timon and the Problem for the Audience.” In “Bad” Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, edited...
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