Critical Evaluation

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One of William Shakespeare’s most neglected plays, Timon of Athens has only rarely been performed. The reasons for its unpopularity include its strongly bitter tone and its lack of an emotionally satisfying ending. Further, the play has many elements that are uncharacteristic of Shakespeare’s work: clashing themes, irregular verse passages, confused character names, and a shallow central character. For these reasons, scholars long suspected that Timon of Athens was a collaborative effort. Modern scholars, however, hold that the play’s problems arose because Shakespeare wrote it himself, but never polished it because he left it unfinished. His reasons for abandoning the play are not known, but inferences may be drawn from the play’s curious nature.

Timon of Athens defies easy classification. As a bleak tale about a once kind man who dies a bitter misanthrope, the play appears to be a tragedy. What leads to Timon’s financial ruin and ultimate destruction is, ironically, the generosity that permits him to rise high in Athenian society. His sudden and deep fall points up the fateful vulnerability of human existence—a nearly universal theme in tragedy. Despite this tragic motif, the play has many characteristics of traditional comedy. Because of its unusual blend of tragedy and comedy, it is now regarded not only as a curious experiment but also as an important transitional phase in Shakespeare’s mature writing career.

There are several reasons for regarding Timon of Athens as a comedy. The play’s savage depiction of greed, hypocrisy, and duplicity among the Athenian nobility constitutes the kind of social satire that became a dramatic staple in seventeenth century England. The immorality of the ruling classes was itself one of Shakespeare’s own favorite themes. The theme is demonstrated here in the actions of the governors of Athens, who ruin Timon by cruelly calling in his debts. When they banish Alcibiades merely for seeking clemency for a deserving veteran, they expose Athens to the threat of his sacking the city. Later, after Timon is known again to have wealth, they hypocritically try to recruit him to defend the city against Alcibiades.

The play’s satire is expressed most powerfully through the voice of Timon’s friend Apemantus, who frequently utters crude jokes about wealthy men and government leaders. The sheer viciousness of his remarks is in itself often comical. Even more telling, however, is the play’s use of a traditional device for ending comedies: reconciliation. However, it is not Timon himself who achieves a reconciliation but Alcibiades—who gives up his plan to sack Athens. In rejecting vengeance, Alcibiades expresses the play’s ultimate theme: that mercy is more valuable than justice. This strongly positive conclusion contrasts sharply with the harshly negative manner in which Timon ends his life.

What makes this oddly ambiguous play most significant within Shakespeare’s dramatic work is the timing of its composition. Hard evidence for dating the play is lacking, but Shakespeare most likely wrote it around 1606 to 1608. These years immediately followed the period in which he wrote the three dramas that have become known as his “problem plays”—Troilus and Cressida (pr. 1601-1602, pb. 1609), All’s Well That Ends Well (pr. c. 1602-1603, pb. 1623), and Measure for Measure (pr. c. 1604, pb. 1623). All three plays are unresolved examinations of psychological and sociological complications of life, sex, and death. Timon of Athens resembles them in its own ambiguities and its attention to the issues of atonement and reconciliation.

Shakespeare wrote many plays in the tradition of medieval morality plays, which combined comedy with moral lessons in order to educate audiences. The central lesson of Timon of Athens is that one cannot find...

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happiness in leading a materialistic life, such as Timon lives until his downfall. While he is financially able to give great feasts and lavish expensive gifts on friends, he believes himself happy and well loved. Only after his money runs out does he realize the shallowness of his happiness. Even then, however, he still fails to recognize true friendship when it is offered by his faithful steward, Flavius. Thus, in contrast to traditional morality plays,Timon of Athens does not end with its hero finding happiness by learning how to appreciate more spiritual values. Instead, Timon declines even deeper into despair and dies miserably. The play thus begins with Timon symbolizing friendship and ends with him symbolizing misanthropy.

Whatever Shakespeare’s intentions were when he began Timon of Athens, the play served as an experiment in which to work out new themes. After abandoning it, he wrote the plays known as his romances: Pericles, Prince of Tyre (pr. c. 1607-1608, pb. 1609), Cymbeline (pr. c. 1609-1610, pb. 1623), The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611, pb. 1623), and The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623). Like Timon of Athens, these plays explore such themes as exile and return, the absence of moral absolutes, and the transcendent quality of mercy.

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Timon of Athens (1606-08)