Timon of Athens Timon of Athens (1606-08)
by William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens (1606-08)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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Victor Kiernan, University of Edinburgh

If the unrestricted competition, the struggle of each against all, that was taking hold of Shakespeare's England may be seen through a glass darkly in earlier plays of his, in Timori of Athens it comes openly, raucously, into the foreground. Here the new social system is firmly established: it is in control of the State, able to dictate its own laws and mould social conduct. A story to crystallize this new mode of life could not be easy to find, and the one Shakespeare hit on gave him a poor drama, though a good enough platform for social criticism. Not all the text we have can be from his pen, though agreement is hard to reach about what is authentic and what is not. If critical opinion of late has favoured a view of the Folio text as derived from 'a not-quite-finished manuscript of Shakespeare' probably dating from 1607 (Soellner 186, 201), it has surely been too easy-going. Many have thought it, with its frequent unmetrical lines and crudities, and its prose in particular, a rough draft only (e.g. Muir, Sequence 187-8). If so, it tells us something of Shakespeare's working methods, and indicates that composition did not always come easily to him. One suggestion has been that a good deal had to be cut out because the Essex rising of 1601 made the staging of any kind of revolt indiscreet (Jorgesen 279-80). But Alcibiades' coup d'état is shown in full and given the author's blessing. Essex has probably been blamed for too many things.

A different guess might be a wholesale shift of time and place, for political reasons, such as Massinger made when he transferred his Believe As You List from modern Portugal to ancient Rome. Another conceivable interpretation would be that Shakespeare was seized by an impulse to return to narrative poetry, this time in the lately fashionable vein of satire, as a means of working off his feelings about contemporary abuses. Oscar J. Campbell finds in Timon some of the same 'satirical devices' made use of in several plays by Jonson (183). But if this was the case Shakespeare found his material swelling too much, and could not help drifting back to drama, with a poet's sketch in the opening scene of an intended work on the fall of someone resembling Timon—perhaps Shakespeare's own plan, turned into a kind of dumb-show introduction.

Soellner finds the play 'deliberately anchored in a pessimistic intellectual tradition' (12); Hazlitt, who may be said to belong to this tradition himself, and had a good share of Timon's misanthropy, declared the play to be 'written with as intense a feeling' as any work of Shakespeare (47). In this light it is tempting to see Timon as the successor of Lear, as Bradley did (Tragedy, 246-7; cf. Farnham 7). Both men have succumbed to the sweet poison of flattery; both come to grief through too liberal giving, one bestowing his kingdom, the other his fortune, on undeservers. Timon may have been given some furious tirades for which there was no room in King Lear, but with none of the wild grandeur of the Lear story to justify them. Lear is driven out into the wilderness; Timon turns his back on the city and walks out into a desert conveniently close by, to discharge his storms of invective. Shakespeare's disgust with mankind, which strains King Lear to the limits of dramatic form, here overflows them altogether; it is a play virtually without a plot. Timon has far too little warrant for his indiscriminate excommunication of mankind, and—lacking inspired madness—even less opportunity than Lear to have acquired the detailed familiarity with human depravity which he suddenly displays. It is clearly the author himself who is finding vent for feelings of his own, inflamed by awareness of similar indignation among many others. There is no lack of evidence elsewhere that Shakespeare sometimes suffered from such inflamed moods, at the opposite pole from his keen relish at other times of life among his fellow-men. It was a fundamental of his nature to be...

(The entire section is 6,837 words.)