Timon of Athens Timon Of Athens (Vol. 27)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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The publication in 1930 of G. Wilson Knight's highly laudatory study of Timon of Athens in The Wheel of Fire engendered a renewed interest in the drama. One of the most significant debates among succeeding critics has centered on the play's unity. In an authoritative essay, H. J. Oliver (1959) echoed one of the nineteenth century's leading Shakespearean critics, William Hazlitt, and praised the work as unified in both design and concept. F. W. Brownlow (1977) advocated the conceptual coherence of the drama as well, finding its tone predominantly dark and satirical. Many critics have extended this discussion of the play's unity to include the question of whether or not the text—as it appears in the First Folio—is complete. Most contemporary scholars agree that it is unfinished, and some have maintained that, in writing Timon, Shakespeare struggled with subject matter that ultimately proved resistant to the dramatic form. Oliver suggested that the biggest obstacles the playwright encountered were both the lack of dramatic conflict inherent in the tale, which sees Timon responding to adversity by removing himself from societal contact, and the lack of psychological depth in the title character himself, who moves abruptly from generosity to misanthropy. John Bayley (1981) found Timon "too extreme," and declared the concept of such a radical change in psychology "tyrannical," and thus, unfit for Shakespearean tragedy. Noting the incompatibility between Timon's antisocial nature and the dramatic need for character interaction, Richard Fly (1976) determined that with Timon Shakespeare was intentionally testing the limitations of drama. Fly focused on the play's experimental and metadramatic features, including the extreme domination of a title character who offers little insight into his own character and who remains separate from his society, and concluded that the play "marks a climactic juncture in Shakespeare's restless exploration into his demanding medium."

To which genre Timon of Athens properly belongs has been one of the most controversial questions among recent commentators of the play. The work has been interpreted variously as black comedy, a parable, or an allegory containing pronounced similarities to the masque form. Brian Vickers (1968) has attempted to synthesize a number of these approaches, suggesting that Shakespeare adapted several literary conventions in the construction of the work. A number of critics, however, have argued that the drama is primarily a tragical satire. Alvin Kernan (1959), for example, characterized Timon as Shakespeare's most thorough-going exploration of the satiric mode of life. Robert C. Elliott (1960) posited the influence of classical and Renaissance satire on the biting humor and extreme use of invective in the language of Timon and Apemantus. Highlighting the drama's medieval antecedents, David M. Bergeron (1967) focused on the play's abstract nature and compared it with the late morality drama Everyman (c. 1500). The critic concluded that, although the protagonists of these two dramas both face desertion by their friends and the loss of their wealth, they differ significantly in their responses to misfortune. For Everyman, knowledge of humanity inspires spiritual salvation, for Timon, it yields an implacable misanthropy.

In assessing Shakespeare's handling of language in Timon, most critics agree that much of the verse is highly uneven; however, several scholars have perceived in it poetry of intense artistry. Bayley, acknowledging the limited subject matter of the verse, which focuses primarily on one man's obsession, argued that its concision and compactness reveal "Shakespearean mastery." Harold S. Wilson (1957) determined that "the speeches of Timon himself … reflect Shakespeare's fullest poetic power." During the following decades, many commentators have contended that the title character's language mirrors his heightened mental state: as his hatred of mankind intensifies, so too...

(The entire section is 85,831 words.)