TIMON OF ATHENS
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 does the degree of violence and hyperbole contained in his maledictions. Moreover, as his disgust with humankind escalates, so does his use of animal imagery in describing man's descent into beastliness.
The enigmatic nature of Timon's character has continued to intrigue critics. Since the eighteenth century, two interpretations have emerged: Timon has been perceived either as a noble, generous figure who is wronged by an unjust society; or, he has been viewed as a flawed figure who is deceived by his need for adulation and recognition. Until the early twentieth century, many critics viewed Timon as an ideal Renaissance aristocrat who is unfairly treated by his friends and subsequently turns into a misanthrope. By the latter half of the twentieth century, however, many scholars had begun to see Timon as an imperfect character who possesses few noble qualities. Representative of this perspective is David Cook (1963), who found Timon "pictured as flagrantly wrong-headed in both halves of the play" and "too negative a vehicle for [Shakespeare's] thinking." By contrast, Kenneth Muir (1972) argued that Timon gains the sympathy of the audience because "he is so much nobler than his environment. Athens is a corrupt society, mean, sordid, and hypocritical, its values entirely commercial. Timon himself … is entirely unaware of the nature of the society in which he lives."
Exploring the classical background of the drama has marked another area of emphasis for modern critics. Scholars generally agree that Shakespeare drew the Timon story primarily from two classical sources: Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, and Lucian's dialogue Timon, or the Misanthrope. In the mid-1980s, John M. Wallace introduced a more obscure source into the critical arena, Seneca's De Beneficiis, asserting that this Latin work influenced the playwright's conceptions of gift-giving and the evil of ingratitude. Wallace determined that Shakespeare examined the feasibility of the Senecan model through the character of Timon, ultimately proving that his source text "was a primer of old-fashioned, un-workable nonsense." In addition, several other critics have concentrated on the portrayal of Athens in Timon, noting that Renaissance writers, who were influenced primarily by Roman accounts, tended to regard Greek society as decadent and unstable. In particular, Howard B. White (1970) and Robert S. Miola (1980) found Shakespeare's choice of an Athenian setting appropriate to his examination of betrayal and deceit. White maintained that corruption in the world of the play is limited to the circle of societal rulers and their flatterers, and argued that their ungratefulness "shows the decay of Athens, its commercialization and its covetousness." In exploring the Renaissance conceptions of a lawless and violent Athens, Miola concluded that the playwright drew upon these images to demonstrate his aversion to the democratic system, which he believed encourages the abandonment of rank and authority, permits such moral wrongs as unjust banishments and flagrantly excessive banquets, and leads to a self-deceiving and animalistic society.
Some of the most suggestive criticism of the play has sought to place it in the light of social and cultural forces operating in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. M. C. Bradbrook (1966), for example, averred that Timon was written by Shakespeare in response to his theatrical company's move from a medieval open-air stage to London's Blackfriars Theatre, the indoor playhouse where the drama was performed late in 1609. According to Bradbrook, Timon is "the work of a theatrical craftsman, [a] new experimental approach to an indoor lighted stage." Seeking to illuminate the intellectual background of the play, Lewis Walker (1977) explored the Renaissance concept of Fortune, and concluded that the goddess's influence on the world of the play is "malignant," as she perverts the notion of friendship through her controlling presence. Coppélia Kahn (1987) applied the techniques of feminism and new historicism to Timon in order to uncover links between the portrayal of power in the play and the exercising of power during the reigns of Elizabeth and James. Kahn suggested that Shakespeare made use of the contemporary cultural practices of usury and gift-giving in order to examine the ways in which power was distributed among courtiers.