Timon of Athens
Timon of Athens, one of Shakespeare's least popular plays, eludes critical consensus on several fronts. For centuries, scholars have debated on such issues as the date of composition, Shakespeare’s authorship, and what the playwright's intentions might have been in penning such a bleak and bitter portrayal of the human condition. Many modern scholars focus on the title character, exploring the psychological motivation for Timon's generosity and his later misanthropy. A related area of study is the play's treatment of friendship; critics often link Timon's view of friendship with his fate. Other scholarly assessments are geared toward understanding Shakespeare's view of politics as revealed in Timon of Athens. While not as frequently staged as many of Shakespeare's other works, modern productions have sometimes viewed the play as a rough draft and have liberally adapted the text; other productions earn critical praise through the strength of the performances of the main characters.
Critical discussions of character in Timon of Athens typically focus on the title character. Avi Erlich (1985) contends that Timon’s self destruction is a result of his narcissism, describing the narcissistic personality as one “who will not and cannot have mature relationships.” Furthermore, Erlich identifies the masochistic qualities of Timon, stating that Timon's misanthropy is his last attempt, as a narcissist, to externalize his masochistic desires. Like Erlich, Jeremy Tambling (2000) investigates the psychological motivation for Timon's behavior, finding that it is Timon's anger and melancholy that drive both his philanthropy and misanthropy. Additionally, Tambling notes that Timon's misanthropy is focused exclusively on males, observing that Timon fails to recognize the existence of women.
Like Erlich, who examines Timon's inability to create and sustain mature relationships, other critics study Timon’s inability to form true friendships. Michael Tinker (1974) contends that Timon does not understand the meaning of friendship, and contrasts the non-material values of Flavius and Alcibiades with Timon’s empty gift-giving and “inhuman excess.” Also centering on the link between friendship and giving, John J. Ruszkiewicz (1975-76) analyzes the influence of Renaissance views on the play's theme of friendship. Ruszkiewicz finds that Timon's ideas concerning generosity do not correspond with those of Renaissance moralists, who stressed that the donor's intentions in giving had to be good, and the intended recipients must be deserving. Furthermore, the critic contends that Renaissance moralists, who relied on ancients such as Aristotle in the development of their ideas, would have described Timon's friendships as those of “use” rather true friendships based on commonality of thought and feeling. Taking another approach, Lewis Walker (1979) reviews the influence of concepts of the goddess Fortune on Timon of Athens. Walker contends that both Timon and his friends are under the control of Fortune, and states that in the play Shakespeare demonstrated “how Fortune affects relationships between human beings by presenting a thorough perversion of the ideal of true friendship.”
The topic of politics is another popular area of critical study in Timon of Athens. Leonard Goldstein (see Further Reading) is particularly concerned with the people involved in the revolt led by Alcibiades. Noting that Shakespeare neither condemned them as a mass mob nor espoused their cause, Goldstein maintains that Shakespeare's interest in the common people as an active political force evolved in Timon, and observes that Shakespeare's treatment of this group is more fair than in earlier plays. Leo Paul S. de Alvarez (1981) is also interested in the political aspects of Timon of Athens. The critic maintains that the city of Athens and its politics are the main focus of the play, which centers on the “unpleasantness and harshness” of politics.
In modern productions of Timon of Athens directors sometimes attempt to lessen the bitterness of the play's ending. Alan Armstrong (1998) observes such an attempt in Penny Metropulos's 1997 production for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Armstrong also notes that Metropulos viewed the play as a work-in-progress, and freely adapted the play in order to speed up the pace. Patrick Carnegy (1999) and Russell Jackson (2000) review Gregory Doran’s production of Timon. Carnegy’s assessment of the play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is highly favorable. The critic notes that Michael Pennington, starring as Timon, brought an intelligence and energy to the role that was greatly needed, and also praises Richard McCabe's Apemantus. In addition, Carnegy applauds the use of Duke Ellington's music, borrowed from a 1963 production, in the first part of the play. Similarly, Jackson gives high marks to both Pennington and McCabe, finding Doran's production both grand and simple.