Timon of Athens
One of Shakespeare's least popular plays, Timon of Athens recounts the tale of Timon, a rich and benevolent nobleman of Athens in the fifth century b.c. After Timon's excessive generosity bankrupts him, he turns to his friends for help. When Timon's false friends refuse to return his generosity, he denounces humanity and leaves Athens. A misanthropic hermit for the rest of his life, he dies in misery at the end of the play. Although Timon is believed to have been written about 1607, there is no evidence that the play was performed during Shakespeare's lifetime; indeed, it is almost universally considered unfinished. Although considered a tragedy, Timon of Athens is often called a morality play and includes some comic elements as well. For centuries, commentators have overwhelmingly found Timon deeply flawed and have tried to excuse the play as merely a sketch, an experiment, only partially the work of Shakespeare, or ravaged by poor transmission. Contemporary critics, however, find the experimental and ambiguous nature of the play intriguing and worthy of study. Some areas of critical discussion include the play's sources, the character of Timon, and the themes of money and friendship. Timon of Athens continues to be unpopular on the stage and had few performances during the twentieth century.
Critical analyses of Timon of Athens have generally concentrated on the play's principal character, Timon. Sandra K. Fischer (1994) considers Timon Shakespeare's most “economic” play, and examines Timon's character in light of his “economic faults.” Fischer finds Timon an unsatisfying hero whose failure lies in his inability to receive. The critic contends that Timon does not learn his economic lessons, and that “by the end of the play, Timon still fails to understand the true nature and right use of money.” Karen Newman (1996) examines Timon's use of language in the play, and contends that he is a “visionary poet engaged in a dialogue with the universe.” Newman claims that Timon's gifts are linguistic, and that in the second half of the play his words become “misanthropic poetic gifts.” W. H. Auden (2000) calls Timon a “pathological giver” whose giving is motivated by selfishness and a desire to feel superior to others. Auden contends that when Timon's power—his ability to give—is taken away, he falls into “a state of powerless hatred.” Robert B. Heilman (see Further Reading) maintains that Timon does not want to look within and that he harangues other men and the world in order to avoid self-reflection and acknowledging that his quid pro quo style of giving is not true charity.
There is no evidence that Timon of Athens was performed during Shakespeare's lifetime, and it was infrequently performed in the centuries that followed. Timon remains unpopular with present-day directors, not only because the play seems unfinished but also because its characters are somewhat superficial. While some directors attempt to alleviate the unremitting bleakness of the second half of the play, James Torrens (1994) contends that modern audiences are not put off by the “dark and scathing” side of Shakespeare. Torrens reviews Michael Langham's National Theatre production of Timon of Athens, claiming that “against all odds” it enthralled Broadway audiences. Ben Brantley (1996) reviews Brian Kullick's Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival production of the play. Kullick admires the inventiveness shown by both the director and the designers of this particularly imaginative production, but acknowledges a lack of connection between the characters and the audience. Stephen Wall (1999) offers a rather negative review of Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens. Wall finds the use of Duke Ellington's music inappropriately pleasant, some of the stage effects “merely illustrative,” and Michael Pennington's Timon lacking in the required “full ferocity” of hate. Patrick Carnegy (1999) also reviews Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company production, but calls the production “a superb staging.” Carnegy praises Michael Pennington's Timon and approves of Duke Ellington's music in the first half of the play.
One of the central themes of Timon of Athens centers on money. Derek Cohen (1993) examines the theme of having and not having money, and explores how one's identity is determined by his or her wealth in the play. Cohen credits Shakespeare with rejecting the “naturalness” of the powerful class having great wealth and for delving into the political roots of greed. The critic contends that it is Timon's realization of the corrupting effect of money on society that leads to his misanthropy. Maria Teresa Michaela Prendergast (2000) notes the lack of female characters in the play and examines the work in terms of the misogynistic practices of early Jacobean culture. Prendergast contends that Timon represses women and displaces his desire for women with a desire for gold in order to establish “absolute male autonomy.” James C. Bulman, Jr. (1976) examines Shakespeare's sources for Timon. Bulman notes that Shakespeare used Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives (1579) and Lucian's second-century work Timon the Misanthrope as sources for his play, but contends that Shakespeare's chief source was an English academic comedy known as Timon. Thomas Cartelli (1985) contends that critics have dismissed Timon of Athens because it does not fit into the mold of what prevailing critical consensus says a Shakespearean tragedy “is or should be, does or should do.” However, Cartelli contends that Shakespeare deliberately refused to accommodate the conventional expectations of tragedy, and calls the play a “radical experiment in the psychology of theatrical experience.”