Timon of Athens (Vol. 89)
One of Shakespeare's least popular plays, Timon of Athens recounts the tale of Timon, a wealthy and benevolent Athenian of the fifth century b.c. whose excessive generosity eventually bankrupts him. After Timon's false friends refuse to lend him money in his time of need, he denounces humanity and leaves Athens. Timon becomes a misanthropic hermit and dies in misery at the end of the play. Scholars have cited several sources for Shakespeare's play, including Sir Thomas North's English translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579). Critics once believed that Timon was written collaboratively, but most scholars now reject this theory and consider it instead to be simply an unfinished play. Assigning a date to Timon of Athens has engaged the interest of many critics, with the majority favoring 1607 or 1608. F. W. Brownlow (1977), however, argues that there is no evidence for these dates and suggests that the play may have been Shakespeare's last work. For centuries, commentators have overwhelmingly found Timon to be a deeply flawed work; however, contemporary critics find the experimental and ambiguous nature of the play intriguing and worthy of study.
Critical analyses of Timon of Athens have generally concentrated on the play's principal character, Timon, who has been viewed as both a noble figure and as a man whose character defects make him susceptible to extremes of pride and despair. Robert B. Heilman (see Further Reading) contrasts the characterization of Timon with the lead characters in Shakespeare's major tragedies. Heilman concludes that Timon does not want to look within and that he attacks other men and the world in order to avoid self-reflection, which would reveal that his quid-pro-quo style of giving is not true charity. By contrast, D. Douglas Waters (1988) contends that Timon is a tragic figure whose tragic flaw is an excess of feelings—such as kindness, joy, and friendship. Waters notes that “Timon of Athens is a tragedy where the hero's excessive feelings destroy him by begetting prodigality, revenge, and ultimately misanthropy.” In R. P. Draper's examination of how Timon comes to believe that gold corrupts man, the critic observes that “[i]n his disillusionment Timon sees … gold as the source of all evil, that which undermines order, subverts all values, and levels all distinctions.”
Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare's least often staged works. There is no evidence that it was performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, and it remains unpopular with present-day directors. Thomas Connors (see Further Reading) admires Michael Bogdanov's 1997 Shakespeare Repertory staging of Timon of Athens and maintains that “the production was a revel in the freedom to be fresh.” Reviewing the same production, Tom Valeo (see Further Reading) notes the play's relevance to modern audiences, particularly its theme of the corrupting influence of money. According to the director, the play is “an unalleviated attack on capitalism, the most direct that Shakespeare ever made.” Paul Taylor (see Further Reading) finds much to like in Gregory Doran's “remarkably witty and penetrating” 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens. Taylor extols Michael Pennington's portrayal of Timon and contends that the “excellence of Pennington's performance lies in the way he reveals the psychological continuities between the hero's apparently opposite manifestations: the convivial host in flowing gowns and the loin-clothed outsider snarling like a wild animal.” Sheridan Morley (2000) also praises Doran's production, noting that the director celebrates this difficult play “rather than work his way around it, or even apologise for its eccentricities.”
The play's theme of the corrupting effect of wealth has interested many critics. In fact, some critics argue that Shakespeare's play is a commentary on the dehumanizing effects of money and note that Timon was Karl Marx's favorite Shakespearean play. Sharon O'Dair (2000) analyzes Shakespeare's treatment of capitalism in Timon, contending that “Marx follows Timon's analysis in emphasizing … the structurally transformative power of gold or money: not what money does to the personalities of those who have it, for one can be greedy or self-interested or mean-spirited about the exchange of cattle or pigs or women, but what money allows those who have it to do within or to society.” In a study of the play's symbolism, Robert C. Fulton III (1976) examines the negative connotations associated with the masque of the Cupid and Amazons in Act I, scene ii in Timon of Athens: “ferocity and cruelty and the disease which signals destructive lust.” Andrew Hadfield (2003) interprets Timon of Athens as Shakespeare's advice to King James. Although Hadfield stresses that the play should not “be reduced to a simple political allegory,” he finds that in it Shakespeare is urging King James to take a more Machiavellian approach to politics.