By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
For the influential Shakespeare critic G. Wilson Knight, Timon of Athens was the most remarkable of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Yet for most readers and critics of William Shakespeare’s work, there’s no getting away from the fact that the general view is that Timon of Athens is one of the least satisfying, successful, or ‘great’ of all of Shakespeare’s tragic plays.
What follows is an attempt to provide some analysis of Timon of Athens, focusing on the text, the characters, and the key themes of the play. For there is immediately one good reason why it’s worth reading and studying Timon of Athens: it appears to give us a glimpse of a Shakespeare play at the ‘draft’ stage, before it was either abandoned or written up into a more polished (and sadly, lost) version.
Starting with the text seems like a good idea. Frank Kermode in his Shakespeare’s Language, one of the best books on Shakespeare’s plays that pay close attention to the language of the texts, argues that the play as we have it was unfinished: several scenes in the middle of the play were drafted or ‘roughed out’ by Shakespeare (or possibly by his likely collaborator, Thomas Middleton), but never written up properly.
Timon of Athens was included in the First Folio of 1623, the first ‘collected works’ of Shakespeare gathering together all (or nearly all) of his plays; but it’s been suggested that it very nearly wasn’t going to be, and its inclusion was a result of Troilus and Cressida having to be removed from the Folio after it had already been typeset (supposedly for the seventeenth-century equivalent of copyright problems), meaning the printers needed another play to fill the gap. (As it was, Timon was too short to fill all of the space, which explains why copies of the First Folio contain a number of blank pages.)
Whether Shakespeare was solely responsible for Timon of Athens – which is thought to have been written around 1605 – or whether, as is now widely claimed of Macbeth (from around a year later), parts of the play were written by the younger playwright, Thomas Middleton, critics cannot agree. Certainly the play has a rough, uneven feel to it, but then the bits that Shakespeare is (pretty certainly) thought to have written are among the roughest, namely the final two acts.
Some critics believe the play was worked on, and then abandoned without ever being staged, perhaps when Shakespeare realised something wasn’t quite working with it. Even if it was staged, it’s hard to see how it could have played well to an original Jacobean audience (and a modern adaptation would similarly struggle). What went wrong with this play?
The role of Alcibiades in Timon of Athens
The fate of Alcibiades, Timon’s friend, is clearly meant to mirror that of Timon himself. When Alcibiades is banished from Athens for speaking out against the senators, Timon exiles himself from the city for the senators’ and lords’ failure to come to his aid when he needed them. While Alcibiades raises an army against Athens, Timon rails ineffectually against the city from his self-imposed exile.
Despite Timon’s rudeness to him when he goes to find his former friend in his cave in the woods, Alcibiades remains loyal to Timon, vowing to kill his friend’s enemies at the end of the play, and praising Timon’s ‘noble’ qualities.
Timon refuses to take up arms against Alcibiades when the senators attempt to lure him back to Athens to suppress the rebellion (there’s a suggestion here that Timon was once a great general and leader of men), although that’s got less to do with any loyalty he feels towards Alcibiades and has more to do with Timon’s antipathy towards everyone.
The influential critic William Empson wrote an essay, ‘Timon’s Dog’ (in his The Structure of Complex Words (Penguin literary criticism)), about the importance of the word ‘dog’ in Timon of Athens. It’s a word that keeps coming at us, and is buried etymologically in Apemantus’ philosophy (he’s a Cynic, a school of classical philosophy named for the ancient Greek for ‘dog’).
Empson concludes that although the word ‘dog’ recurs in the play, it never quite attains the status of a meaningful and profound symbol.
This is partly because of the rushed and unfinished aspects of Timon of Athens. Elsewhere, as Empson shows, words like ‘fool’ (in King Lear) and ‘honest’ (in Othello) are pressed into complex service, meaning often ambiguous or even contradictory things (the Fool in King Lear is the wisest person in the play; Lear himself is a fool, etc.).
In Timon of Athens, the word ‘dog’ – used by Apemantus about Timon’s friends and flatterers, is meant as an insult, but as Empson points out, dogs flatter men because they want attention, but also out of genuine affection.
What’s more, later in the play dogs are placed above men, and are seen as something man should aspire to: ‘Give to dogs / What thou deniest to men’ (IV.3), Timon tells Flavius.
Sources for Timon of Athens
The story of Timon of Athens is found in a number of classical texts, although chiefly in Plutarch’s Lives and in Lucian’s satirical dialogues. Lucian – who has a claim to being the inventor of science fiction, appears to have been the originator of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice tale, and is one of the sources for Pheidippides’ epic run after the Battle of Marathon – tells the story of Timon of Athens in strikingly similar terms to those used by Shakespeare. However, Shakespeare makes one subtle but important change.
When Lucian’s Timon finds the gold, he keeps it and denies it to the people who come flocking to see him, once they learn he has struck gold and once more has wealth to shower upon them.
For Shakespeare’s Timon, the gold is a symbol of everything that is wrong with men and the world as it is, and he’s only too glad to give it away to many of the people who visit him, encouraging them to spread the corruption among Athens, much as he urges the two prostitutes to spread venereal disease.
Shakespeare realised the neatness in having the latter part of the play mirror the former, with Timon giving away his gold in a recklessly excessive and liberal fashion; except his ‘generosity’ in the latter half springs from hatred of the people he gives it to, rather than fondness.
Final comments on Timon
Timon of Athens reads as something of an experiment, whether because the copy that’s come down to us is unfinished, or because that’s how it was always meant to be. Should we categorise the play as a tragedy (Timon does, after all, die at the end of the play, and ‘falls’ because his tragic flaw, his inability to recognise the true nature of his friends, precipitates his decline into madness and then death)? Many critics do. Or shall we see it as bitter satire?
There’s a case for that too. It’s hardly surprising that more than one critic has analysed Timon of Athens as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, the chief problem being the problem of categorisation.
Timon’s long rants in acts IV and V are of a length and intensity unlike anything else we see in Shakespeare, although some of Lear’s speeches come close. This is not to say that Timon’s speeches are greater than Lear’s – far from it – nor that Timon of Athens is the better play (no critic, not even Karl Marx, would dare claim such a thing).
But Timon of Athens does deserve reading, staging, and studying, not only because it shows the corrupting nature of wealth and a money-obsessed, materialistic society (as many critics and editors of Timon have pointed out, Elizabethan and Jacobean nobles used to go in for what would later be called ‘conspicuous consumption’, turning up at the royal court wearing eye-wateringly expensive jewellery, robes, codpieces, and the like).
No: Timon of Athens is also an interesting play, worthy of interpretation and close analysis, precisely because it is one of Shakespeare’s experiments, and the fact that it doesn’t quite work is partly what makes it valuable.