Timon of Athens
This is a tragedy that largely seems to go nowhere. It’s based on a well-known ancient story that appears in Lucian’s Dialogues and other places, but ultimately the character of Timon is developed in one direction and then more or less dropped. Many have thought it incomplete. It details Timon’s extensive and pitiable suffering, but ultimately he becomes something worse than what he has been made, and he winds up being contemptible and bitter.
It is also fairly crude in spots: be prepared. Some parental supervision will perhaps be necessary or useful.
For all that, however, there are some good things in the play, some fine speeches that can be detached and examined, and some interesting thought about undiscriminating largesse and the like. How much of Timon’s fall is his own fault? Why or how can he not be rehabilitated when he recovers his wealth? The problem of the play, in some respects, is poised between the practical reality that has defeated Timon (his spendthrift ways and subsequent penury) and the psychological realities that dwarf and ultimately outlast his bad condition.
Things to consider while reading Timon of Athens
As always, the first question has to be, “What is this play really about?” It’s not necessarily intuitively obvious. Peter Brook posed the distinction between two interpretive possibilities: is it about Timon, or is it about Athens? That is, is it focusing on the personal and private costs of a failed civic relationship between the man and his state (in this case, city-state), or is it examining the civic costs of such a similar failure? What’s the difference between those two perspectives? Is the disjunction actually necessarily exclusive? Can it be about both at once?
Beyond that, and in keeping with the thematic question of the day, what kind of plot does this play have? What are your expectations of a plot — any plot — and how does this meet (or fail to meet) those expectations? Is it satisfactory? Does it have an overall shape or arc that makes sense? Do you wind up at the end with any kind of enhanced awareness of much of anything?
Does the relentlessly negative and cynical tone simply make this play too corrosive to be endured? In keeping with that, what’s the role of Ademantus? He is either a sage or a clown: perhaps he is really both. (Shakespeare’s fools are perpetually founts of oracular wisdom.) Do you like him? Do you find his advice or perspectives appropriate to your own lives? Do they seem revealing in the context of the play?
There is no record of the play ever having been performed during Shakespeare’s life, and there is considerable reason to think that (despite its canonical division into five acts) that it was not really a complete product. It emerged later in the process of publishing Shakespeare’s plays. It’s worth questioning whether it really is complete or not, and whether it legitimately can claim to be in a state to be performed. Is this a complete work at all? What kind of evidence would you bring to bear on that discussion?
Timon of Athens and what has come before
- How is this tragedy? If you accept Aristotelian terms on such things, it may be worth asking yourself whether there is any real fall from greatness here. The question may be useful even if you don’t buy Aristotle’s terms.
- Timon of Athens might well be seen as a rather special case of the Renaissance revenge tragedy. We’ve already seen a few of these: Hamlet, Othello, and Titus Andronicus are all cast in that mold, though in radically different ways. Timon turns bitter toward those whom he formerly benefitted, but who rebuffed him in his need, but his overflowing vengeance ultimately sweeps out to take in all of Athens.
- Many compare this play to King Lear, and in some ways the comparison is obvious and apt. Like Lear, Timon bullheadedly persists in a flattering policy — one of flattery and being flattered — against the better advice of all the sensible people around him. When he crashes and burns through simple gross mismanagement, he rails against the world (or in this case, Athens). Unlike Lear, however, who simply suffers largely and conspucuously for his failings, he determines on a course of vengeance against the city and people he had previously considered friends. Unlike Lear, too, he regains his practical power in the real world through finding the new stash of gold, but it does him no real good. What differences can be picked out here?
- The story of Timon was, in the first place, more or less aphoristic. People knew about it, and didn’t know exactly where the source was to be found. The story of Timon was a kind of fable about profligate giving and spending, and the bad consequences it might lead to.
- Possibly the proximate source of Shakespeare’s version was another earlier Elizabethan play (generally dated no earlier than 1602); we don’t know its source, but at least some of the text survives. This version emphasizes (more than Shakespeare’s does) the dissolute life Timon himself is leading before his fall from status, and hence can be taken more as a moral discussion of the virtues of frugality and propriety.
- Plutarch’s Parallel Lives does not contain s specific entry devoted to Timon as such, but he is mentioned fairly extensively in the life of Mark Antony, as a kind of prototype of one who has lived the wastrel life.
- Less accessible to Shakespeare, since it had not been widely circulated in English translation in the day, but still known, and certainly more entertaining, is the dialogue written by Lucian of Samosata, a second-century Assyrian author (from modern Turkey) who wrote excellent Attic Greek. His telling of the Timon story is more humorous than depressing: it contains various sardonic comments by the gods (chiefly Zeus and Hermes), and ends with Timon getting his pay-back by pelting all his false friends with rocks. He seems to be in a sour mood at the end, but is still quite alive, and actually seems to be enjoying his revenge. You can find it here at the Internet Sacred Texts Archive. Scholars Online Greek III students will have encountered and abbreviated version of the story in Freeman and Lowe’s A Greek Reader for Schools.
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- The theme of flattery and the indulgence of flattery is of course foremost in the play. There’s no part it doesn’t touch at some point.
- Revenge — again, one of only a handful of basic and enduring dramatic motivations. It does not appear till the midpoint of the play, but it dominates in the second half.
Symmetries in the play
- The obvious parallel that dominates in the play is that between the two characters who have been ill-used by their native Athens, and return to plague it in one way or the other. Alcibiades fulfills the function of a kind of chorus at the end of the play, providing some interpretive details and (more or less conventional) reflections, but he is not only that. He presents a different, contrasting picture of vengeance and payback.
- The various servants, faithful and unfaithful, create fairly obvious parallels to several New Testament parables — especially the one regarding the unjust servant who collects bills on behalf of his master.
- Love vs. hatred. What constitutes real love here? Timon denigrates his servants who attempt to warn him off his excessive and undiscriminating philanthropy, praising instead the lavish liberality he fancies to be the order of the day, while he’s still well-positioned. When his house of cards comes tumbling down, however, it is these same servants, rather than those on whom he’s bestowed his largesse, who remain and provide him some aid.
Problems in the play
- What is the direction of the plot? Is there a point to it? Is there anything redeemable about the story? Do you find the conclusion of the story satisfactory or unsatisfactory?
- How seriously should we take any of this? Is some of its impulse essentially comedic?
- Is any element of this play to be taken in a political sense?
- What does the play have to say about patronage? About philanthropy? Does it contain a moral message, or any kind of advice we would do well to follow?
- To what extent does Timon curb or repent of his vengeance at the end?
Contents of this page © Copyright 2008, 2011, 2014 by Bruce A. McMenomy.