Timon of Athens

What, you haven’t heard of this play?  At all?  Yeah, that’s not suprising.  I bet you want to pronounce it Timone of Athens, too.

And really, who can blame you for wanting that?

Well, friends, this obscure play is about a popular Athenian socialite who suddenly falls into debt and subsequently loses all of his friends.  Or rather – he descends into debt by lavishly showing kindness to all of his friends.  He pays off their debts, throws banquets and offers them gifts, and even bails one of them out of jail.  But when his creditors come upon him all at once, nobody is willing to help, and he becomes homeless.  The play is exactly as cheerful as that sounds.

He becomes understandably bitter about the situation.

Timon retreats to the wilderness, “where he shall find the unkindest beast more kinder than mankind” – echoing sentiments from As You Like It.  While addressing the evil nature of mankind, Timon revisits a lot of Shakespeare’s earlier work.  For example, when the soldier Alcibiades visits him in the wilderness, Timon talks about how humanity “engenders the black toad and adder blue, The gilded newt and eyeless venom’d worm,with all the abhorr’d birthsbelow crisp heaven,” which reminds me of MacBeth‘s witches.  And when Senators come and beg the formerly kind man to come back to the city, he describes Athenian’s lives with “fear of hostile strokes, their aches, losses Their pangs of love, with other incident throes That nature’s fragile vessel doth sustain In life’s uncertain voyage,” with parallels to Hamlet‘s most famous soliloquy.  And, especially towards the end, there are hints of Henry V where Timon asserts that every man is a sinner and therefore war is not such a dreadful thing to kill them.  So, even with the scholarly urge to question the authorship of all these diverse works, I have to say they all have a common line of thought that suggests a singular common author – though he certainly collaborated with other writers at times, the plays are distinctly all a product of him.

Sometimes, great collaborations spawn horrible art. It's just a fact of life.

These plays from the later part of Shakespeare’s life do start to take a darker tone, I’ve noticed.  Incredibly dark, but ultimately optimistic.  Timon dies alone in a cave, where he erects his own grave marker.  But Alcibiades ignores the madman’s demand to “be as a planetary plague” and kill everyone in the city when the army arrives at Athens.  Instead, the Senators surrender to the rebellious army willingly, and Alcibiades proclaims “I will use the olive with my sword.” 

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention some weird subplot that emerges where Alciabedes is exiled for defending a soldier for murdering a civilian in anger.  So he returns with an army to a city that also seems to be suffering a depression.  Again, like Hamlet, there are politcal circumstances that ambiguously but signifigantly surround the plot, and yet we are focused in on the personal conflicts of a very few characters.  To successfully produce this play, those surrounding circumstances have to be fully understood and established, whatever the director interprets them to be.  But I do think it’s a worthwhile play to produce.  It’s just very strange in its structure, and potentially heavyhanded in its rhetoric.

Look upon this human suffereing! LOOK UPON IT!

The play is basically divided in half.  Acts I-III are Timon’s opulence and decline.  Acts IV and V are about his desolation and life as a misanthrope.  Scene IV.iii is the longest in the play, where Timon happens upon a mine of gold in the earth, but freely gives all of it away instead of returning to society.  Though he once gave away his fortune out of love, he now gives it away out of love and the hope that it will tear mankind apart.  A cynical philosopher, Apemantus, is among the people who visits him.  It is a fascinating scene, where Timon takes on the visage of the bedraggled man who once harassed him at court.  When Timon angrily return’s Apemantus’ bitter philosophy, the philosopher happily replies “I love thee better now than e’er I did.”  It’s an awesome scene, where they mostly argue the idea of nature versus nurture in the development of evil in men.

Also, it's all eerily remeniscent of Waiting for Godot.

At the end of the day, it’s an interesting play.  I can see why it’s not done too often, though.  It’s certainly not the best thing that Shakespeare wrote, but it has some really beautiful bits in there that I would love to see staged, and I think it’s worth figuring out the awkward bits to see them performed.  But that’s me.

Like most of these later plays, the style abhors realism, and actually reminds me of the presentational style of ancient Greek theatre at times.  Emotions are so high throughout, and there is simply a mythical feel to Timon in his cave, harassing mankind for its cruelty.  He begins as an almost Christ-like figure, and like Christ he is destroyed by man’s selfishness.  However, instead of dying mercifully for our sins, he morphs into a subterranean, bitter, beastlike man.  Making him iconically Christ-like at the beginning will draw the audience into the horror of his transformation even more.

All the banquet scenes must therefore be staged with improbable seating arrangements.

So, I will end with this quote from Timon’s last feast, where he renounces all of the former friends who turned their back on him.  And I want you to picture Jesus saying this to his disciples, when he returns from the dead: “You knot of mouth-friends! Smoke and lukewarm water is your perfection.  This is Timon’s last: Who, stuck and spangled with your flattery, washes it off, and sprinkles in your faces Your reeking villainy.  Live loathed, and long, most smiling, smooth, detested parasites, courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears, You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies, Cap and knee slaves, vapours, and minute-jacks!”

See?  When someone of pure goodness is broken, the fall is even more terrifying.  But even after that tragic fall, Shakespeare asserts that life will go on.

See you next week with Coriolanus!

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  1. […] same way that I felt Coriolanus was a weaker version of Timon of Athens, I feel like this play is a weaker version of Merry Wives of Windsor. I can’t bring myself to […]

  2. […] characters in all of Shakespeare: Thersites, a crazy Greek bastard who’s like Falstaff and Apemantus rolled into one.  Actually, yes, I’m going to share some of my favorite lines in the play […]

  3. […] proves to be a more violent, more brutal treatment of court politics and human madness.  Like Timon of Athens, there is a more realistic, lacking any singular villain conspiring against the hero, and the hero […]

  4. […] echoed often in Shakespeare’s work, especially in his villains.  As in the overly cynical Timon of Athens, and deeply flawed Coriolanus, the play asks deep and disturbing questions about the nature of life […]



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