Shakespeare Saturday: Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens is a tragicomic story of a wealthy, gregarious Athenian, who is a terrible judge of character. He loses all his earthly possessions through misplaced generosity, and consequently becomes a misanthropic, histrionic recluse. It is considered another problem play, with a particularly unsatisfying denouement and slightly unfinished feel to it – it has been suggested that Shakespeare didn’t himself finish the play, and linguistic analyses have suggested that the other author to have worked on it might have been Thomas Middleton (writer most famous for his play Women beware women). It has also been speculated that this could have been the last play Shakespeare wrote, leaving it unfinished because he suffered a breakdown of some kind. Wells places this however to 1605-06, several years before Shakespeare’s career ended.

timon1Timon is generous to a fault – he pays The Old Athenian (yup, that’s the name of the character – there are lots of characters with similar monikers in this play) to make him allow his daughter to marry Timon’s servant Lucillus, and he pays the debt of his “friend” Ventidius to get him out of debtor’s prison. He is the patron of various artists and musicians and other hangers-on, all using his good nature for their own gain. The play contains two large banqueting scenes – in the first act, Timon has invited all kinds of luminaries to dine with him, and during the evening he gives lavish gifts. His servants know what he fails to see – because of this generosity, Timon has lost his entire fortune. His debtors soon appear, and he has no option but to send his servants to ask various friends for help, before approaching them himself. The friends all turn the servants away empty-handed, out of greed, meanness – and seeming vanity:

How! have they denied him?
Has Ventidius and Lucullus denied him?
And does he send to me? Three? hum!
It shows but little love or judgment in him:
Must I be his last refuge! His friends, like
Thrive, give him over: must I take the cure upon me?
Has much disgraced me in’t; I’m angry at him,
That might have known my place: I see no sense for’t,
But his occasion might have woo’d me first;
For, in my conscience, I was the first man
That e’er received gift from him:
And does he think so backwardly of me now,
That I’ll requite its last? No:
So it may prove an argument of laughter
To the rest, and ‘mongst lords I be thought a fool.
I’ld rather than the worth of thrice the sum,
Had sent to me first, but for my mind’s sake;
I’d such a courage to do him good. But now return,
And with their faint reply this answer join;
Who bates mine honour shall not know my coin.

This failure on his “friends'” part causes Timon to lose his faith in humanity – he invites all his false friends to another banquet, serving them nothing but hot water, which he throws on their faces, cursing them. After this display of anger, Timon leaves Athens and goes to live in a wilderness outside the town walls, from his hideout hissing at humanity in general and Athens in particular. He eventually finds a treasure, which brings the all usual leeches right back to him; Timon gives much of this treasure to Alcibiades to fund his attack on Athens, some of it to the two prostitutes Alcibiades brought with him so that they can go to Athens and spread STDs, and the rest to the Painter and the Poet. Timon is also visited by his fellow misanthrope Apemantus, and the two men have a misery-off, slinging insults at each other.

The secondary plot deals with the officer Alcibiades; he has pleaded on behalf of one of his soldiers who has been condemned to death (his argument being that a crime of passion should not carry the same sentence as premeditated murder, no doubt a comment on something contemporary), and consequently been banished from Athens. He swears revenge, much like Timon. As he and his barbarians are nearing Athens, two senators try to appeal to Timon in the hopes that he can call Alcibiades off; he tells them where to go. Alcibiades enters the city, promising to only punish his own enemies and those who have wronged Timon; as he marches through the city gates, the news come that Timon has died in the wilderness. Alcibiades reads out his epitaph.

Here lies a
wretched corpse, of wretched soul bereft:
Seek not my name: a plague consume you wicked
caitiffs left!
Here lie I, Timon; who, alive, all living men did hate:
Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay
not here thy gait.

timon5This is a story of a foolish and pitiful man, someone who tries and fails to find his place in the society, and is undone by the fatal flaws of his character – first his willingness to see only what he wants to see in his fellow men, and then his pride. Apemantus says tells it to him in no uncertain terms – Timon is enjoying his dramatic, histrionic, self-imposed isolation a bit too much. He should, in short, man up, come back to Athens wisened by his experiences, and find his true friends. Timon is having none of it. He wants to eat roots, roll in misery and not meet anyone, so of course he finds gold, and is interrupted by an endless stream of random visitors disturbing his lonely ranting. Somehow both in riches and in poverty, he cannot connect with other people and goes from one extreme (his blind, shallow, unquestioning generosity) to another (misandry) in his attempts to fit in the society.

As an aside, this is the only Shakespeare play that has almost no female characters; the two prostitutes making brief appearances with Alcibiades are the only ones. It’s perhaps just as well that Timon has no wife – Shakespeare didn’t write many women, but none of the ones he did would have let Timon to get on with his foolishness the way he does.

timon6Is is any good?

I actually quite like it, although it’s a play that can be ruined by staging. Still, this does feel a bit unpolished, a first draft rather than a finished piece – the story is rushed, and lacks a proper dramatic arch. There isn’t really a satisfying closure to Timon’s story; by dying off stage, he gets neither justice nor does he seem to achieve anything but self-imposed martyrdom through his time in the wilderness.

Fun fact

The first ever cinematic version of this play, I, Timon, finished filming in Australia earlier this year. Bramwell Noah both directs and plays Timon.

What say thou?

This play is not particularly famous for anything, and its text is uneven – there are long passages in prose that should be in verse, emphasising the feel that this is an abandoned draft rather than a complete work. Lots of the speech is genuinely really quite funny, giving impression that Shakespeare’s intention was to write a dark comedy, rather than the tragedy this play is often thought to be.

My favourite section is the verbal duel between Apemantus and Timon  in Act 4.

The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the
extremity of both ends: when thou wast in thy gilt
and thy perfume, they mocked thee for too much
curiosity; in thy rags thou knowest none, but art
despised for the contrary. There’s a medlar for
thee, eat it.

On what I hate I feed not.

Dost hate a medlar?

Ay, though it look like thee.

An thou hadst hated meddlers sooner, thou shouldst
have loved thyself better now. What man didst thou
ever know unthrift that was beloved after his means?

Who, without those means thou talkest of, didst thou
ever know beloved?


Best character

All the characters in this play are more or less caricatures or sketches, but I like Apemantus best. He has all the sense of humour Timon lacks, an insight into his plight that he cannot himself grasp.

For reasons best left unanalysed, I imagine Al Gore in this role.


BBC Television Shakespeare, directed by Jonathan Miller, abiding the now-familiar aesthetics of set-looking sets, dim lighting, and lots of both under and overacting. Jonathan Pryce plays a rather dim Timon.

All of the drawings are by Wyndham Lewis.

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