Timon of Athens nestles rather uncomfortably amongst the undisputed tragic masterpieces Shakespeare was writing at the time. I think it is, without doubt, an unfinished play – an early draft of a project that Shakespeare gave up on. There are certain unfinished works that exert a fascination purely because they are unfinished: when one looks at the unfinished Michelangelo sculptures, say, one gets a sense of figures struggling to be freed from the marble – one’s imagination is awed by what they might be. But there’s little of that in Timon of Athens, which is really for the Shakespeare specialist only. Presumably, Shakespeare must have seen some potential in this material since he went as far as to prepare at least a complete first draft, but it is easier to see why he abandoned it rather than why he started it in the first place. Maybe, had he continued with it, his extraordinary genius might have made something of it, but for those of us lacking his vision, it is all but impossible to imagine what figures might have struggled out of this marble. Were the early drafts of Othello or King Lear, one wonders, similarly unremarkable?
The main problem with the play is that it lacks drama. And, as far as I can see, it lacks even the potential for drama, although presumably Shakespeare felt otherwise. The plot is simple: Timon is a noble Athenian lord, who, in his prodigal generosity, hands out lavish gifts to one and all. But when he needs money himself, all his false friends desert him: only his steward remains loyal. So he turns against mankind, leaves Athens to take up residence in nearby woods (the same enchanted woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps, but there’s no hint of enchantment here), and spends the last two acts of the play cursing mankind till he dies.
Now, what on earth did Shakespeare see in all this? Yes, I can appreciate that Timon’s tragedy is not that he is reduced to poverty, but that he loses faith in humanity; I can see some potential also in the figure of the steward, whose loyalty to his fallen master recalls the loyalty of Kent or of Gloucester (or even, perhaps, of Cordelia) to Lear. But there is no drama in any of this because, as Apemantus (a cynical philosopher who seems to have wandered in from Troilus and Cressida) points out, Timon is a character who changes merely from one extreme to another: there is no middle. There is, indeed, no journey: first he is at one extreme, and then, we see him at the other. When faced with the crisis, Timon merely opts out: he merely cuts himself off from life – and there is no drama in that. Timon’s curses are impressive enough, but there doesn’t seem to be any real dramatic context for them. Neither does there seem any proper dramatic context for Timon’s magnificent final speech (the one memorable piece of dramatic verse in the entire play, as far as I could see), in which he bids language itself to come to an end.
The subplot, involving Alcibiades, seems to be tacked on in a haphazard manner. Although Alcibiades is introduced early, the scene which kicks off the subplot seems to come out of the blue in the third act. One can see his relevance in the play: both he and Timon are ungratefully rejected by the city that they had once served, but where Timon merely opts out and curses, Alcibiades takes action, and does something about it. But the very casual way that this strand is introduced seems very odd: somehow, it doesn’t seem to fit with Timon’s story.
Who knows what Shakespeare had in mind for the finished version of this play! But I’d hazard a guess that whatever it was, Shakespeare abandoned this project because he found in his next play, King Lear, a better vehicle for his tragic vision. Timon of Athens remains merely a curiosity for the specialist.