Archive for September 8th, 2021

Revisiting “Timon of Athens”

Timon of Athens is not a play often revisited, and for rather obvious reasons. A bare outline of the plot, such as it is, seems most unpromising: a wealthy and generous Athenian hosts lavish feasts, and showers his friends, of whom there are many, with extravagant gifts, but when he is in financial trouble himself, his friends decide they aren’t his friends any more and turn their backs on him; and this prodigal Athenian, now disabused, leaves the city to live in the wilderness, cursing mankind till he meets his death, offstage, for reasons unspecified. It’s a rather simple morality tale, pointing to rather trite and simplistic morals: do not be a spendthrift; do not put too much trust in other people; humans are ungrateful by nature; and so on – nothing, one might have thought, to interest a major literary artist. And neither does the plot leave much space for character development: Timon is first one thing, and then its complete opposite. As Apemantus says to him:

The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends.

Instead of depicting the dynamic development of a character, we are presented with two contrasting tableaux, neither of which, being static, is particularly dramatic.

It is hard to determine when Shakespeare wrote this, as there is neither a record of a performance in Shakespeare’s own lifetime, nor any Quarto publication; nor even any documentation relating to it before it made its appearance in the First Folio. The themes and imagery that occur seem to suggest that this was written some time in the first decade of the 17th century – a period when Shakespeare was writing some of his most highly regarded tragic masterpieces – that is, when he was at the height of his powers. So this raises the question: what did Shakespeare, at the height of his powers, see in so simplistic a story, devoid of any great dramatic interest, to think it suitable material for a play?

The obvious answer, I think, was that Shakespeare was experimenting. This shouldn’t surprise us: looking through his plays, Shakespeare was frequently experimenting. Those experiments that worked have entered the canon so firmly that we do not think of them as experiments: we tend to take Antony and Cleopatra, say, for granted, rather than see it for the outrageous experiment it is. But not all experiments, of course, are equally successful: it is in the nature of experimentation that some are bound to fail. Or, at least, only partly succeed. Earlier in his career, for instance, Shakespeare experimented in introducing dark and even tragic elements into his comedies, and it doesn’t seem to me that he was uniformly successful in this: Shylock, for instance, is a tragic figure of tremendous power, but he does, I think, overwhelm the comic elements of the play. But no matter: so powerful is the figure of Shylock that top Shakespearean actors queue up to play him rather than play any of the relatively insipid characters populating the more comic strands. It remains, though, an unbalanced play: this particular experiment, while giving us Shylock, was by no means a complete success. Shakespeare was more successful in welding together the brighter and darker elements in Much Ado About Nothing, and succeeded so triumphantly in this respect in Twelfth Night that it becomes impossible to pick the light and the shade apart, so seamless is the construction. But throughout, he was experimenting: his artistic temperament was such that it was attracted to trying out new things, even at the risk of failure.

And Timon of Athens too, I think, is an attempt to try out something new, although, in this instance, it doesn’t quite work – certainly not well enough to create a dramatic figure as powerful as Shylock to compensate for the shortcomings. For the text gives the impression not even so much of an unfinished project as of a project abandoned: true, there are some passages that are quite magnificent, and undoubtedly the work of a great visionary dramatic poet; but equally, there are other passages that seem to cry out for revision, or even for rewriting; and since this is (from the internal evidence of the text) unlikely to be a late work, the fact that Shakespeare left these passages in such a state; coupled with lack of evidence for any performance in Shakespeare’s own time; seems rather to indicate that he had given up on the project: it just wasn’t going well. I’d guess, given Shakespeare’s willingness to experiment, there were many other such abandoned works – experiments that didn’t work – but this one, unlike the others, somehow made it into the First Folio. And that leaves us with some fascinating questions: what was Shakespeare trying to achieve here? And why did he not succeed?

One can only really provide tentative answers to this, based on guesswork: it is, after all, pointless to speculate on what was going on in a mind such as Shakespeare’s, and impertinent to presume to point out where he went wrong. It seems to me that Shakespeare was trying out satire – not satire as an incidental feature of the drama, but one that occupies its very centre; and a satire very different from the kind his friend Ben Jonson was writing at possibly the same time. Shakespeare, I think, was trying to accomplish more than pointing out human folly, and laughing at it. What more he was attempting deserves, I think, some attention.

If pointing out human folly had been Shakespeare’s primary aim, the play could well have finished after Act 3. But it is Timon’s hatred of humanity that takes up the final two acts. These acts are not dramatic since Timon does not develop further, but the intensity of his imprecations against humanity are chilling. Here, for instance, are his words to an army poised to take Athens:

… let not thy sword skip one:
Pity not honour’d age for his white beard;
He is an usurer: strike me the counterfeit matron;
It is her habit only that is honest,
Herself’s a bawd: let not the virgin’s cheek
Make soft thy trenchant sword; for those milk-paps,
That through the window-bars bore at men’s eyes,
Are not within the leaf of pity writ,
But set them down horrible traitors: spare not the babe,
Whose dimpled smiles from fools exhaust their mercy;
Think it a bastard, whom the oracle
Hath doubtfully pronounced thy throat shall cut,
And mince it sans remorse

And so on. These are not merely the words of a man disillusioned with humanity: these are the words of a man in the grips of a genocidal rage. However much we may have sympathised with Timon’s disgust with humanity, it does not seem to me credible that Shakespeare could have intended us to sympathise with speeches such as this. And here, I think, is where Shakespeare’s satire differs from Jonson’s: the object of his satire is not merely human folly, but also revulsion from that same folly. Having invited us to deprecate human behaviour, Shakespeare invites us to deprecate that deprecation. And the emotion imparted is more than mere amusement, or disapproval: lines such as those quoted above inspire in the audience, or in the reader, a sense of horror. We find ourselves revolted by Timon’s revulsion; and Timon’s is a revulsion from the very follies that we ourselves have been invited to find revolting.  

The problem Shakespeare encountered, I think, is that he couldn’t find for this a suitable dramatic form. Comedy he rejected as not an adequate vehicle for conveying such horror, but the tragic form also threw up problems: far from describing a dynamic dramatic arc, the material resolved itself into two static tableaux, the second merely presenting a picture that is a reversal of the first. Yes, there is horror suitable for a tragic work, but there is neither the sense of development nor the complexity of character that Shakespearean tragic drama ideally requires.

The theme of human folly inviting a revulsion that is itself the object of satire was taken up by authors in later generations. Molière took up the theme triumphantly in Le Misanthrope, but he steered clear of horror: he was careful not to transgress the bounds of comedy of manners. Whatever the implications of his drama, he does not stray from the confines of the drawing room. But it was not, I think, Shakespeare’s intention to stay within confines: his protagonist had to break away from the bounds of civic society, and move into the wilderness, as Lear was to do. It was Shakespeare’s intention to present directly the horror to which revulsion from our fellow humans leads us. And it was his intention too, I think, to implicate the audience in that horror.

One author from a later generation who did present this horror directly was, I think, Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s genocidal rage is quite clearly of the same nature as Timon’s. And like Timon’s, his rage too is a consequence of revulsion from humanity, of disgust of human follies. And in Gulliver’s Travels, we, the reader, are faced with the same dilemma that we are faced with in Timon of Athens: how can we simultaneously sympathise with and yet be revolted by such rage? But Gulliver’s Travels is a prose narration (some would say a “novel”) rather than a play: the problem Shakespeare didn’t solve was giving this theme a dramatic shape. The satire in his plays, both before and after Timon of Athens, was incidental rather than central.

But even the failed experiments of a great writer remain fascinating. It is fascinating trying to understand from what we have, abandoned though it no doubt is, what Shakespeare was, at least, trying to do. It may well be, as I’d conjecture, that there had been many other such failed attempts which are now lost to us: given the experimental nature of Shakespeare’s art, it would have been very surprising if there hadn’t. But I’m certainly glad we have, at least, Timon of Athens: some failures are worth more than any number of successes.