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.

10 responses to this post.

  1. “Abandoned” is an interesting idea. I wonder how it could be demonstrated from the text.

    Reply

    • A theory I like is that Shakespeare was reworking an existing play by someone else, and only got halfway through the revisions. It’s been a while since I read Timon, but I recall being struck by how at some point about midway into it, there is a definite change in the language, after which it’s generally clumsy and unremarkable, as if written by someone other than Shakespeare. The two epitaphs for Timon might point to Shakespeare not having decided which one to use, what to emphasize in the second half of the play, etc. Or, you know, maybe someone handed an early version of the script to the printer by mistake, and in 1605 or whenever, there was a different version of the play that Shakespeare thought of as finished. Who knows? But that break, that stark change in the prose, is certainly evident in the version we have.

      I like Himadri’s theory that Shakespeare couldn’t quite find a form for what he wanted to make from Timon. The major weakness of that theory is that Shakespeare was not strongly wedded to any particular formal restraints in any of his plays. They’re all mashups of mood and style in five acts.

      Reply

      • I don’t know that it can be demonstrated that Timon of Athens is an unfinished work, but it does seem to me a reasonable conjecture. Thematically, it seems to me have quite a bit in common with his tragedies from the 1600s, but little in common with his very late plays; and it clearly seems to me not the finished article. And also, there is no record of performance. So the idea that he had been working on it at some time, but then stopped working on it, seems to me quite reasonable. But it’s conjecture, I admit – nothing more than that.

        I find Scott’s conjecture – that he had revised the first part, but hadn’t got round to the second – quite intriguing. Maybe the play he was revising was a rough first draft written by himself – who knows? But, despite the greater crudeness of language in the second part, it is this second part that seems more powerful and compelling.

        I agree that Shakespeare was not strongly wedded to any specific form, but that does not mean, of course, that his works were formless: rather, he invented his own form, or picked and chose from existing forms and fused them together, to provide a dramatic shape suitable for his material. But I do think that it was in tis respect that he ran into problems with Timon of Athens. He could have cast it as a comedy, but then, Timon wouldn’t really have been much of an advance on Jaques from As You Like It: Timon’s extreme rage, not stopping short even of proposing genocide, could not be contained within any comic form. But even within tragedy, there were problems, as there was little scope for the development that tragedy ideally requires. Of course, there isn’t a single comic form or a single tragic form: there are as many forms as the author has the wit to invent. But even Shakespeare, I think, drew a blank on this one. And, as I said, I am sure there were many other projects on which he had similarly drawn a blank, but which we do not know about because they hadn’t entered the Folio.

        But this is all conjecture, of course. All we are left with are some intriguing ideas embedded within an unsatisfactory but fascinating draft of a play.

    • Posted by obooki on September 10, 2021 at 11:51 pm

      I have a vague recollection that Timon contains an unusual number of incomplete verse lines, or something of the sort. So I think there are textual reasons for believing it was incomplete.

      Reply

      • Yes, and there are also instances (outlined in the introduction to the old Arden edition) of some fine pieces of wordsmithery side-by-side with rather ordinary stuff – clearly cases of “Come back to this later”. But it seems unfinished on a macro- as well as on a micro- level.

  2. Posted by alan on September 10, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    “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? ”

    Does Swift provide a satisfactory answer?

    I believe that if you can sympathise and be revolted then you are typical and, I would say, sane. However, a significant minority will either not be revolted and would be pleased to see the world burn, or not see the rage as psychologically realistic and think warnings of such outcomes alarmist.

    Reply

    • Swift does not provide an answer – possibly because there’s no answer to provide. I do feel this rage is psychologically accurate, although, perhaps, taken to extremes both by Swift and by Shakespeare. I do not mean that there aren’t people who may be as extremely affected as are Timon or Gulliver, but that in most cases where this phenomenon manifests itself, it does so in less extreme forms. I think we ay trace this in Hamlet, for instances: he is revolted by human behaviour, and there are certainly points in the play where his own behaviour may be regarded as “inhuman”. I do not think the two are unconnected.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Bruce Floyd on September 12, 2021 at 10:53 pm

    sir,

    I sent a copy of your blog about “Timon of Athens” to a friend, a lover of Shakespeare,
    one who over the years in his studying and analyzing the plays has come to know them as one knows old friends. He loved your words about Timon, said he agreed with all you said. For what it’s worth so did I–agree with you. I found your words wise and insightful, even more so I found, always find I might add, your deep love of Shakespeare. My friend reminded me he keeps a commonplace book, one restricted to what he thinks are the best passages in Shakespeare. He told me that although “Timon” is a flawed play, it contains a passage he finds one of the most beautiful in Shakespeare. This passage:

    Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
    Upon the beached verge of the salt flood;
    Who once a day with his embossed froth
    The turbulent surge shall cover: thither come,
    And let my grave-stone be your oracle.

    Now, if you will permit me, I’d like to say a few words about Swift. In his book “Denial of Death” Ernest Becker writes about Swift. He says, “The ultimate horror for Swift was the sublime, the beautiful, and the divine are inextricable from basic animal functions. In the head of adoring male is the illusion that sublime beauty ‘is all head and wings, with no bottom to betray’ it. In one of Swift’s poems a young man explains the grotesque contradictions that is tearing him apart:”

    No wonder how I lost my Wits:
    My Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits!

    “In other words, in Swift’s mind there was an absolute contradiction ‘between the state of being in love and the awareness of the excremental function of the beloved.”

    Becker goes on to say that “Erwin Strauss in his brilliant monograph on obsession similarly earlier how repulsed Swift was by the animality of the body, by its dirt and decay.” Becker says that this incongruity, the bewildering connection between beauty and the decay of the body is “the dilemma that haunts us all. Excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows man his abject finitude, his physicalness, the likely unreality of his hopes and dreams. . . .It represents the man’s utter bafflement at the sheer non-sense of creation, to fashion the sublime miracle of the human face, the ‘mysterium tremendum’ of radiant female beauty, the veritable goddesses that beautiful women are; to bring this out of nothing, out of the void, and make it shine at noonday; to take such a miracle and put miracles with it, deep in the mystery of the eyes that peer out–the eye that gave even Darwin a chill: to do all this. and to combine it with an anus that shits! It is too much. Nature mocks us, a poets live in torture.

    Norman O. Brown in his influential book “Life Against Death” titles a chapter in his book “The Excremental Vision,” in which he takes up Swift’s neurosis.

    I think Swift told Pope that he, Swift, loved individuals but that he hated mankind. Becker and Brown seem to think that Swift hated mankind because he could not get beyond the idea that humanity was just another animal, a carapace stuffed with blood and bones and fated-to-rot flesh, Brown and Becker would call the primary problem of the self-conscious creature the “problem of anality.”

    When I was a young man I found it infuriating that Keats the poet, the writer of such sublime verse, those wonderful odes, could, in the end, rot and waste away at age twenty-five. We think, perhaps, we are this or that, capable of great things (and some of us are) but in the end we are a congeries of meat that will decay. We are, when all is said and done, animals–so some say. I do know that Ernest Becker says that it’s our fear of death that haunts us, so much so that we repress it and replace it with illusions, the greatest of which is character..

    As for me, Sir, I am like Pascal: I stand at night alone under a starry sky, perhaps a gibbous moon hanging in the sky, and I find all those empty places in infinity frighten me. And what of this virus that has us all in such thrall: does it not show us how unimportant we are in the scheme of things. This virus or one like it, perhaps five years from now, could kill all of us and still the sun would rise and the birds would sing. Nowhere in the entire limitless and endless universe could any ear detect a sound of lamentation. Or so some seem to believe.

    As for me, sir, I am as ignorant as Yeats’s dawn, as the late afternoon shadows thrown on my porch by the river birch tree outside my study. I hasten to heed you that I speak with no authority. (In truth, I feel trepidation writing to a man as brilliant as you. What could I possibly say to interest a man of your caliber?) What I know about life and death. purpose and intent would fit in a thimble. Though I have no influence with the future, I find myself, in spite of knowing how foolish I am, hoping I don’t end up like Swift. Maybe Hardy is right: the “purblind doomsters” and “crass Casualty” and “dicing time” are casting our futures.

    Reply

    • How long will a body lie i’th’earth ere it rot?

      There’s something very haunting about that line of Hamlet’s, isn’t there? Throughout the play, he was been brooding on our transience, even in the memories of those who should remember us most. But now, he expresses that question in its most basic, physical form. What are we? A conglomeration of mass which decays into the basest of elements. A quintessence of dust. I am not really as familiar with the works of Swift as I really should be, but it is this terrible paradox – that all that we hold most precious, our thinking minds, our very souls – is all nothing more than dust. This drove Swift into a rage. I think it drove Hamlet into a rage too. And Timon. And Prospero too: the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, and so on, all vanish, and leave not a rack behind. I think that speech, ineffably beautiful though it is, is also an angry speech.

      Thank you very much for the very kind words you say, but I do wish I could be just a fraction of what you describe me as being. In reality, I am a retired statistician who nowadays spends most of his time with a book in a coffee shop, and writes (mainly) about books here simply because I love literature. I’d like to write more about art and music too, if only I had sufficient expertise in those matters. Sadly, I don’t.

      However, I recently read a quite wonderful book on Titian, and feel I ought to write something about it. If only to display my ignorance!

      My best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by Bruce Floyd on September 13, 2021 at 10:28 pm

        Dear Himadri,

        Well, you’re plenty smart to me, and I enjoy your ruminations. A book I find true but profoundly depressing is David Benatar’s “The Human Condition,” a book that declares the most merciful thing we living beings can do is not to have children, to bring a creature into this world that is full of suffering and then at the end of suffering having to die, become, as you said, dust. Benatar is what is called an “antinatalist.”

        God knows, it’s terrible to think of a mind and spirit those of Keats trapped inside a rotting hulk of flesh, one being devoured by disease. An autopsy of Keats showed he had virtually no lungs left. You know, he wrote no poetry those last few months of life: he suffered too much. His suffering was enormous. Some say his friends were cruel to deny the young poet the solace of a laudanum exit. What’s sad to me is that he thought he’d be unremembered. You remember he proclaimed his epitaph to be “Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ In Water.”

        Ah, dear Himadri, keep doing what you do: it’s good physic for lonely men, for those that awake at three in the morning and think of the grave. It is a good thing we have literature to distract us. For God’s sake, man, write your book or essay on Titian. Trust me: you have the talent and intellect to do it. I pass along my best to you, sir. Good sailing under a clear sky.

        Bruce

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