Timon of Athens: Essays And Questions

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1. What resemblance does the play have to Shakespeare’s King Lear?


Many scholars believe that Timon of Athens was written at about the same time as one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays,King Lear. This is because of some similarities in theme and language between the two plays, althoughno one argues that Timon is the equal of Lear. In King Lear, an old king intends to divide up his kingdom between his three daughters, but Cordelia, the youngest daughter, does not flatter him the way the other two, Goneril and Regan, do, so he disinherits her. But he misjudges not only Cordelia, who genuinely loves her father, but also Goneril and Regan, who turn against him. Furious, he curses them. Like Timon, he has badly misjudged the nature of the people around him. When the daughters shut him out of their houses, he ends up outside on a barren heath in a fierce storm. Like Timon in the woods, he makes fierce, exclamatory speeches in which he denounces the ingratitude of man. Like Lear also, he apostrophizes the natural world:


Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man! (Act 3, scene 2, lines 1-9).


Similarly, Timon exiles himself from Athenian society, realizing that he mistook flattery for genuine friendship, and like Lear he experiences a bitter disillusionment with human nature. Like Lear also, he rages against the ingratitude of man. Both Lear and Timon had long thought that they were living in a world in which certain obligations between people were accepted as a matter of course. But they discoverthat they were, in a sense, living in a fool’s paradise. They had no idea about what people supposedly close to them were really thinking and feeling. Their awakening to the truth, in both cases, is extremely cruel, although they do learn from the experience. There are also, of course, differences between the experience of the two characters. Lear experiences a cathartic reconciliation with Cordelia, unlike Timon, who is not reconciled with any of his former friends. The England of King Lear is cleansed also, and the righteous character, Edgar, becomes the ruler. There is however, nothing cathartic about Timon’s death. Nothing in Athens is changed by it.


2. Was Shakespeare the sole author of Timon of Athens?


Over the years there have been differences of opinion amongst scholars about the authorship of the play, as well as other issues about whether it is a finished or unfinished play, and when it was first written. When it was first published in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s works in 1623, it was attributed to Shakespeare. But because Timon is nowhere near the equal of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear, some critics, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, have argued that Shakespeare was not the sole author. Such critics cited what they considered to be inferior passages and scenes to establish the notion that another, less able playwright contributed to the play. Some argued that the second playwright revised a complete manuscript by Shakespeare; others believed that the play was left unfinished by Shakespeare and was completed by another hand. Various dramatists were proposed as the second playwright. Today, the only candidate taken seriously by scholars as a possible collaborator on the play is Thomas Middleton (1580-1627). Middleton was a prolific author of comedies and tragedies during the Jacobean era, notably The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606) and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613). Arguments for Middleton’s hand in Timon of Athens point to groups of images that occur in some parts of the play but not in others, as well as metrical evidence regarding patterns of verse and prose (including irregular lines and rhyming couplets), as well as computer analysis of the use of very common words such as “but” and “not,” which different writers tend to use with stylistic consistency and frequency. In 1986, the Oxford Shakespeare edition of Timon of Athens, published by Oxford University Press, described the play on its title page as “by William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton.” However, this conclusion, that the play was a collaborative effort by Shakespeare and Middleton has by no means been universally accepted, and dissenting voices remain, such as the Cambridge University Press edition of 2001, which leaves the question of authorship open. 


3. How do Alcibiades and Timon differ in their estrangement from Athens?


Alcibiades and Timon are friends, as is shown in the first banquet scene (act 1, scene 2). Unlike Timon’s other friends, Alcibiades never shows himself to be false to Timon. The two men also have something other than their friendship in common: they both have a falling out with Athens. But their reaction to their troubles with the city, are markedly different. Timon undergoes a complete change of attitude. Formerly a philanthropist known for his generosity, he becomes the opposite: a misanthrope who not only despises mankind but actively wishes for its destruction.He takes no part in any violent acts to that end, preferring the violence of his rhetoric as he retreats from society and becomes virtually a hermit living in a cave in the woods. To this extreme reaction, Alcibiades represents something of a contrast. Like Timon he suffers what he believes to be a great injustice when he is banished from Athens forever by the Athenian senators. But he does not react by going into isolation and ranting about how dreadful the human race is. It is likely that he did not have a particularly high opinion of men in the first place, since he is a soldier who has seen many battles. Instead, he makes decisions based on his profession of soldiering and his practical desire for revenge against the city that has expelled him, which he regards as guilty of many other offenses as well. When he meets Timon in the woods, Timon tells him, in keeping with his extremist position, to destroy Athens completely, killing everyone he can, including women and children. Alcibiades makes it clear that he has no such intention. He accepts the gold that Timon gives him, but not his advice. He remains a practical man, a doer not a thinker. His return to Athens at the head of an army is his response to injustice. However, his willingness to enter into some kind of negotiations with the senators rather than simply storming the city shows that he is willing to pursue a moderate course in seeking redress of wrongs. Thus, while Timon is uncompromising in his extremes, Alcibiades, although perhaps not an exemplar of ideal conduct, does represent more the path of moderation.



4. Can Timon be considered a Christ-like figure?


Several commentators on the play have noted some resemblances between Timon and Christ. In the first part of the play, Timon overflows with love and generosity toward mankind. He has a lofty view of man and what man is capable of. He is a living example of what he advocates. However, Timon is betrayed by his friends, and the imagery more than once suggests that he is being physically sacrificed. “Cut my heart in sums,” he says, in Act 3, scene 4, and later in the same scene, “Tell out my blood.” In his well-known essay first published in 1930, G. Wilson Knight calls Timon “a being apart, a choice soul crucified” (“An Essay on Timon of Athens,” in his book Wheel of Fire). The first banquet scene is sometimes seen as a parallel to the Last Supper, when Christ is betrayed by Judas. For example, Apemantus makes two references to betrayal in this scene: “It grieves me to see so many dip their meet in one man’s blood (Act 1, scene 1, line 40), and just a few lines later, “the fellow that sits next to him, now parts bread with him, pledges the breath of him in a divided draught, is the readiest man to kill him (lines 45-47). In his production of the play, during the banquet scene Wilson Knight arranged the characters on stage to resemble traditional portrayals of the Last Supper. Further, when Timon’s servants part, after he has abandoned his house, Wilson Knight wrote that “they are as disciples of the Christ meeting after the crucifixion.” However, the Christ parallels, while certainly present, should not be overemphasized. If Timon in a sense is subject to a crucifixion, it is not in any way a saving death, as Christ’s was. No general good derives from it, and in the second half of the play, Timon’s nature is anything but Christ-like.


5. Have there been recent successful productions of the play?


Timon of Athens is not a play that is frequently performed. In 2012, however, there was a notable production at the Olivier Theatre in London. It was directed by Nicholas Hytner and starred Simon Russell Beale as Timon. The play was updated to contemporary London and was presented, in the words of Guardian reviewer Michael Billington as “a parable of our times.” Timon was seen putting on a lavish party for his friends. He was always surrounded by people, suggesting that, as Billington put it, “his philanthropy is a form of vanity.” The second half of the play showed Timon living in a derelict area of the city. The production used crowd scenes in which people took to the streets, indicating widespread social unrest and suggesting that Timon’s fall was part of what Billington called “a larger crisis in capitalism.” The play was thus well presented to be relevant for a twenty-first century audience. “There is a burning logic to this production which becomes a fable about the toxic nature of a ruthlessly commercialised world,” wrote Billington. In the New Yorker, John Lahr’s review was equally enthusiastic. According to Lahr, Timon’s generosity was “how he seduces, possesses, and controls the world,” and the production, emphasizing the corruption of the wealthy elite “hits a real and raw nerve. In its gaudy shadows, Timon’s tale of collapse catches not only the fragility of the British economy but the unnerving immanence of the collapse of its ruling elite.”


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