home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

timon of athens

6 april 2010

Reviewing Timon of Athens sounds like something that the Procrastinators Society might propose. It's about 400 years too late to influence the box office success of this play. Not that many box offices have ever had a chance to succeed or fail with productions of Timon. It's an obscure play that would have attracted only the most casual of critical attention if it hadn't been attributed to William Shakespeare. But since my motto here is "Read at whim!" I might as well jot down some notes on what I'm reading.

I didn't read Timon of Athens entirely at whim, but in connection with evaluating a master's thesis. The play offers lots of material for critical commentary, and I enjoyed reading the thesis. But just as a play, even the most Bardolatrous readers would have to admit that there's not much to Timon. The plot is among the simplest in Shakespeare. Timon is rich, gives stuff away, bankrupts himself in the process, and then gets a bit disgruntled when nobody will help him out. He starts ranting and raving, living in a cave, digging both root veggies and gold from the ground to compare their intrinsic worth (this is SYMBOLIC), and inveighing against his country like some primeval Tea Partier. And then he dies.

As foils to the humorless Timon, we have Apemantus, a precursor of Don Rickles, and Alcibiades, a patiently meritorious young Athenian who is fixing to take a bunch of spurns from the unworthy. In other words, Timon and Apemantus are types of Lear and his Fool, and Alcibiades is a kind of Coriolanus Lite. Nothing very surprising happens in their interaction, and everybody else in the play falls into the categories Faithful Retainers, Ingrateful Pals, or Hookers.

Timon continues to be studied, avidly, because contemporary criticism is not much interested in aesthetics or dramaturgy. Students of the plays are interested in its availability as a site for understanding early modern rhetoric on money, food, politics, courtiers, and classical Greece. To attain these insights, the gravitational pull of the canon leads them to study bad plays by Shakespeare in preference to modestly OK or even pretty good ones by anyone else.

I do not mean at all to disparage such cultural-studies approaches. In fact, they're often more interesting than the play itself. If we grant that Timon offers an interesting gateway into early modern thought, we simply have to say that the Stratford Swan wasn't on his game when he wrote it. Some of the more bitter dialogue involving Apemantus can work as a showcase for actors. Alcibiades might be a good tune-up for someone wanting to play Hotspur or Prince Hal. And there is one great speech, though it's brief:

Come not to me again: but say to Athens,
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.
Lips, let sour words go by and language end:
What is amiss plague and infection mend!
Graves only be men's works and death their gain!
Sun, hide thy beams! Timon hath done his reign.
That's the anthology selection from Timon, and it brings back my only memory of seeing anything from the play performed. When I was a graduate student in the 1980s, I saw an announcement that G. Wilson Knight would be doing a one-man Shakespeare show in one of the campus cafeterias at Rutgers. Knight had been one of the most important New Critical commentators on Shakespeare, and in his extreme old age he continued to tour North America offering his insights in the form of declamations with running commentary. I turned out for the performance, along with a few faculty from Princeton and Rutgers, a couple of misinformed general New Jerseyans, and a half-dozen undergraduates wondering if the kitchen was still open.

Knight was one of the few critics of his day, or any day, to see much value in Timon of Athens. So after he performed scenes from Romeo & Juliet and Richard III, he opted for the "salt flood" speech as his big finale. And when he came to "Timon hath done his reign," in full and splendid voice though facing, blessedly, upstage, the octogenarian Knight dropped his loincloth and delivered the closing lines buck naked. An attendant swiftly ran onstage and wrapped the great man in a cloak, ushering him offstage, or rather off lunchroom.

Even if you don't share G. Wilson Knight's admiration for Timon, you have to share his gusto for literature and life. Any play that can inspire such feats of theatricality has to have something going for it.

Shakespeare, William. Timon of Athens. 1623. Open Source Shakespeare.