Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, what's the deal?

2023-03-22 @Literature

I can rationalize this piece of work being lesser considered. There’s not much that strictly happens. Consider it a tragedy of more subdued character - one of those problem plays not fitting wholesomely in any category; a social commentary and satire, though slimmer in metaphors; and uneven quality owing to multiple and questionable authorship.

Written in the later period circa 1606, linguist detectives presently ascribe the play to Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, the latter contributing to a smaller degree. (Middleton authored the Macbeth witches' songs and coauthored a handful of other late Shakespeare plays, insofar as the detectives deem.)

Interestingly the assessment appears to be the more recent, formulated sometime in the 20th century. My older Shakespeare anthology from circa 1905 paints the authorship as visibly multiple, but of identity entirely unclear; not a word of Middleton.

Such and other concerns don’t do it justice. And though I don’t consider it among the strongest dramas, one factor remains nearly invariant across Shakespeare: it fashions fantastic, moving, prophetic dialogue. And this still being a drama, it’s all about dialogue.

Timon, an Athenian nobleman, lives beyond his means, negligent with accounts despite numerous warning attempts by his steward. Timon flatters his fake friends with endless feasts and riches. The fake friends pompously flatter in return.

Means exhausted, the fake friends show their true colors: detestable colors. The sudden reality of both fronts leads Timon to a near-cataclysm. Timon seeks solitary refuge in nature. That’s the high-level premise of the first three acts, the finer dramatic detail excepted.

Timon serves as an archetype for numerous authors and philosophers. The social dilemma knows no boundaries in time or place. The basic blueprint is applicable all over: suffices to adapt the walled Athens to any social or corporate conglomerate of delineated echelons and boundaries and voilà, the contemporary Timon of Athens. More or less.

The ‘churlish philosopher’ Apemantus is another archetype. Among Timon’s close acquaintances, and less restrained than the steward Flavius (of the relatively honest folk), Apemantus speaks his mind unfiltered, to the extent that base Elizabethan vernacular enables. Apemantus sees the farce for what it is.

The interchanges and soliloquies of Timon, Apemantus and Flavius are among the brightest. I found myself rereading many of these passages, taken by the strong, reverberating note.

The military captain Alcibiades fosters additional pathos, expanding the patchwork, the play ultimately delivering to Shakespeare’s multi-textural dramatic standard, even if not to the same depth.

Concerning the Athenian setting: uncertain when the narrative could have transpired. And haven’t read most of Plutarch nor Lucian, the major sources. The official historical figure of Alcibiades lived during the Peloponnesian war, fifth-century BC. Yet the story of Timon (with references to Alcibiades) owe to the Mark Anthony chapter of Plutarch, set centuries after. I guess the characters could’ve served a latent historical function, a story within a story. Pure speculation.

But that’s parenthetical. Read the play for the haunting developments: Timon’s progression towards ruin and the ultimate hatred towards mankind; the passion of the ‘last supper’; Alcibiades' clash with the senate; the brutal, contemptuous and evocative 200-line long exchange between Timon and Apemantus; the fatal parable of gold covetousness; and that unceasing, gripping dialogue.

Questions, comments? Connect.