Shakespeare’s Sources – Timon of Athens

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Artist's impression of Timon

Continuing my series on Shakespeare’s sources I turn today to Timon of Athens. This play is thought by many scholars to be a collaboration with Middleton. Working with other writers was not uncommon in the literary world Shakespeare knew, but the story of Timon is by no means original to either writer indeed the character of Timon has been familiar to audiences since antiquity. References to Timon can be found in the writings of the Greek writers Aristophanes and Plato, and the Latin authors Cicero, Seneca, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder.The playwright Phrynicus, an important innovator in the development of Greek drama in the Fifth Century, BC, wrote a play about Timon, a legendary misanthrope. (Only fragments of his plays survive.) a little later, the playwright Aristophanes(450-388 B.C.) refers to the Timon story in his popular comedy Lysistrata, when a chorus of old women sing the following lines:

Once there was a certain man called Timon, a tough customer, and a whimsical, a true son of the Furies, with a face that seemed to glare out of a thorn-bush. He withdrew from the world because he couldn’t abide bad men, after vomiting a thousand curses at them. He had a holy horror of ill-conditioned fellows, but he was mighty tender towards women.

I thought it would be interesting to have a look here at Shakespeare’s dramatization of Timon ‘vomiting’ a thousand curses. This is quite a long quote but one to be relished by anyone feeling disenchanted with the world today. Here Timon is standing outside the city walls looking back at them…

TIMON

Let me look back upon thee. O thou wall,
That girdlest in those wolves, dive in the earth,
And fence not Athens! Matrons, turn incontinent!
Obedience fail in children! slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench,
And minister in their steads! to general filths
Convert o’ the instant, green virginity,
Do ‘t in your parents’ eyes! bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives,
And cut your trusters’ throats! bound servants, steal!
Large-handed robbers your grave masters are,
And pill by law. Maid, to thy master’s bed;
Thy mistress is o’ the brothel! Son of sixteen,
pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire,
With it beat out his brains! Piety, and fear,
Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,
Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood,
Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,
Degrees, observances, customs, and laws,
Decline to your confounding contraries,
And let confusion live! Plagues, incident to men,
Your potent and infectious fevers heap
On Athens, ripe for stroke! Thou cold sciatica,
Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt
As lamely as their manners. Lust and liberty
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,
That ‘gainst the stream of virtue they may strive,
And drown themselves in riot! Itches, blains,
Sow all the Athenian bosoms; and their crop
Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath,
at their society, as their friendship, may
merely poison! Nothing I’ll bear from thee,
But nakedness, thou detestable town!
Take thou that too, with multiplying bans!
Timon will to the woods; where he shall find
The unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.
The gods confound–hear me, you good gods all–
The Athenians both within and out that wall!
And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low! Amen.

Other sources thought to have been consulted by Shakespeare (and Middleton)  were by Plutarch (46?-120?), who refers to Timon in his Life of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), and to the Greek satirist Lucian (125-200), who wrote a work entitled Timon, or The Misanthrope. There also appear to be echoes of another story about Timon in a collection of tales entitled Palace of Pleasure, by William Painter (1525-1595) which we have already seen shakespeare referring to for other plays. 

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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