The Plays We Overlook: Timon of Athens

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Photo:by Roger Tooth, The Guardian

If I were to ask you about Timon of Athens you would probably say one or more of three things: (1) It’s generally believed to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton; (2) It’s quoted by Karl Marx; (3) Unlike Karl Marx, you have never read it or seen it performed. If (3) is true, more’s the pity; Timon is even more problematic than the so-called Problem Plays, but it’s a bold experiment that anticipates modern black comedy by three and a half centuries—and its probing cynicism about the power of money, unmatched until Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, is, indeed, Marxist in its effect. As if that weren’t enough, it looks forward to both King Lear and Coriolanus; Shakespeare may not have written every word, but it certainly belongs in the canon.

The story is simple. Timon is a spendthrift — thoughtless, or just generous and naïve? — who thinks that money can buy friendship. He learns differently when his debts are called in. Reduced to poverty, he takes to the woods outside Athens, but finds no fairies, no confused comic lovers, no moon. Instead he turns misanthrope (Act 4, Scene 1 is an extraordinary monologue, clearly a dry run for Lear on the heath) and, despite finding gold (cue Herr Marx), rejects all overtures to return, finally dying off-stage.

But this simple story is covered with layers of delicious irony. The parasites who surround Timon are hilariously rendered, especially the Greek-chorus Poet and Painter in Act 1 Scene 1. The parasites’ hypocrisy is even funnier. Witness Lucius in Act 3 Scene 3, in one breath condemning a scrounger who refused to help Timon, in the next pleading poverty when he’s asked himself. Timon gives away the gold he finds, tossing some into two prostitutes’ upturned skirts, giving some to brigands who are more morally upright than the Athenians. How dark is Timon’s world? Almost the only character who is at all sympathetic is Alcibiades. Yes, that Alcibiades.

There’s one other: Flavius, Timon’s faithful steward, is touching in his real humanity. I’m surprised that Marx did not mention Act 4, Scene 2, where Timon’s servants express their continuing loyalty; writing in 1848 Marx still believed that the working class was specially virtuous as a class. They are here.

Finally, there’s Apemantus the cynic, the philosopher-dog who follows Timon around, spouting invective and turning petulant when Timon returns the favour (“Do not assume my likeness,” (4.3.17). I find him far less effective than his spiritual brothers Thersites (in Troilus and Cressida), Jacques (in As You Like It), and the Fool (in King Lear). Could Thomas Middleton have been primarily responsible for him?

There’s no way to know. What I do know is that the shaping intelligence behind Timon of Athens is plainly Shakespeare’s and that this obscure (in more than one sense) play offers exceptional rewards if we engage with it. Shakespeare expressing corrosive cynicism about money? What could be more to the point in 2013?

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Author:James Cappio

James Cappio has taught philosophy in the Ivy League, practiced law on Wall Street, and now works as an independent writer and editor. Inspired by P.G. Wodehouse’s example to read all of Shakespeare's works within one year (2009–2010), he has been blogging about his passion ever since at shakesyear.wordpress.com.

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